Proofreading in Haystacks
When you learn to proofread there are quite a few misconceptions which have to be jettisoned. All these are dealt with fully in the proofreading and copy-editing courses, but I want to tackle one today and give you a challenge.
Finding errors in a book which has been well written, copy-edited competently and set by a professional can be immensely hard. Why? There are very few mistakes; you may read fifty pages and find nothing. To concentrate over long periods when all seems to be well is really taxing. You begin to feel superfluous, and worse, you may be tempted to tinker just to prove that you have earned your fee. Good proofreaders never tinker!
Ideally a proofreader would like to spot an error every twenty lines or so to give a sense of purpose, a feeling of achievement. But the people who have come before you have done their best to weed them out.
So the job is often to find the solitary needle in the haystack and sometimes to have to admit that there simply isn’t one: this is that rare beast, the perfect set of proofs!
Just for fun I would like you to have a go at proofreading the following piece. I promise you that there will either be very few errors, one error or simply none! You may assume that the proper nouns are spelled correctly, even if they appear unusual or downright weird. In a week or so I shall tell you what I would have picked up as a proofreader, if anything. You may not like the author’s style but that is not relevant to the proofreader’s job. It is, of course, entirely fictitious and is not based on any person or persons, either dead or alive!
Have a go! But remember it’s only fun.
A Brief Life: Humber Snipe
“Hummy” Snipe as he preferred to be known was born into the enormous wealth of the Snipe family who in the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century lived in great splendour in Yorkshire and Belgravia. The family fortune was originally based on treacle mining in the Penines. Rich seams of molten treacle were discovered by Josiah Snipe on a small parcel of land. With the profits of the first jars he purchased neighbouring land. He found no more treacle, but rich seams of coal were soon in production and the Snipe collieries were legion by the mid Nineteenth Century.
Young Snipe was educated at the local school and then Eton where his record was undistinguished. His housemaster wrote in his leaving year: “Snipe has tried hard with little result in both the academic and sports arenas. He leaves little mark here, but if he manages to see out his time at his father’s college I see no reason why he should not hold down a minor post in the Diplomatic Service. If he sets his sights low enough I feel sure he will succeed.”
Snipe went up to Christ’s Nose College after a year spent “getting his hands dirty” at one of the family pits soon to be closed due to an act of sabotage.
At Oxford, Snipe resumed the mediocre level of attainment pursued at Eton. His tutor had, however, seen many Snipes and encouraged him to enjoy his time as best he could. He joined no societies, but had a number of like-minded friends who drank heavily and enjoyed the company of young women of the city. Driving a Bugatti, Snipe cut something of a dash on The High in striped blazer and raffish fedora. He rarely wore trousers, preferring khaki shorts winter and summer because of a hereditary knee fungus which thrived when covered in flannel.
The World of Publishing
Snipe’s best friend at Oxford was Toby Excruxinham whose grandfather had founded The Excruxingham Press. The Yorkshire mines were in decline and it was decided that, having been turned down by the Civil Service, Snipe should join Toby in publishing. They shared an attic room in a small outpost of the company in Bloomsbury. Neither young man had ever shown any aptitude for the literary life. Neither read beyond the racing pages or the attempts at soft pornography which they found in Soho shops. Their job was not to edit or proofread; the editorial manager, a grammar school man called Perkins, was too wise for that. They spent their time sifting unsolicited manuscripts in the unlikely hope that one of them might be publishable by one of the company imprints. This was seen as safe work since only seven unsolicited manuscripts had ever been taken on by The Press in its seventy-year history. They were unlikely to miss a gem.
Stroke of Luck
Some careers are made by hard work, others by talent. Snipe’s career was founded, like his family’s, on pure luck. On a wet Friday after a substantial lunch at his club, he had returned to the office to put in an appearance before getting a cab back to Chelsea. There his shared secretary Miss Edith Pincher (whose love for him burned unrequited for 37 years) met him with a pile of A4 paper. “This is gold!” she shouted. Bleary-eyed, he listened . “A novel, the most wonderful novel!”
Snipe took all the credit, of course, and Miss Pincher loved him all the more. By Donkey to Accrington was the sort of overnight success which happens once in fifty years. Seven reprints in four years, a barnstorming paperback edition, a stonking US rights auction and translation into eighteen languages. “Who knew there were so many languages?” said Snipe famously.
Miss Pincher was the making of Snipe. She had a nose for best-sellers. And her love for Snipe meant that she bloomed unseen. Snipe was feted as the publisher with the Midas touch. Director of Publishing and finally Chairman of the now mighty conglomerate World and Universe Dominion Press. He breakfasted in London and dined in New York with Toby tagging along in his wake. Nothing could or would stop him.
Snipe was unlike most chairmen. He didn’t really run a vast empire. He was merely present. His fame and mystique lay not in his ability to manage, but in his rare gift, employed every two years or so, to spot a really big winner.
But the end to this steak of luck was abrupt and cruel. Miss Pincher, now sixty, spent every Christmas with her widowed mother in her Penge bungalow. An intruder broke in on Boxing Day and being surprised by the old woman’s shriek of fright struck her a fatal blow then fled. Edith Pincher, horrified, choked on her pudding, her mother’s home-made treacle tart with glutinous custard. She quickly died and took with her the genius which had made Snipe’s fame and fortune.
Snipe’s star faded. He retired to Berkshire where he unsuccessfully bred pigs. His fungally afflicted knees, after years in remission, renewed their attack and blighted his life.
He lies buried in his local churchyard wearing fedora, blazer and khaki shorts.