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Behind every good text is a proofreader

Updated on January 25, 2016

Write first, correct later

Every time you finally think a text is finished, usually it's not and somebody else will notice something that should be improved. That happens because, after spending hours, days, months, even years on a work we just become tired of it and are unable to read every single line again and again. Think about it: years after publishing something you decide to read it again and suddenly you realize there is a mistake or a sentence that sounds quite bad... That happens quite often.

That's why we need some detachment from our own work to improve it. And a proofreading made by another person might be just the detachment we are looking for: that is a fresh mind and a different point of view.

Unfortunately, many writers don't realise how important it is to proofread their work and, specially nowadays that selfpublishing e-books is much easier than before, we come across a lot of mistakes, typos, confused and poorly constructed sentences.

Proofreading is not an easy job

I've been working as a freelance proofreader in Portuguese language for almost three years now. Most of my clients are university students or those who are finishing their master's or PhD's degree. What I find striking about it is that they'll only come after me when their professors tell them to! They usually hand out their papers without any proofreading and, unless they're somehow forced to pay someone to do that, they'll leave it with plenty of mistakes.

I know I don't write perfectly, and things are particularly worse when I'm writing in English, which is not my first language. In Portuguese, I tend to rewrite my stuff a few times before I decide to post it in a blog. So, when it comes to academic work I become a grammar and style freak.

Now that I'm working for other people, I have to set a price for my proofreading work and, well, it can't be cheap. Spending a whole day reading someone else's (sometimes bad) writing can be boring and stressful if you have short deadlines. In fact, there are those papers that one can call incomprehensible and lead me to nothing but despair.

Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot's friendship

The relationship between authors Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot is an interesting case to illustrate the importance of proofreading and editing. Many critics believe that it was Pound's work on T. S. Eliot's manuscripts of The Waste Land that mainly contributed for it becoming a literary masterpiece. The first draft of the epic poem was much longer than the text we know today and Pound suggested significant cuts as well as some changes to it.

In fact, Eliot even decided to dedicate the poem to Ezra Pound himself, calling him "il miglior fabbro", a quote from Dante's Purgatorio, meaning "the better craftsman".

A page of Eliot's work with annotations by Pound.
A page of Eliot's work with annotations by Pound.
Another page with Pound's proofreading and suggestions.
Another page with Pound's proofreading and suggestions.

Tips for a more effective proofreading

There are a few essencial steps one must follow in order to proofread a text, since it is not about merely correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. So, I usually begin by dividing it in chunks - the sizes will depend on the length of the full text. If I have less time and a longer text in front of me, I'll divide it in bigger chunks.

Concentration is key to accomplish a good proofreading, particularly if the writing brings up themes you aren't familiar with. If the text is too long to print and I'm working directly on the computer I close everything else and leave only the windows I'll need, so I won't have distractions.

It's important to have a good dictionary available - whether a printed copy or on your computer. In English, a great website you can visit when writing and proofreading is Thesaurus, a page you can turn into whether you want to check for spelling, usage of a word or to find synonyms.

If you are proofreading and editing your own text, try to do that a few days after writing it. If you proofread immediately after finishing the text you might not pay attention to smaller mistakes. Let your brain rest at least for a day; that will also help you to read it with some detachment.

The Write at Home blog has an incredible checklist for a precise proofreading when it comes to basic essays and papers (picture below). The process for more elaborated texts is quite similar, but the great difference is in the complexity of the work recquired. Just as it happens to writing, practice can also improve your proofreading skills.

Source

Writers' drafts

I always find manuscripts and first drafts of famous books fascinating. Some only have minor changes, but others seem to bring up a whole new text. Looking at proofs and manuscripts of some incredible authors we can realize it takes a lot of editing and rewriting to finally achieve the level of a work of art.

So, here are some notebooks for us to get inspired by...

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Balzac's "Eugénie Grandet": Autograph manuscript and corrected galley proofs signed (1833)Dicken's "Great Expectations" (1861)Orwell's "1984": First paragraph (1949)Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922)Rosa's "Grande Sertão Veredas" (1956): This Brazilian classic has been translated to many languages; in English, it's called "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands"Proust's "A Search for Lost Time: Swann's Way" (1913)Nietzsche's "Ecce homo: Wie man wird, was man ist” (1908)
Balzac's "Eugénie Grandet": Autograph manuscript and corrected galley proofs signed (1833)
Balzac's "Eugénie Grandet": Autograph manuscript and corrected galley proofs signed (1833)
Dicken's "Great Expectations" (1861)
Dicken's "Great Expectations" (1861)
Orwell's "1984": First paragraph (1949)
Orwell's "1984": First paragraph (1949)
Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922)
Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922)
Rosa's "Grande Sertão Veredas" (1956): This Brazilian classic has been translated to many languages; in English, it's called "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands"
Rosa's "Grande Sertão Veredas" (1956): This Brazilian classic has been translated to many languages; in English, it's called "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands"
Proust's "A Search for Lost Time: Swann's Way" (1913)
Proust's "A Search for Lost Time: Swann's Way" (1913)
Nietzsche's "Ecce homo: Wie man wird, was man ist” (1908)
Nietzsche's "Ecce homo: Wie man wird, was man ist” (1908)

Comments

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    • FreakFran profile imageAUTHOR

      Francine Oliveira 

      2 years ago from Minas Gerais, Brasil

      Hi, Jodah! Thank you for commenting and calling my attention to those ;)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a wonderful hub. I too do some proofreading work so I found this very helpful. I especially liked the inclusion of the first drafts of manuscripts by famous authors.

      I did find some errors in your article that you may want to correct, especially as it is about proofreading.

      1. "confuse (confused) and poorly constructed sentences"

      2. "planty (plenty) of mistakes"

      3. "those papaers (paper)"

      4. heading: "Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot's friendpship (friendship)"

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