The Perils of a Proofreader

In which The Author offers some words of warning

I expect those of you who read the middle-market newspapers will have come across a small advertisement tucked away behind the TV schedules, cartoons and horoscopes. It’s usually cleverly placed to catch your attention with a deliberately-misspelled headline – something like this:

CAN YOU FIND THE MISTEAKS IN THIS?

It’s a teaser, needless to say. It’s designed to draw your attention to one of a handful of companies which offer courses in proofreading by distance learning. The advert goes on to tell you that you can earn a small fortune by working from home, simply by doing what everyone with a reasonable grasp of English and a couple of felt pens can do if they put their minds to it.
A long time ago, I signed up for one of these courses myself (see The Expert System.) I was working in the book trade, and it seemed like a logical next step to take. I knew all of the reps, so I had a back door into the offices of the big publishing houses who would provide my bread and butter. I’d be able to give Dillons/Waterstones two fingers and head off into a well-paid sunset. That was then…
It’s now September 2013. My youthful illusions have been well and truly shattered. Mainstream British publishing has changed to such an extent that I no longer know any of the people involved (even at one remove, unlike the old days.) My old address book became redundant five years before I did.
Just five publishing companies account for at least seventy per cent of book sales in the UK. The small companies don’t have a snowball’s chance of getting their product onto the shelves in Waterstones. (There is no other bookselling chain of comparable size or market share.) Just getting a new title into the shop, never mind into the 3 For 2 campaign, will cost more than most small publishers’ advertising budgets.
As for the window displays – forget about it! Pearson/Random House, CBS/Viacom, Holtzbrink, Hachette and News Corp reserved those prime slots a decade or more ago. Even Bloomsbury, who accidentally made a fucking fortune when they decided to publish a book about a schoolboy wizard, have found themselves back in the second division now that the magic’s worn off. Unless they’re bought out by one of the giants, the smaller players in the UK publishing industry might as well close down tomorrow.
When I finished work in 2009, it should have been a golden opportunity for me to start afresh. I decided to reinvent myself as a freelance proofreader. I even came up with a catchy name, Full Marks Proofreading, a sly reference to the old days when manuscripts would be marked up by hand. A friend of mine had already put a little bit of work my way when his company produced a printed newsletter. Then he decided to go multimedia, and the work dried up. Multimedia production companies don’t need to use Standard English, it seems. As long as they can make HD videos and generate flashy graphics, the language doesn’t matter.
When I returned to university, I thought I’d have a second bite at the cherry. However, I had an underwhelming response to my advertisements on the various noticeboards around the campus, and on the internal ‘marketplace’ website. I took advantage of an online offer to have business cards and postcards printed at a knock-down price. It seemed daft not to, really. I should have had a captive audience. In the event, most of those who did take me up on my offer were International Students who knew that their written English wasn’t up to snuff. (That was the basis for my decision to switch to TESOL in my second year.) After my course came to an abrupt end, I more or less abandoned the idea of taking the proofreading any further.
About six months ago, against all expectations, I suddenly found myself with a very small client base. It’s a company run by two old friends of mine, a married couple named C— and R—. (C— is a man, and shouldn’t be confused with C—, the fucked-up bint whom I pursued fruitlessly for a while.) They run online study courses for people taking Google Certification exams. I’ve also heard from a couple of people via C— and R—, but those lines of enquiry seem to have dried up entirely. Thus, I was left with only my regulars. However, last week, mainly thanks to an online intervention from Rowland, my client list suddenly doubled.
Josie is an old friend who’s finishing her Ph.D. thesis. She and Rowland are members of Mensa in Cardiff, which is how they know each other. She put a shout on Facebook for volunteers to read her work before she submitted it for assessment. Rowland volunteered me for the task. Well, after the last couple of weeks, I think the old maxim about never working with children or animals should be extended to include old friends.
