Proof Reading: Saving Face, Saving Lives
“When I was only three, and still named Belle Miriam Silverman, I sang my first aria in pubic.”
—Bubbles: A Self-Portrait, by Beverly Sills (1976—1st edition; 1st printing)
The publisher Bobbs-Merrill was indeed fortunate that the author of the book whose first chapter opened with that sentence was the incomparable soprano Beverly Sills. I can think of few other mortals, much less opera divas, who would have met it as generously or with a laugh. It still gives me a chuckle. And it remains an object lesson and source of shudders to many a professional proofreader.
Unquestionably, proofreading is a talent. One that, I believe, is about 50 percent learned and 50 percent predilection. And without that second trait, it is nearly impossible to do well. Further, perhaps alone among its companion editorial pursuits, it appears to be immune to technologically driven extinction (at least for the time being).
In preparation for this blog, I treated myself to a discussion with Pam Andrada about errors that proofreaders catch most frequently. Pam should know. Like her mother, she is a long-time professional proofreader and heads up our preferred proofreading company, Beyond Words. After a few good laughs, which I'll pass along momentarily, Pam remarked that Beyond Words is continually grateful for the invention of SpellCheck.
"It keeps us in business," she mused.
Startled and perplexed, I asked what she meant.
"Well," she allowed, "SpellCheck can't distinguish between the right word and the one that just seems right."
than and that and then
its and it's
heroine and heroin
—and everyone's favorite—
public and pubic
Beyond Words has long been the go-to proofreader for numerous medical journals and textbook publishers. Pam and her colleagues have seen thing substituted for thigh; learned about randomized trails and cancer of the beast. They may even have saved some poor patient from enduring a boopsy when he was only scheduled for a biopsy. These seem pretty harmless, but think about it: Doctors rely on printed resources that are 100 percent, uncompromisingly accurate. A simple change of letter or word could result in their prescribing the wrong medication or procedure!
So accuracy is tremendously important, but what else can you expect from professional proofreading? How about avoidance of and protection from embarrassment? (And here I'm thinking of more than just the academic writer whose $10 words must be spelled and used correctly in order to postpone seemingly inevitable death-by-colleague.)
Anything printed—and I use that term in the loosest possible way to include whatever one reads on a monitor or screen—is subject to errors. In the mid-1990s as a result of the stumbling rise of OCR software, an odd party game arose among denizens of the editing world. Their conversations often devolved into comparing notes about recent OCR howlers they'd encountered. Even today, when many people consider texting to be the epitome of concision (I'll argue about that for hours, by the way), the whole point of letters and the words they form remains communication. And if we cannot rely on these squiggly collaborations to convey what their writers intended, things fall apart.
Here's a handy proof-reading tip: Beware display type, for therein lurks a demon just waiting to devour your credibility. "Display type" encompasses newspaper headlines, titles on book covers and title pages, magazine headers, advertising taglines, and any other written expression that proclaims itself in a larger, bolder, or otherwise less humble manner than its cousin, body type, or that which is "set" using the "style" called (per Microsoft) "Normal." This book's spine is an example—both of display type and how it can be error prone.
My guess is that the human brain is wired in such a way that larger, more assertive-looking words carry with them the (usually misplaced) expectation of accuracy. If an experienced proofreader had checked this, it's unlikely that it would have gotten past first-proof stage, much less all the way to being printed, bound, and released. Anybody who has even slight proofreading expertise reflexively devotes extra attention to the examination of display type.
I earned that particular reflex thanks to Natalie Meadow, the very wise managing editor for whom I worked at my first publishing job. (At the time she could boast of having an editorial career of nearly 50 years' duration—and counting!) A couple of years after I moved on to the freelance editor phase of my career, she told me about a great proofreading snafu of just this sort.
The author of a book about selling and salesmanship had entitled a chapter "Separating the Sheep from the Goats." (You really don't want to know why.) When the page proofs arrived, the chapter-opening page was set correctly. The running head? Not so much. As a result, the book was published with a chapter's-worth of pages surmounted by the running head:
Separating the Sheep from he Goats.