How proofreading ruins everything

The longer I worked in the writing trade, the more familiar I became with the processes of editing. From taking the first blush of an idea through each phase of creative development to final print requires dedication – to theme, conviction in a story’s merit, and scrupulous attention to detail. It might not guarantee success, but it’s an essential start.

My problem lies in the required attention to detail…

The process of proof-reading and copy-editing is second nature now, and over the past decade of work, I have become conditioned to notice… well, just about everything. I see typos at 100 paces, and can scan-read copy at an alarmingly fast rate, picking up errors as I go. I can even spot when an image is out of line with its margins and columns – even by as little as a single pixel. (I can’t tell you how many arguments I have had with design teams over minute misalignments.)

I have driven designers to distraction with my eagle-eyed observational skills, but in my defence, when subs or editors find a mistake – no matter how slight, it is their job to set it right. No hack worth their salt can let something go uncorrected once spotted. But it is that dog with a bone attitude that creates what human resources people call ‘issues’. Proofing and editing aren’t just habits – they have become a fundamental part of how I read. Like speaking a language fluently, once you have developed an ear (or in this case an eye) for it, you cannot turn it off. Ever.

I proof-read and copy-edit everything – without realising I am doing it. Displays, billboards, articles, sauce bottles, advertising and marketing material… Once I spot a mistake – a typo, a misplaced hyphen, a full colon that should be a semi – alarms start ringing in my head. But the fact that I am in no position to correct these mistakes is enough to send me even loopier than I am already.

The habit is particularly noticeable in restaurants. I have seen typos so egregious on menus that they put me off my dinner. I was in a VERY expensive venue, one that was a brand as much as it was a cordon bleu kitchen, and I remember excitedly sitting down at the table, ready to peruse the specials and there it was – a spelling mistake, staring me straight in the face with a “What are you going to do about it?” level of smug arrogance.

How could it get there? How could it be missed? Did the chef know? Did the manager? Does anybody who knows how to spell ever read these £$%^& things before they are printed?!?

menu with typos
spot the ‘delberate’ mistakes?

To most sane people, this would be small potatoes – ignore the mistake, order dinner, move on with life. But particularly in the restaurant trade, your menu is your shop window and this error – to my mind – was an avoidable blunder that needed correction and could so easily be done.  Preferably at some stage between my starter and main course, but perhaps that was optimistic. Surely at the prices they charged, they could at least get it fixed before the coffees and cognac arrived?

I remember quietly pointing out the mistake to the maître d’ in hopes that someone in authority might take the problem as seriously as I did. The stony glazed look of “What the hell are you on about”, with pitying nod and gently rolling eyes cast disdainfully in my direction have led to suppression of the urge to make such outrageous suggestions again. But I still can’t repress the need. Am I the weird one or should the perpetrators care a bit more? I’m not sure of the answer.

With difficulty, I now try to adopt a more circumspect attitude – what I call a “not my circus, not my monkeys” mentality in my day-to-day reading life. When I see a mistake in these (or similar) circumstances, I just try to shrug it off. Not easy, but like the unheard tree falling in the woods, it does exist. Accept it, and that should be enough. Even if it goes against my grain and the compulsion to try and correct the error – somehow.

I even find myself wanting to correct my friend’s social media posts when they forget the apostrophe in they’re. Or worse, use there instead of their. (Blood boils at the mere thought and mention). Theyre fine with it and I can only imagine the response I’d get to there mistakes (those errors were intentional, for comedic effect. I did not miss them.) No doubt it would be the same pitying, eye-rolling, “what the hell are you on about” look that the maître-d’ gave me that evening in the posh restaurant.

(Fortunately, I’m not alone in this. My colleague John’s long-suffering partner stopped emailing him after he began sending her messages back with spelling and grammar corrected.)

On the plus side, it means I clearly take the job of the proof-reader and copy-editor seriously and have accidentally become quite good at it. It is a role that in the modern media era is seen less and less – sub-editors are considered a quick and easy redundancy in a media world struggling to maintain profitability. After all, that’s what Grammarly is for, right?

Wrong. Proofing and copy-editing can never and should never be replaced by an algorithm. Copy-editors and proofers work alongside their authors to get the very best out of the words, without crushing the style – and to make sure the smallest errors don’t fall through the cracks. But I digress – the pitfalls of Grammarly will have to wait for a follow-up story.

Meantime, I will continue to read, spot errors and be able to do very little about it – doomed to be that person saying “They should have put a comma in there” for the rest of my life. Annoying, right?

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