In the first case, I was working retrospectively on web pages which had already gone live. At first, I actually tried working online, using the ‘comment’ feature attached to each question to point out the flaws in each one. However, I was using the piss-poor wifi in Aberdare Library (see entries passim.) Waiting for the page to reload, reading the question, typing the correction, and then submitting it, took about a minute and a half each time. It was ridiculous. I did one lot this way, and then suggested that it would be much quicker if I had a Word document to work on. Not only would it save time waiting for the bloody questions to load; it also meant that I could work at home, without having to be online throughout the process. C— said that it would take him about twenty minutes to pull the questions off the site as a Word file. I told him that his twenty minutes would save me a good few hours. So that was what we did.
With the document on my hard drive, I was free to work my magic in my own time – or so I thought. As it turned out, I still needed to be online in order to check Google’s own ‘style’ of writing. To quote Prof Jim al-Khalili yet again, let me explain…
Every newspaper, book publisher, magazine, and (in theory) business brochure and website has what’s known as a ‘house style.’ This means that in a newspaper, for example, the headlines are set in a particular typeface, with a particular font size, and placed on the page in a particular position. It doesn’t stop there. The subheads, stories, picture captions, columns, regular features, and even things like the TV listings are laid out in a distinct way. An experienced eye can tell a page of The Guardian from a page of The Times, or The Sun from the Daily Mirror, at a glance.
[A digression: It can be quite difficult to tell the Daily Mail from the Daily Express, mind you. Here’s a useful tip: if in doubt, just count the number of spurious health scares and/or claims (often mutually-contradictory) in the first eight pages. If the total reaches double figures, it’s the Mail. On the other hand, if the front page mentions Diana, Princess of Wales or the missing schoolgirl Madeleine McCann, it’s the Express. If you doubt my word as a gentleman about the content of the former rag, may I refer you to The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project. They’ve done the spadework. And although the comedian Russell Howard has pointed out that the latter rag quite regularly leads with Diana Spencer, over sixteen years after her death, today’s copy had a front page headline about her. (He’s not making this shit up, you know…)]
However, house style goes much further than just the cosmetic appearance of the newspaper. It covers every aspect of the paper’s printed content, whether it’s how to refer to members of the Royal Family, the treatment of personal names, the layout of dates, or (especially) how to spell non-English names. This is a frequent bone of contention among writers, especially across the pond. It can become a minefield for the unwary proofreader, as well. Was the mastermind behind al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center Osama bin Laden or Usama bin Laden? While we’re on the subject, is his Islamist group called al-Qaeda, al-Qaida, or al-Qu’ida? Come to think of it, did the attacks take place on 9/11 or 11/9? (See what I mean?)
[A digression: The Daily Telegraph, in particular, sticks to a very formal treatment of people’s names. Any ordinary citizen is referred to as Mr So-and-so, unless he’s found guilty of a criminal offence, in which case he becomes plain So-and-so. This led to an amusing incident ten years ago. The East London-based grime artist Dylan Kwabena Mills won the Mercury Music Prize for his debut LP Boy in da Corner. He doesn’t use his real name, of course, preferring to call himself Dizzee Rascal. Nevertheless, the Telegraph stuck resolutely to its style guide, referring to him throughout their coverage of the awards ceremony as ‘Mr Rascal.’]
This very blog has developed its own house style – after a fashion – in the five-and-a-half years of its existence. When it started, I didn’t have the first idea about HTML, so I just typed whatever came to mind and hit ‘Publish.’ I was stuck with fully-justified text, ungainly line breaks between paragraphs, and one font throughout the entry. It took me a little while to find my way around the (sort-of) WYSIWYG editing features that come packaged within WordPress.com. As time went by, I was able to find some helpful forums and a particularly useful blog which got me out of a couple of holes. That’s how the Blog House Style came about: first line of paragraph indented by 28px; subheads in bold, aligned left; links in italics; digressions enclosed in brackets and separated by line breaks, and so forth. Every so often I go through the older entries and tweak them to make sure they’re consistent with the layout that’s evolved since. I wouldn’t have known where to start five years ago. Now, I’m reasonably confident to type the whole thing in ‘text’ mode, inserting the HTML tags as I go. It doesn’t always work, but I’m getting there slowly.
