Tag Archives: proofreading

The Wacky World of Proofreading

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life. I’ve worked as a writer-proofreader-editor for a small publishing company – so small that I sometimes had to fill all those functions to get an issue out. I’ve bartered proofreading academic papers for someone who offered guitar lessons in exchange. And, God help me, I’ve had to proofread my own work, which is by far the worst kind of proofing.

Now I’ve entered into an entirely new version of the practice.

It started like this.

While working on my novel (still unpublished), I needed a gig to make a little money (very little money, as it turned out). So I turned to a transcription service. This company did not transcribe medical dictation or court cases, as many think when they first hear the term. Rather, it involved transcribing mostly business meetings and occasionally interviews or podcasts. As you might guess, when the pandemic hit, business picked up because so many businesses were teleconferencing rather than talking in person. In fact, I wast kept quite busy four days a week, and sometimes extra jobs on the weekends or holidays if there was additional work that needed doing.

(When I talk about this, people sometimes think that it sounds terribly interesting. It isn’t. I hated business meetings and conferences when I had to attend them, let alone listen to them over and over as I transcribed audio files. I privately gave awards for “the world’s longest run-on sentence,” “the most ‘you knows’ and ‘I means,'” and so forth. But I digress.)

Of course, the company employed proofreaders, too, to check the work that the typists had done. But typing paid more per minute of audio than proofreading did, so despite my truly crappy typing, I signed on as a typist. (I never took typing in high school, and back then, they didn’t have keyboarding. Typing was considered a “business” or “secretarial” course at the time, and I was on the college track. Entering college as an English major, I soon learned the error of that way of thinking. English majors are required to write – and, of course, type – dozens of papers per semester. But I digress. Again.)

Two phenomena threw the typing arrangement into disarray. First was the (perhaps ill-advised) resumption of in-person business meetings. The other was the progress made in AI audio dictation software. I once used a dictation function to transcribe an interview that I did. The output was mediocre at best.

Dictation transcription software was supposed to have gotten better since the early days. And I suppose it has – but not enough to make proofreading obsolete, for which I am profoundly grateful.

What I do now is listen to the audio and edit the computer-transcribed version. It’s really editing, but they still call it proofreading.

And – wouldn’t you know? – all those run-on sentences and “you knows” and “I means” are still in there and need taking out. There are speaker names and company names that the AI attempted to spell phonetically that I need to look up and correct. There are passages from speakers with a foreign accent that aren’t transcribed even close to what the speakers said. The paragraphing is dubious and the punctuation appalling. Once, the software even transcribed “yearend” as “urine.”

All told, it doesn’t take me quite as long as typing it would have, but I usually need to do a first proofing pass and then one or two proofing-proofing passes.

It’s a drag. It still beats proofreading my own writing, though.

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A Different Kind of Freelance Gig

marketing woman office working
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Most people think of freelance work as writing, or sometimes editing or proofreading. Those were the kind of gigs I myself had – editing magazines and video scripts, writing nonfiction articles and children’s stories, proofreading master’s or doctoral theses. And that was the kind of assignment I had been applying for when I suddenly fell into a different kind of freelance gig: transcription.

I was sucked into this new kind of work by applying for one of my old standards: proofreading. I did a telephone interview and the interviewer assured me that I was way overqualified, which I knew. At this point in my life, I’m overqualified for everything, except for those things for which I’m underqualified or not qualified at all.

The work was repetitive and boring, she said, sporadic and unpredictable. Some weeks there would be lots to do and others very little. I assured her that at this point in my life, that was exactly the kind of work I was looking for – not high stress, with irregular hours so I could work in some other assignments, go to appointments, or even nap. Also, I have bipolar disorder, which usually prevents me from working a standard 9-to-5 job out in the workplace. (I didn’t mention that in the interview.)

I also asked the interviewer that if any of the other successful candidates washed out, to please consider me as a replacement. It sounded like the sort of job that someone might start and then hate.

Whether it was my willingness to work beneath my skill set at odd hours or my willingness to fill in, I was accepted. To work for the transcription service I would need to purchase a certain type of foot pedal for controlling the recordings and a certain piece of software. I didn’t object, as I figured I could take them off my taxes, but I could see how reluctance to do that might indeed weed out candidates, thereby making more room for me.

What I learned is that proofing transcripts is indeed boring but relatively quick and very low-paying. So quick and low-paying, in fact, that it was hardly worth my time.

Then they got into a bind and ask me if I wanted to move up to transcriptionist.

I had to give this some serious thought. You see, the problem is that I can’t type. Oh, I type well enough to type articles, stories, and other freelance writing assignments, but I have never actually in my life taken a typing course and learned to type (excuse me, keyboard) with all ten fingers. When I was in high school a hundred years ago, typing was offered only in the secretarial track and I was solidly in the academic track. Never mind that when I got into college as an English major, I discovered exactly how many papers I would have to write and to type. And of course, I couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for me.

So all these years I’ve been faking it. But could I fake typing well enough to be a transcriptionist? I said I’d try, on the condition that I could drop back to proofreader if I wanted to.

