Proofreading is a Bitch

I mentioned to a friend I’d be proofing and submitting a short story tonight. He asked me:

“What do you do in proofreading? Look for typos?”

For starters, yes. But there’s so much more.

Grammar is a big one for me. For example, I don’t like to derail my writing to look up the difference between lay and lie, so I’ll do it in the proofing stage. I like to think I have a good ear for grammar, but I don’t memorize all the rules and I don’t get it right every time. I used to drive my English teachers insane because I’d ace compositions but bomb out on grammar tests. Diagram a sentence? Screw that noise, I’ll write you a more interesting one instead.

I rewrite bad sentences. If I something doesn’t sound right, or if I can’t decide how the grammar should be handled, I’ll rewrite it. Can’t resolve the question? Make the question irrelevant.

I look for passive verbs. If the words was or had appear in a sentence, I look for a better way to say it. Why should I say “he was running” when “he ran” is cleaner? Along the same line, it’s a good time to expunge crap like “started to” from sentences. She started to scream? No, unless something cut her off, she just screamed.

I track down repetitive words or phrases. Sometimes these things are like an ear worm that just won’t go away. Case in point: in tonight’s submission, I used the phrase “pushed onward” twice in two pages, and I used the word “just” three times in two paragraphs. I kept one instance of each and rewrote the rest.

I’ll kill off as many adverbs as I can find. Why? Because fuck adverbs, that’s why.

I rescue or euthanize orphans. Not the single lines abandoned by a paragraph spanning a page break, but the fragments left behind when I rewrite a sentence on the fly. Sometimes they belong in another sentence, other times they should have been deleted. Either way, they go away.

As far as I’m concerned, this is separate from rewriting. Proofreading is not excising long passages of nonsense, changing character voice, altering the plot, or otherwise revising a piece. I may streamline a passage here and there in the proofing stage, but to me that’s part of cleaning up the final presentation, not rewriting.

Most of the rewriting in my short stories has already been done in notes or in my head before the text hits the page. Longer works from novellas to novels are where I see most of my rewriting work. In Lie with the Dead, I have a chapter that needs to be scrapped and rewritten with a new approach in mind, and I have two scenes that need tweaks to agree with events later in the book.

This is why there are often several rounds of proofreading. Sometimes cleaning up text introduces new errors, and sometimes the brain just reads right over mistakes. It’s kind of like reading this paragraph your friends have emailed to you a million times:

Aoccdrnig to a research sduty at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a word are, the only iprmoetnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can still raed it wouthit porbelm. Tish is bcuseae the human mind does not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe.

This, my friends, is why proofreading is a bitch.

But it’s part of the job, and this is how I do it.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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