As I’ve noted previously, my friend Rob H. drops me a line when he finds a typo in the content here. Like the barber in Bertrand Russell’s famous paradox, nobody can really successfully proofread his or own stuff. You’re always blind to your own mistakes. While we were talking about this a few weeks ago, Olly likened my situation to that of a band he’d worked with. They’d brought him a demo tape, and they were so pleased with it that they couldn’t hear the flaws. He reworked it, and the end product sounded a whole lot better. A fresh pair of eyes (or ears) is always a good idea when it comes to a creative project.
Anyway, between us, my friends and I have developed a House Style for their website than seems to work okay for now. It’s surprising how many little things sneak under the wire when you’re typing, and then become invisible afterwards. I don’t think they’d anticipated just how many independent factors interact in a printed document. For example, if you’re quoting the dimensions of a solid object, would you find it easier to read 360x120x240 or 360 × 120 × 240? Those spaces make a lot of difference when they’re on the screen. Similarly, if you’ve spent a shitload of money on registering the trademark of The Wibbly-Wobbly Widget Company, I doubt if you’d be best pleased when the initial capitals took an unpaid holiday. By the time you’ve sorted out all the hanging participles, Grocers’ Apostrophes, mismatched noun/verb conjugations, and rounded up the stray punctuation, you’ve done a fair amount of work. It’s a bit more involved than simply hitting F7 and hoping for the best. If you really want to sum it up, proofreading is the art of dotting the is, crossing the ts, and minding the ps and qs as well.
[A digression: Here’s a bit of trivia for you: That expression (like many others) has its roots in the printing industry. Back in the days when type was set by hand, the letters on their metal slugs would look like their mirror images. Apprentices would be warned to ‘mind their ps and qs’ when laying out a line of type, in case they picked the wrong letter out of the lower case (where the small letters lived when they weren’t being used.) The upper case, logically enough, was where the capital letters lived. Since the pieces of type were made in a foundry, the complete set of characters in a typeface became known as a fount, which then mutated into a font.]
Anyway, all this talk of House Style should prepare any potential proofreaders for what’s to come. If your client hasn’t already decided on how the finished document is to look, you need to bombard him/her with questions and suggestions for the first day or so after you receive the initial copy. Alternatively, if he/she has a fair idea of how the finished product is to be presented, please, please get him/her to tell you at the earliest possible moment!
Here’s one example: yesterday I spent ages going through a set of experimental data for Josie’s Psychology Ph.D. thesis. I inserted the spaces at either side of the arithmetical operators, ensured that p and n and F were all in italics, set Χ² and Ρ in the proper special characters, and added leading zeroes to a whole series of tabulated decimal data. I sent the amended version back last night, only to be told today that leading zeroes were a big no-no. I’d wasted a fair amount of time, simply because basic Client/Proofreader communication hadn’t happened.
What I’m saying is that if you haven’t got any firm ideas already, it’s an extremely good idea if you and your client sit down together (regardless of whether you do it in the Matrix or in the Real World) and thrash out a definitive guide before you start work.
Anyway, that’s the technical stuff out of the way. My second cautionary tale for would-be proofreaders is far more important.
Make sure you get fucking paid!
I’ve got two outstanding invoices with R— and C—, which were supposedly going to be paid on the last day of August. I didn’t have a problem with that; as R— said, it’s standard business practice. Taking into account the fact that August 31 was a Saturday, I expected that the banking would be done and dusted by end of business on Friday. After all, Waterstone’s used to pay us on the last day of the month, and if it fell on a weekend, the money went in on the Friday (mostly!) Even Her Majesty’s Government has found itself in the real world, and started paying benefits before Bank Holidays. Even if the weekend intervened, I was expecting to get paid yesterday.
I just about managed to get the one invoice in under the wire (late on Thursday night), but the other one was in their system a good ten days earlier. However, I’d failed to take account of late summer holidays. Last week (a week ago exactly, in fact), R— sent me a photo on Facebook. She’d found a pub in Fermoy, in Ireland, named after me – O’Gorman’s Bar, no less. That worried me a little, because it meant that she was out of the country. Friday was only a couple of days distant. On Thursday C— posted a photo he’d taken in Fishguard, on the way home. That was a good sign, because they live in West Wales, an easy shout from the ferry. I reckoned that they’d be settled back at home and on top of the paperwork by Monday at least.
