When I started volunteering to proofread books, I thought that was just what I’d be doing: offering another pair of eyes to scan for typos, misspellings, homonym abuse, places where a word had been repeated or dropped. It turns out that, while doing my best not to interfere with the writer’s intent, I’m constantly crossing the line into copyediting. But where would you draw it?
(By the way: I made up all the following examples; I don’t want to take anyone else’s work and poke fun at it. Needless to say, Tolkien never committed any of these errors. But they were inspired by actual sentences in the drafts I’ve been reading.)
So, there’s simple and totally non-judgmental proofreading:
I want to as you a question.
She was disparate to hear the answer.
We are traveling to to Mordor.
Then there are punctuation issues. Some may be typos, but repeated errors of the same type appear to reflect a writer’s confusion about when/how to use commas or other punctuation marks. Fixing these takes me a little beyond my original remit but still doesn’t involve laying violent hands on the writer’s text.
Pay attention Bilbo.
The orcs, some of whom were armed surrounded them.
Far ahead, stood a stone bridge.
Then there are problematic sentences which can only be failures of grammar: dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement, and the like. I doubt any of these can be considered typos; the writer almost certainly committed these sentences on purpose. But just like the typos and misspellings, they irritate me and take my attention away from the story, so I suggest rephrasings.
Whirling through the air to strike its target, he threw the axe.
The number of wounded men were devastating to their forces.
Then there are word choice and usage problems, AKA “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I tried to assuage him.
The enemy forces flanked around us.
Eowyn was reticent to speak.
And finally, there are structural problems which are surely way beyond my original remit. Places where the point of view changes mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. Paragraphs that begin with one topic but, without warning, switch to a completely different topic. Descriptions of a character doing something that’s physically impossible, even in the context of fantasy and magic. And I complain about all those too.
Obviously I’m doing more than just proofreading, and anybody sending me a manuscript should be aware of this. Evidently I cannot read a manuscript without noticing syntactic, semantic, and structural problems. At the same time, I try very hard not to stomp on somebody’s individual writing style or to get into beta-reader concerns about the overall structure of a book. Commenting on other people’s work has its pitfalls for writers; we are all too apt to stray into the forbidden territory of “If I were writing this book, this is how I’d go about it.” I try to stay within the confines of “This is your book and here’s how you could avoid distracting your readers with these minor issues.”
I think of what I am doing as checking out a wooden sculpture that is supposed to be sanded to a high gloss. My job isn’t to say, “You should sculpt something different.” It’s to run my hand over the piece, noting rough spots where a little more sandpaper is needed. Anyway, that’s what I try to do for manuscripts I’ve been sent, and since I cannot keep myself from complaining about rough spots like word abuse and awkward sentences, I’ll probably continue to do so.
You have been warned.