Proofreading: the small things that matter

Even if the writing is good, readers’ confidence is undermined by frequent typos

Rose Tremain: let down by her publisher? Photograph: Getty

Rose Tremain: let down by her publisher? Photograph: Getty

 

As a proofreader I have worked on books about, for example, building stone walls in the west of Ireland, Edith Stein’s philosophy of women, theophany in John Scottus Eriugena, and institutional bullying. As readers we are often made aware of the proofreading process by its absence or by the errors it leaves behind. A writing community needs a constructive, critical voice, and that includes the work of proofreaders, who correct basic errors of spelling, punctuation, syntax and grammar.

It is worrying to see a bestselling book from a reputable house reach the public without evidence of this necessary and final check. Rose Tremain’s Merivel: A Man of His Time, for instance, published by Chatto & Windus, is a great read. It is written in a pseudo 17th-century English. Capital letters are given to common nouns, it uses archaic English words, such as breeks, tabard, drab, besom and sack (for trousers, gilet, whore, broom and wine), its dialogue imitates the manners and conventions of the age, and the narrative is written in exactly the right register to give an impression of England under Charles II.

The archaic language and turn of phrase are challenging, but the reader’s confidence in the writing is undermined by the frequent typographical errors. You wonder if “supress” (pages 32 and 68) was written with one P in the 17th century. But then, when you see it with two Ps (on page 24) you realise these were indeed errors.

The usage of words with Old French derivation is charming, but again they become unstable when accompanied by typos. There are missing prepositions, extra pronouns and prepositions, and repeated words – “Yes, and this, I suppose, must bring bring us to the question of Louise . . .” “Know” is there instead of “known” (on page 216), as is “kneeling at the His Majesty’s bedside” (on page 287). I counted 19 typos in all and was dismayed that all of these carried through into the paperback version later published by Vintage.

I resist the urge to alert the publisher – there’s an anorak inside everyone, and it should stay there. But poor proofreading can undermine the integrity of the whole text. I once worked on a history of Fianna Fáil in which “de Valera” was misspelled throughout. Worse, mistakes can substantially alter the meaning of a sentence.

It seems that in spite of book publishers’ apparently huge revenue, the resources put into basic proofing are insufficient to guarantee fully literate, clean copy. (I should mention that I’ve since read Rose Tremain’s current book, The American Lover, a collection of short stories also published by Chatto & Windus, and found not a single typographical mistake.)

Mistakes in poetry seem to loom larger where every syllable matters. I have picked up two collections recently. In Ode to Lost Poems, from Emily Cullen’s collection In Between Angels and Animals, she writes:

Calliope waves her stylus

over my hypothalamus

ignites synapses

with new hypotheses,

admts me into ontologies

of things foreign to me.

Spot the typo?

Sheila Wingfield’s Poems are clean, but in the acknowledgments is written: “I would also to thank . . .”

Small but essential things. In this modern day of refined technology why not have perfection?

Isabelle Cartwright is a member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers. She is compiling a book meant to console people living with depression. Writers who would like to contribute may contact her at icartwright@eircom.net

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