Interview with my fabulous proofreader

Interview with a proofreader

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 26 September 2006
How to write Writing edit

Sarah Bee was my proofreader for several years - my secret weapon against grammatical errors and typos. I asked her a few questions on how to edit and proofread:

Ask a proofreader

How did you get into proofreading and editing?

I started out from university writing for various music mags, and took it upon myself to check the proofs of one of the smaller ones every month having spotted a few errors in previous issues. I soon realised it was my mission to rid the world of errors. After a while I set up my own website offering editing services, and have tweezed typos out of all sorts of documents, from charity reports to novels about the fall of the Roman Empire.

What skills do you need?

There's a definite knack to skimming a page and seeing the things that aren't right - they need to leap out at you, waving big signs saying 'THIS AIN'T RIGHT'. Some of them are really embedded, not obvious at all, so you need to be able to smell that whiff of something being misplaced. You also need a light touch - with editing less is often more - and it helps if you're terribly pedantic.

What's the best way for people to proof read their own work - any tips of the trade?

It's easy to get distracted by the meaning of sentences when you're trying to identify their basic components, so it can help to read from the bottom of a page upwards, right to left, so you're forced to focus on the nuts and bolts. But it is better to get a fresh pair of eyes on anything important if you can - it's really difficult not to get bogged down in making stylistic alterations rather than technical ones when it's your own stuff. I can't really proofread my own stuff to my satisfaction.

What are the most common mistakes?

'They're/their/there' is a constant source of confusion, as well as 'where/were' and 'you're/your'. Similarly I see a lot of mix-ups of 'pair/pear', 'discreet/discrete' and 'loath/loathe' (which I loathe). No one seems to know where to put apostrophes any more.

Also, a new one I'm seeing everywhere - full stops seem to be escaping from self-contained parentheses at an alarming rate. If parentheses appear at the end of a sentence then the full stop goes outside (like this). (But if the whole sentence is contained in brackets, the full stop stays in.) However, people seem to think the full stops deserve their freedom. I shall be campaigning to keep them imprisoned.

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Do you have any top tips for writers?

Just take care, be deliberate as you go. It may not seem that important to get the boring technical stuff in order when you've got important points to make or gorgeous metaphors to build, but the smallest slip can undermine a whole sentence. I'm constantly amazed at how one letter or comma out of place can nudge a sentence right off its tracks. I think you just have to maintain a background awareness of that, to keep your writing strong and focused.

What are the worst mistakes you've found? C'mon, spill the beans!

I see mistakes everywhere, and while I get a sort of buzz from spotting them like some sort of perverse birdwatcher, I can also get in quite a mood. I saw a permanent council sign the other day saying 'PEDESTRAIN AREA', and the word 'capitvate' in a sponsor ident before the break in a TV drama. Those were quite inexcusable typos. As for the copy I actually get to edit, I'm afraid some malapropisms do make me laugh - recently I had 'he marched at the head of a colon of soldiers'. I also had a 'bile-up' as opposed to a 'pile-up' - quite a handy neologism, though, for an enormous heap of things you feel bilious about.

I'm often shocked at the quality of press releases - errors in those immediately devalue whatever it is that's being brought to your attention. Someone referred to 'the perverbial herd of sheep' or something in a recent one I saw - again, nice neologism for x-rated sayings.

One of my all-time favourites was on channel4.com, on a Dispatches microsite - a link said 'If you have an opinion about this programme, why share your views on the Dispatches forum'. I had to write in and tell them -they never thanked me, though.

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