Transcription, it turns out, is boring. A lot of business meetings that I would never want to attend. Lawyers’ consultations in which most of the lawyers mumble and most of the clients cry. Recordings that skip. Voices that are indiscernible. Financial jargon that I don’t recognize.

But making the transcripts paid much better than proofing the transcripts and since it was remote work nobody could see how unconventionally I typed. As long as I hit my deadlines, they didn’t care. I moved up from part-time transcriptionist to full time. It’s not a career, but a few hundred bucks a month sure is welcome and I still have time to work on these blogs and my mystery novel.

It’s not the part-time gig I would have imagined myself in, but it beats driving for Uber.

 

Should You Self-Edit?

In a word, “Yes!”
That’s not to say that you won’t need a professional (or at least semi-pro) editor at some point in the writing process. But in order to get your manuscript – anything from a blog post to a novel – ready for a wider audience, you need to give it a good edit.

Proofreading. Of course you’re giving your manuscript a good proofreading. Aren’t you? Proofing is the stage when you catch errors of spelling, punctuation, typos, and some simple grammar flaws (such as subject-verb agreement). Anything more complicated than that is copy editing.

You may or may not be able to do copy editing yourself, although it’s always worthwhile to give it a try. Flaws to look for in copy editing are sentences that are too long or all the same length, too much passive voice, parallel constructions, and misplaced modifiers. If you don’t know what those are, you definitely need to have your manuscript vetted by someone who does. And don’t trust the “grammar checker” built into your word processor. There will be times when you want to use the passive voice, for example, and your grammar checker may tell you to change all of them.

Nonfiction. Whether you’re writing an article, a memoir, or an essay, take a close look at your first and last paragraphs. One good technique is to ask yourself whether you really need that first paragraph. Try reading the piece without it. Sometimes the second paragraph is more vivid or personal or relevant.

The last paragraph should do something, not just dribble off. It can reinforce (not restate) the first paragraph, ask a question, suggest an answer, sum up, or leave your readers with a final thought. Whatever you do, don’t end your piece with “Time will tell.”

Fiction. Fiction can be trickier than nonfiction in some ways. You have to take all the regular steps of self-editing and more besides. One of the best ways to discover where a story may be dragging or missing essential information is to read it aloud. (Actually, reading nonfiction aloud is not a bad idea either. If a sentence is difficult to say, it will likely be difficult for your audience to read.)

It may be best for you to have another person read your work aloud while you take notes on a separate copy. Then you can go back and fix them later. Trying to do this solo can divert your attention from the overall flow of the piece as you start and stop to make notes or corrections.

Longer works. Say you’re writing a book. You’ve self-edited every chapter using the above suggestions. Now you’re faced with the challenge of editing the whole darn thing. Pay particular attention to the breaks between chapters. Especially in fiction, the reader needs a reason to continue reading. That doesn’t mean you need a cliffhanger in every chapter, but it does mean that some question, action, motivation, plot point, or dilemma should remain unresolved, or at least suggested. If the action has reached a point for a logical pause, hint at what is going to happen next.

If your book is nonfiction, it helps to give readers “way-finders” that suggest how the next chapter is related to the one or ones that have gone before. If you have given some thought to the order in which you present information, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Re-ordering the chapters may be necessary, though.

Congratulations! You have now finished your first draft and produced a second. If you are writing a blog post, article, essay, or other short piece, you may be done. In fact, you may have produced a third or even fourth draft, depending on the length and needs of your manuscript. It’s very difficult to perform all the self-editing techniques in a single pass. The general rule is content edit first, then copy edit, and finally proofread.

Professional editing. Self-editing may be sufficient if what you are writing is a blog post, essay, or other short, less formal piece. But what if you have written a book? In that case, a professional edit is advisable.

Make no mistake: If it is going to be published, your manuscript will be reviewed, judged, and perhaps altered by at least one editor. (For books, the editor may suggest edits and you can then play a game of chess by email as you work out the details.)

But should you hire a professional editor to examine your manuscript before you submit it to an agent or publisher? It’s a really good idea.

For a blog post or short article, you may be able to find among your friends an English major or experienced blogger who will give your manuscript at least a quick once-over. For longer works, you will likely need a professional. And you will have to pay this person (by the page or by the project) to give your work a thorough, comprehensive edit. Since you’re going to be dealing with a professional and spending money, you may want to check the editor’s references first.

If you self-edit, you can argue with yourself all you want over details and potential fixes. If you’ve hired a professional, don’t argue. Just say, “Thank you” and pay the fee. Then decide which of the suggested edits you want to implement. Think carefully. You hired this editor for a reason. If you are too attached to your original manuscript and your immortal, golden prose, you might as well have not bothered and saved yourself the fee.

Ideally, a combination of self-editing and professional editing will produce the best, most marketable manuscript possible. But if you decide to go it alone, don’t skimp on the self-editing. Build time in your writing schedule for a thorough, objective look at what you’ve written. You will produce a better manuscript and be more likely to meet your publishing goals, whether you are looking for increased readership for your blog or an actual published book in your hands.