Adventures In Proofreading

Over the past week I was doing line-edits of Blood of Ambrose and a new(ish) Morlock story for Black Gate and I was forcibly reminded that I cannot read my own work attentively. I don’t mean that I find it unbearable (though that’s a point of view, I guess). But if I sit down and try to proofread something I’ve written, soon I start fiddling with the writing, and I drift away from the text-as-it-is toward some glowing Platonic ideal of the-text-as-it-was-meant-to-be. It’s a pleasant state, a very pleasant state–in some ways better than the urgent fever of initial composition. But it’s the worst possible state of mind to spot, say, the dozen or so instances where I wrote “they” but should have written “the” (or vice versa). The best way for me to tackle that assignment is with a hardcopy and a pen and work in short stretches, but even that doesn’t always keep me on task.

So it was as a fellow sufferer that I saw recently some graffiti in a building where I teach a class. Someone had written, in bold black marker and carefully formed capitals,


I felt the compulsion to add, “Except spellin’!” But then I remembered the plank in my own proofreading eye and passed on.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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8 Responses to Adventures In Proofreading

  1. peadarog says:

    Why are it that any sentence with the word ‘grammar’ in it, must contain a mistake?* Today I spotted the line: “… but now I speak very well English.”

    *Yes, yea, I knows.

    • JE says:

      It’s like witch-hunting, I think: someone may start an accusation rolling to deflect suspicion from themselves.

      “I am not now, nor have I ever been ungrammatical, and I would like to thank the Committee for Ungrammatical Activities for this opportunity to appear and badmouth several thousand of my former friends…”

  2. On proofing:

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I am going through a MS right now, putting together a synopsis, and I keep making notes in the margins about fixing this, changing that, deleting this block and shifting that around…. And this when I am simply supposed to be reminding myself as to the final order of the major and minor plot points.

    I think it is a last-ditch effort by the writer-brain to get the actuality of the book in the present closer to the ideal book you had at the beginning of the project. I can almost hear my writer brain pleading, “Just one more edit, man, and then I’m done, I promise!” like some addict in a bad TV cop show. It’s both frustrating because it keeps you from finishing job you need to do, but also redeeming to know that your mind can still look at something you thought you were sick of with a creative eye.

    • JE says:

      Addiction is not a bad way to look at it. The addict can never be done with whatever he’s addicted to. But at some point the artist has to declare victory and get out.

      My mom used to say that everyone in the arts should have someone standing behind them with a hammer, to hit them on the head and incapacitate them when they were done with something (but didn’t know it).

      • newguydave says:

        How about an email, or an annoying bingging sound, they would hurt less?

        So do you have a proof-reader you can fall back on? There are some people on OWW who I can get help from, but my writing isn’t at your level yet. I imagine that as a writer progresses, they need to find better proof-readers. Maybe even a real life agent or editor.

        • JE says:

          I think the hammer is the only thing that would work sometimes. But who could you trust to wield it?

          I am luck enough these days to have a great agent and great editors, but the text is ultimately my responsibility so I’m going to have to figure out a way to address this. (Maybe I’ll pay my kids to find typos or something.)

          • newguydave says:

            Do you have a critting circle to bounce early/middle drafts off?

          • JE says:

            No–I’ve found that if I let people see stuff (or even if I talk about a piece of writing much) before it reaches a certain level of doneness, I have trouble continuing with it.

            One of Asimov’s stories centered on a positronic robot designed primarily as a proofreader (“Galley Slave”). Maybe I need one of those.

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