What Am I Trying to Do Here?

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.

26 comments

  1. I definitely found your comments helpful and am really appreciative of the time you spent. Considering how hefty my book is, it was a huge amount of work/time. And I feel like any opinion on a book, good or bad, is always valid and helpful, so I’m glad you didn’t stick strictly to just proofreading! I’m still working on reinforcing the plot a little here and there, but you’ve already helped to make the book cleaner.

    I say complain away–the more complaints we can address before publishing, the less likely we’re to get them in the form of reviews after publishing!

  2. *The orcs, some of whom were armed surrounded them.*

    Guilty. I know the rule, and when I spot it on re-read I fix it. But apparently it’s not so totally second nature that I don’t commit the error in the first place. Hence the need for second and third sets of eyes.

  3. Well, I appreciate it 🙂 I suspect part of it is some of us are still so new at this we don’t have a set of beta readers yet, so you’re the first actual feedback some of these are getting.

    It has been… interesting going through the stuff I’ve already done. Even this new at this, I’m seeing all sort of structural problems I didn’t see when I first wrote them.

    And the infamous half sentences. Those are fun to run into. Clearly I and meant to put something there, but half of it just isn’t there and I have no idea what it was supposed to be. Was this a random paste? Was this some little bit of character action that I accidentally deleted half of? Don’t know.

    Fun times 🙂

  4. One author (British) sends me chapters of books he’s working on.

    While I mainly look for typos, misspellings, “hard to read sentences”, etc. the author will use Britishisms that I may suggest he change. Because an American reader might not understand the Britishism.

    Of course, it’s interesting when his characters are British as they naturally won’t use the American terms. 😉

    1. I know that in the Harry Potter fandom, many fanfic writers would have a “Britpicker” whose job it was to pick up on the places where a British person wouldn’t say that. I never took advantage of it (my philosophy was always that I was going to write in American English, even if writing about British characters, because that’s what I speak; I also wouldn’t try to write in French if I was doing Les Miserables fan fiction). Still, the role exists, and I wonder if it might continue as the writers who got started in the HPverse move on to original fiction.

      1. When I was writing the Cat books, I tried to use just enough British-isms to ensure that readers remembered “Oh, yes, this is not the US, so things are organized slightly differently.” I triple-checked all meanings, especially for slang. And I could cheat – English was the protagonist’s 14th or 15th language, so a few errors would be normal, especially under stress. (I had more difficulty working out an internally consistent system for Azdhag terms and phrases, and sticking with it.)

      2. I managed to freak out a grown adult by telling him that Mrs. Weasley did not send Harry a sweater but a jumper in the original.

      3. The Britpicker sounds likd a very useful service.
        I once asked an English writer if Americans trying to write English dialogue sounded as bad as Brits trying to write American dialogue. She didn’t have a word to say about it.
        Unless you count SNARF(gigglesnortgiggle) as a word.

    2. Yup. “Biscuit” is a particularly difficult one as it has a definite meaning in both British and American English. Just not the same meaning. I usually take the cowardly route of rephrasing so that I can avoid using the word altogether. But there are still torches, lifts, flats, and jumpers to deal with…

      1. “Biscuit” is a good example but the slang terms sometimes make me wonder “what does he mean”.

        I’ve goggled some of them and sometimes suggested alternate words.

      2. Churchill famously commented Britain and America were “two countries separated by a common language.”

        In his history of WWII he describes how in the early days of WWII some fo the British General Staff were in DC meeting with their American equivalents, and the Grand Alliance nearly came to an end over a perceived deliberate insult borne by nearly-opposite definitions of the verb “tabled.”

      3. “Pavement” has always been the one that got me because the meanings are so close. It took me years to realize that when Agatha Christie was talking about “the pavement,” she didn’t mean precisely what I meant by it.

        1. Even in the US, some restaurants don’t know the difference between a biscuit and a roll.

  5. Unfortunately I have seen tenses switch mid paragraph, POV switch mid paragraph and other such errors in published anthologies; some of which have included stories my friends have written. I will say that my friends tend to be careful editors but it dimishes your credibility (in my opinion) when your story is surrounded by stories with such errors.

    1. I’m pretty horrible about PoV and tense switches. At the moment, I find that the most fun PoV seems to be from the character least equipped to deal with whatever is going on. When it’s the long talking heads and negotiations, it’s fun to follow it from the Heavy, who maybe understands about a third of the subtext and maneuvering going on, then switch over to the diplomat who’s still trying to process the fact that the Heavy has just picked him up and hurled him out the door.

      Definitely need to practice that.

  6. The one that always sets me back is “It’s meant to be like this.” I always think “Meant by whom?” before the rest of the brain catches up and reminds me that it’s the Brit/Aussie version of “supposed to be,” and that our version doesn’t actually make any more sense than theirs.

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