On Writing

Proofreading isn’t Bullet Proofing

Office 7A little over a decade ago I recognized that my books were greatly exceeding my shelf space. I found myself in desperate need of a bookcase as the piles of novels had grown unruly. I began a quest to find something in the right color and size. Although today you can purchase all sorts of low-cost choices in Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Goods, in 2000 the selection was smaller and the prices higher. I place a high-value on my book collection— only a few collectors items, but still I cherish all of them. Your run of the mill bookcase wouldn’t satisfy and I was frustrated by the fact that any one that came remotely close to what I envisioned, also came with a ridiculous price tag. I decided that I would simply build my own. That way I could choose the stain color, add lights, give it a green velvet backing, and include a center curio section for some of the pewter and onyx nic-nacs I had collected. I could also make it large—six feet by six and a half feet. Fourteen years later and six moves later and its still doing its job.

I constructed the wood behemoth with the help of my father. I’m better with a paint brush than I am with a hammer and he is the opposite. When you work with wood you discover the real importance of the carpenter’s phrase “measure twice and cut once.” There may be some forgiveness in design flaws, but in the end you discover some mistakes an extra coat of stain just can’t fix…or even cover. The stain after all is to enhance the finished product. It’s not glue and it can’t fill in a large gap nor can it make square something that isn’t level. During the building process we made a couple of mistakes. We had to throw away a few boards and re-cut after re-measuring. If I had rushed to the stain application I would have wasted a few bucks and more than a few hours making pretty things that didn’t work.

Which brings me to proofreading. A concept I thought I understood, but didn’t understand until after I really understood the logical steps in the complete editing process. Proofreading services are much like the stain on my bookcase. They fine tune the flaws, they bring out the beauty, but they can’t fix the big gaps or return a story to “level.” I’m a writer, not an editor— I have little interest in details like commas, semi-colons and I’m always going to vary my use of there, their and they’re in some random and artistic fashion. But I tell a great story…but not the first time I tell it. Proofreading is my saving grace after I’ve done all the planning, construction and sanding. But proofreading isn’t bullet proofing.

I’ve been working diligently on my new novel, The Devil’s Hour. I’m fortunate to be working with a talented editor who is also very flexible and fiscally conservative in her pricing. The down side to that is I sent her the first half of the book too soon. She did her part and excellently tuned the symbols that I had put on the page. The problem was that when I re-read some of the grammatically correct sentences I found that while things were perfectly stated grammatically, I had also poorly stated things from the prose perspective. So I changed them, I reduced the number of times I used the word “crazy” to a one far less than 56. And of course, my editor needed to re-edit to ensure that when I replaced some nails, I didn’t throw the whole thing out of square.

Sometimes we love the story so much, we love the “big picture” of the story, and we are so excited to get it published, that we miss the fact that it still needs some work. And not the kind of work a proofreader does. The kind that either the writer or a developmental or copy-write editor must do. Without it we wind up with a beautifully stained book-case that falls over when we place the first novel on the shelf. In the process we’ve also wasted several hundred dollars on a proofread for a not-yet-ready novel. Again, I’m fortunate because my editor is more of a perfectionist than I and was flexible and understanding in the re-edit pricing — if I went through the same process with a big company or a baron of the industry, I’d be paying for the edit twice.

My suggestion for both myself and for others is to build the book the same as you’d build anything with a great number of parts that must fit seamlessly together—do it in the correct order and measure twice, cut once.  There are a number of talented, freelance editors who offer what I call “preliminary” read-through services. For a price less than proofreading and a service less intense than developmental editing, they will review the story or a portion of the story and provide feedback on the basics such as structure, plot holes, continuity etc. In other words the “big stuff” that a writer needs to have straight before they get to the fine sanding and staining. These types of services actually save the writer money in the long-term because sometimes the smallest comment can help the writer see a larger pattern of issues within the story—and fix them before claiming final draft for proofing.

So maybe this is just my problem. Maybe others nail it all the first time or are only blind to grammatical issues and not bad or awkward sentences or accidentally changing a character’s eye color. Maybe other writers never repeat the word “realized” sixty-two times in the first ten chapters. I tend to make a few mistakes and some of those mistakes will still be around even after my sentences are grammatically correct. I’d prefer to have my editor find them so my readers don’t have to.

If you’re an editor who provides the type of service I’ve referred to and you offer a pricing structure that won’t make an Indie Writer choke on their coffee, then go ahead and leave your contact info in the comments section for readers. Since it’s my blog and I don’t have to be impartial, I’ll offer up my editor Lynda Dietz as an excellent resource…but I’ll leave it up to her to provide contact info in the comments section as I don’t want to be called to testify in any potential stalking cases.

4 replies »

  1. Of course now I’ll have to enter my contact information here. I’d be a fool not to. And don’t worry, Raymond. You’re officially absolved if anyone stalks me. You give me too much good promo. 🙂

    My blog, Easy Reader, has all the information about what I do, what it costs, and how to contact me. http://ilovetoreadyourbooks.blogspot.com

    On a not-related-to-me note, this post really hits the heart of the matter. A writer doesn’t have to sell the family homestead to get an informed evaluation of whether someone wants to continue reading or not, based on the first couple chapters. I usually give a book at least three chapters’ worth of my time, but some people cut it off at one. So that first chapter had better drag you right along for the ride or else.

    It’s the early readers who help with the general tightening of the story. I don’t think anyone nails it the first time. If they do, it’s only in their own minds.

  2. How I wish I could build my own bookcase! I mean, I can try, but I highly doubt the crazy glue (as crazy as they say it is) will stay put for long. I think yours turned out beautiful, and I’m glad it has lasted this long.

    I painted my kitchen cabinets a few years back, you know what I skipped? Sanding them. Ah well, I saved money…but at least only close friends and family get to see my poor work—unlike novels that can potentially be in the hands of thousands of readers.

    And speaking of novels, and readers, and not skipping steps…I happen to be a substantive/content editor. Of course, being in this field, I would agree that this is an important step that should not be skipped. But this is true for a free or a paid-for-service, not just MY services. Because seriously? A second pair of eyes never hurt anyone, nor a third or a fourth pair.

    Great post!

    Thank you for allowing us freelancers, who care for our authors not choking on a good cup of coffee, to share our links on your blog 😉

    My information with prices and services can be found here:

  3. My wife and I have a rather large collection of books. As children we lived far away from any major city. In those dark days before the internet, our TV was limited to one fuzzy channel so the wife and I as children picked up reading. My wife and I are voracious readers, averaging 3-5 books per week. We only keep the best books, but even then almost every wall is covered in book shelves. We moved once already because we needed more wall space for book shelves. My wife is the superior carpenter, and her shelves are both functional and adaptable.

    I too happen to be a freelance editor in the greater Puget Sound area north of Seattle. I graduated from the UW’s certificate in editing program two years ago. I am also a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild.


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