Proofreading vs. Copyediting

Folks seemed to get enough out of my take on copyediting that I thought I’d talk a little bit about proofreading.

First, let’s define the terms, because what is called “proofreading” by folks outside the publishing industry is usually copyediting instead. The copyeditor works on the book at the manuscript stage, marking grammatical and spelling mistakes, querying inconsistencies and awkward phrasing, verifying facts, preparing a style sheet, and keymarking the manuscript for design. The proofreader works on the book at the galley proof or page proof stage, comparing every word of the manuscript with every word of the proof, verifying correct word breaks, making sure that all editorial changes were input, and (with some publishers) verifying that elements were set according to design specifications.

Proofreaders are not supposed to make substantive changes to a manuscript (a copyeditor shouldn’t even make substantive changes without querying) or go against the style sheet provided by the copyeditor, but they do serve as an additional reader. No one–no author, editor, copyeditor, or compositor–is perfect, so the proofreader is expected to pick up any mistakes the others missed. While copyeditors are expected to complete about ten manuscript pages an hour, a proofreader (in fiction) is expected to complete ten to twelve book pages an hour–and book pages are usually much more dense than manuscript.

Proofreading is a tough job. Even for someone with a good memory like me, it’s difficult to hold more than a few words in your head at a time without leaving out a comma or mixing any of the words up–confusing an east for a west, for example (a very common compositor error when books are reset)–so you can only read four or five words from the manuscript before comparing it to the proof. It’s intensely time-consuming and tedious.

How do proofreaders manage to do so much in such a short time? Well, perhaps someone out there can truly manage it, but I never could. I haven’t accepted proofreading for years because I ended up spending far more hours than I could charge on every book I did. From years spent conscientiously supervising copyeditors and proofreaders, though, I can verify that many proofreaders make do by simply not proofreading: they read the proofs but trust that they were set from disk and don’t compare the manuscript and proof word for word. This approach is very problematic, though, and can lead to errors because a) it often happens that the disk doesn’t contain quite the same version as the manuscript, for various reasons; b) it’s easy to miss changes that should have been input, because you don’t have a finger each on the manuscript and the proof at all times (the only way I could ever proofread accurately); and c) the book sometimes hasn’t been set from disk at all. I suspect that the proofreaders who don’t take such shortcuts simply resign themselves to losing their butts on wages, the way I did.

So be appreciative of your proofreaders. They are your last line of defense against mistakes in your novel.

A Fun Project

I’m getting into this a bit late, but I’m proud to announce my part in the Atlanta Nights project. The challenge was to write as atrociously as you possibly could, to test whether a certain vanity publisher is actually selective about what they accept. (The publisher claims they are selective, as part of their argument that they are a “traditional” publisher.)

My chapter, if I do say so myself, was hideously bad. Absolutely, completely unacceptably bad. Bad enough that I still laugh at myself every time I read it (though I admittedly have a somewhat odd sense of humor:-)). It’s Chapter 33; here’s the first paragraph:

As Isadore Trent dreamed sleepily, her red hair spread like a cloud a tent around her pillow, her face exploded with joy. “Oh, I wish I was back there.” She thought. She missed it so badly. Maybe she’d get to go back someday. She thought about the hot dry heat, about the grit of sand. Oh, how it felt to be penetrated by those huge mosquitoes . . . Oh, yes. She was a masochist of the first degree. She shivered in her sleep, thinking about it. Goose pimples formed beginning at the tips of her toes, pushing out farther the day-old stubble on her legs, and continuing up her stomach until her nipples were pointing out. Then they reached her neck, and her trembles tangled her hair into a mess. She’d have to brush it good when she woke up, but she’d enjoy the tangles, no doubt.

You can check out the whole thing here. :-)

As probably everyone who reads this blog already knows, the publisher made an offer on the book, then retracted it once the test went public. The reason they gave for retracting it wasn’t even bad writing, though! It was because of the “nonsensical” text that was computer-generated for the chapter after mine, which, you know, one would think a publisher would notice before they offered to “buy” a book.

This same publisher, by the way, again as part of their “proof” that they are a traditional publisher, claims to employ 35 full-time editors…for the 4,800 books they put out last year. Any other editors want to chime in, slap their knees, and say, “Hahahahahaha!!!”

Anyway, it was a wonderfully fun exercise. My chapter wasn’t even the worst! If you’d like to own the masterpiece that is Atlanta Nights for your very own, it is available here (just the reviews are worth the click), and it now has an ISBN of its very own: 1-4116-2298-7. All proceeds from this point on go to benefit the SFWA emergency medical fund, for members in need. Buy it! It will give you hours of laughs.

Smut update

Well, much to my chagrin, I didn’t win a prize in the smut contest. There were some very good stories selected, though! My favorite was one of the honorable mentions:

If any of you entered under a pseudonym and won, let me know. :-)