In Praise of Proofreaders

by Gary A. Braunbeck

After a while, regardless of how well-focused, disciplined, and determined you are when writing a book, you just don’t, well… see it any more. It happens to all of us at some point on every project. You spend so much time writing, cutting, revising, and polishing, that you risk either not seeing the forest for the trees or become so over-focused on one particular tree that you don’t notice the forest fire until it’s too late.

Okay, carried that metaphor just a little too far, sorry, but hopefully you’ve already discerned the point: that there comes a time during a book-length project when you’ve spent so much time working on it that you lose perspective.

Here’s the thing: by the time you, as a reader, pick up a copy of an author’s book, the author him- or herself has read it over at least three times — and this is after the countless hours spent writing, re-writing, and polishing. If you want to include all that, as well, then I think it’s safe to say that by the time a book goes to print, its author has read it through, from beginning to end, a minimum of seven times, probably more.

This is a necessary evil. Editorial suggestions and changes must be considered and/or made, the manuscript must then be read through to make certain that these changes mesh with the overall story (tone, narrative arc, continuity, etc.), and if a problem is then discovered, it must be fixed, and the whole process starts over again.

I’m oversimplifying this because to describe the process in painstaking detail would not only rob the reading experience of some of its magic, but bore you to tears.

But when the book is finally out there, and everything looks good, the author and the editor can sit back and smile at having done their job to the best of their abilities. Authors often cite their editors as having been “instrumental” in helping to shape a book that may have encountered some rough spots along the pot-holed road to publication. Editors deserve all the credit that an author cares to cast their way, no arguments here.

But there is a group of unsung heroes in the publishing process, people whose names often don’t appear anywhere in the book, but without whose effort, insight, and input, a lot of us would look like illiterate fools.

I am talking about proofreaders, those folks whose thankless job it is to go through your manuscript once you’ve ceased being able to see it anymore and look for the signs of a possible forest fire (see over-extended metaphor at the beginning). Many people think a proofreader’s sole responsibility is to check spelling and punctuation.
While that is definitely right up there on their list of duties, many of them go the extra mile — hell, many of them go several hundred extra miles — to ensure that the book they’re working on is the best it can possibly be.

And they do this by deliberately searching out those elements that you, the writer, ceased to be able to see somewhere around Draft #3.

Two personal examples: a few weeks ago, right before my second Cedar Hill collection, Home Before Dark was being prepped for the printer, one of Earthling’s marvelous proofreaders noticed that in my story, “Palimpsest Day”, the age of the mother did not add up if one stopped to consider her dates of birth and death. Now, I know that a lot of people tend to read such details with a quick eye and don’t stop to do the exact math … but that’s no excuse for sloppiness, and that is exactly what this mistake was — sloppiness on my part. I had become so over-focused on fine-tuning the story so that it fit into the overall arc of the Cedar Hill cycle that I overlooked a small but significant detail — making sure the mother’s age added up. While a mistake of this sort probably wouldn’t have ruined the story, its mere presence would have lessened the story’s value. I had read through the manuscript so many times that I simply didn’t see this problem any more, and thanks to a sharp proofreader, neither will you.

Second example: up until its fourth round of proofreads, my novella In the Midnight Museum contained a glaring continuity error that, while in and of itself quite small, would have damned near pulled the rug out from underneath the entire story had it not been caught by the proofreader. It was a quick, minor detail that very well might have been overlooked by most readers, but those readers who would not have missed it would have had the entire second half of the story ruined by this nagging inconsistency. (You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that I’m not telling you the exact nature of this mistake? That’s because I am so embarrassed by it that I dare not share the specifics, lest you think me, well … simple. “My God,” you’d say. “A sponge would have seen that.” And I’d prefer you leave this essay thinking I have an IQ higher than my shoe size.)

But, again, this potentially destructive detail was overlooked by me because I had stopped seeing the whole of the moon and focused only on the crescent (I figured it was time to switch metaphors).

So consider all of the above to be a preamble to this: a song of gratitude to all proofreaders, those unsung heroes who labor over our manuscripts almost as long and intensely as we do, whose unblinking eye often catch the flaws that we can no longer see, and whose objectivity gives us a fresh perspective just as we need it the most.

I’m going to end this by getting even more specific: Paul Miller, Don Koish, Deena Warner, John Everson, Ron Clinton, Robert Mingee, Jack Haringa, and — my own personal major domo, Mark Lancaster … thank you. A thousand times, thank you. Thank you for caring about my work enough to go those extra hundred miles and always pointing out even the smallest problem, no matter how testy I get about your nitpicking. You are why I look like a good writer.

My gratitude and admiration knows no bounds.

Now see how many mistakes you can find in this blog entry. Just don’t tell me about them or I might throw a hissy fit.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

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