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Proofreading and Editing

by Gary Grammar

Here is a common scenario: Having purchased a new software program for your computer, you seat yourself, ready to install and use the new program with heaving breath; racing mind. You wend your way through the initial steps contained within the user's manual, only to find that something is not right. You back track and start anew only to reach the same dead end. Depending upon how new you are to such a journey, you repeat the installation or run procedure a number of times, reaching the same non-conclusion, until your patience and enthusiasm are finally exhausted and you leave your computer as quickly as possible to relieve your disappointment and consternation at the sloppy work someone has done with the user's manual. The culprit is poor proofreading.

A computer programmer may live in a world of programming, with many "givens" and "understoods" he/she takes for granted. But the user in the non-programmer world does not know of these understood conventions of computing. A software company worthy of earning your money knows that the simple way to avoid this problem is to hire a non-computer expert to serve as proofreader to walk through the user's manual, lacking knowledge of the understood conventions in order to point them out to the programmer who can then include them in the installation flow.

Unfortunately, shoddy proofing and/or editing is not as new as the computer age. One can read a book published approximately one hundred years ago and find glaring errors and omissions of sense. For instance, I was recently reading an American History volume aloud to a student of mine. The book mentioned that all of the white people on the American continent were sailing up the James River in a boat after abandoning their settlement. The new area's governor, sailing from England, met a couple of men upriver who informed him of the abandonment. If all of the white people were in one boat, who were these men upriver? Were they Indians? Where did they come from? Why are we having to draw such "factual" conclusions in a history book? These questions are never addressed and since the author chose to use the words as I have stated above, he had a responsibility to answer such questions —or appear to be careless. This omission may not have been apparent if I had been reading silently; however, reading aloud, the unanswered questions sprang out at me and sidetracked our history work while we discussed the importance of not writing in such a slipshod fashion. You may notice a number of poorly-written news stories which exhibit this flaw also. At times, one finishes reading such a piece in a newspaper with more unanswered questions than when he began reading!

This is where a skilled editor comes in handy. I have been guilty of errors in writing myself and I am grateful for editors who can note such mistakes before it is too late. We all have tendencies to ramble, taking too many side roads in an attempt to make our writing as conversational as possible. When we discuss in person, the natural flow of conversation makes tangents obvious and useful parts of our communication. But writing is like a frozen activity, suspended in time. (By the time I write something and another reads it, many months may go by; if I am an intellectually and spiritually ever-changing person [hopefully], I am not the same person I was when I wrote the piece.) An editor can help keep tangents to a utilitarian minimum and help a writer remain objective about the quality of his/her communication.

I am not of course, as enthusiastic about editors who feel free to alter the content of my writing — there are those, too, and it is my thought that if I am to be second-guessed as a writing thinker, the editor should be doing the writing — not me; I should be paid to sit and gaze at the sunset, sipping a Mint Julep or what-have-you.

I formerly worked part-time as a professional proofreader for a large law firm and utilized a technique an English teacher had taught me in college: To guarantee 100% accuracy in proofreading, always read the document backwards, from end to beginning. Errors in spelling will jump out at you when you use this method. Other types of flaws will also be more apparent, such as contextual mistakes and/or punctuation - although less vividly than the spelling errors. This backward proofreading is especially helpful when you are fatigued or reading very boring or dense material.

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