It’s now Tuesday night. I’ve emailed R— twice and sent C— a message via Facebook. So far I haven’t had a reply from either of them. Gema rang me earlier, wondering if I fancied meeting up for a drink. Even though I was working my way through Josie’s draft submission, I decided that she was on to a good idea. I needed a break from the old routine.
It didn’t happen. We ended up re-enacting Groundhog Day in the Prince yet again (see A Brief Interlude) before going our separate ways. Neither of us was in the right frame of mind for a fun afternoon. I came straight home and I switched on the radio as usual, in time to hear a brief sample of ‘new comedy on Radio 4.’ I didn’t stick around to catch the title. I’d heard the trailer over the weekend, which was bad enough, and it still managed to catch me unawares. It’s written by and stars John Finnemore. (NB I don’t know whether that’s the correct spelling of his name. I don’t want to Google it, in case he thinks I’m a fan. He’d be very much mistaken.) His show is exactly the sort of thing I was referring to at the end of No Laughing Matter. He wrote a piss-poor sitcom called Cabin Pressure, set around (yes, you’ve guessed it!) a low-budget airline. Almost unbelievably, it went to a second series. It featured Benedict Cumberbatch in his pre-Sherlock days. You can’t even blame Mr Cumberbatch’s marginally post-pubescent schoolgirl audience for the ratings, as it was broadcast on the radio. I endured about thirty seconds, then managed to get to the Off switch before my brain melted. I had something to eat, switched to Radio 3, logged onto Facebook, and settled down to finish this blog.
James E. has a spare ticket for tomorrow night’s Proms Concert in London. He put a shout-out on Facebook earlier, asking if anyone wanted to join him. If my invoice(s) had been paid, I’d have been there like a shot. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all. I could have booked the National Express tickets tonight, travelled up tomorrow, and come back on Thursday. James and I could have spent tomorrow night walking around London, taking extraordinary photos of sights that tourists don’t normally get to see, and coming back early on Thursday morning.
But I’m here, in Aberdare, as usual. Summer is over and the long inexorable slide into Winter has begun. Sarah T. rubbed salt into the wounds last week, when she asked me if I was going to go back to Uni this October (see Everything Changes.) I’d love to – if I didn’t have to negotiate the paperwork minefield of the University of South Wales. (Yes, it’s changed its name yet again after another merger.) I suppose there’s a very faint possibility that they’ve lost my records entirely, and I can make a fresh start. I very much doubt it.
As things stand, I’m officially retiring from proofreading, right here, right now. Full Marks Proofreading has ceased to exist, as of now, ten o’clock BST, tonight. The business cards cost me next to nothing, so binning them will represent no great loss. I’ll keep the email address for a little while before closing it down, as I did recently with my old Hotmail address. The related blog has only been running for a few weeks, and has scored a couple of dozen hits (if that); nobody will miss it when it’s gone.
Go back to your spill chockers and your online dictionaries, boys and girls; you don’t need me, and I don’t need the hassle. Find Rob H. and put some work his way instead. It sounds as though he needs the money, after all. He had a go at me a little while ago, practically accusing me of taking the food out of his mouth, when he read about a one-off job which earned me less than half a week’s JSA (see Korea Opportunities.) That’s fine by me. There was a time when competition was thought to be good for business, in the same way that John Nash illustrates his Equilibrium in A Beautiful Mind. Rob obviously doesn’t see it that way. It doesn’t matter any more. I had an online presence and a client found me. Maybe he’ll find Rob next time. As of tonight, Full Marks Proofreading’s online presence will be nothing more than a cyberghost, cached somewhere on the Internet. Once R— pays my invoices, I’m out of the game entirely.
I can’t even say it’s been fun. All I wanted was to indulge my hobby, do what I was good at, and maybe make a few quid – in short, what I was promised in that little newspaper advert I read all those years ago. It’s been a fucking headache from start to finish, and I’m nowhere near any better off than I was fifteen years ago. Maybe I should sue them for breach of promise…
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