Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Preparing a Novel for Print #2: Proof-reading and Adjustments

Book
How exciting it is to receive a copy of your first published novel: turning the book over and over in your hands, admiring the binding, flicking through the pages, that 'new book smell' delighting your nostrils. You select a page at random and scan the text, squinting in the darkness to avoid creasing the spine. Then, snuggled in amongst all the perfect prose, you spot it. Your heart sinks and you try hard to convince yourself that it's nothing major, hardly noticeable at all in fact. But you found it, on the very first page you read. And if you saw it, then so will your reader.

It probably serves as little consolation to know that the vast majority of published work contains at least one error of some sort, whether it's a missed word, inappropriate punctuation or questionable paragraphing. Whilst judgements on punctuation, sentence structure and paragraphing are to some extent subjective and thus unlikely to draw our attention (unless they're really bad), absent words or those that are present and shouldn't be are the mistakes that jump out from the pages of our own work, almost as if someone has already highlighted them with a bright red pen, just to belittle us.

Perhaps the first point to be made here is about accepting that, regardless of how many times we give our manuscripts a good going-over, there is a every chance an error will slip by unnoticed. In the self-publishing process, this problem is confounded by the creator of the work being the one who will also undertake most of the proof-reading, with each read-through leading to further tweaking and tinkering and each change increasing the probability of mistakes occurring.

Case in point: the following is a section from the current novel I am proof-reading; originally written in 2007, I've checked it through literally dozens of times and can still find phrasing I don't like.

Original:
It was all getting too much and he wasn’t used to feeling like this. True, there was always this empty feeling, since Adele, and when she married Tom something had died inside. He loved her enough to want her to be happy, he’d always believed that, and yet, now she was happy it made him mad and destructive.

Changed to:
It was all getting too much and he wasn’t used to feeling like this. True, there since Adele married Tom, there was always this empty feeling, like something had died inside. He loved her enough to want her to be happy, he’d always believed that, and yet, now she was happy it made him mad and destructive.

Corrected:
It was all getting too much and he wasn’t used to feeling like this. True, since Adele married Tom, there was always this empty feeling, like something had died inside. He loved her enough to want her to be happy, he’d always believed that, and yet, now she was happy it made him mad and destructive.

As this demonstrates, any changes I make at this stage will require yet another reading if I am to stand any chance of spotting the new mistake. However, I've now been through this manuscript so often that I'm starting to skim through whole sections, which means I'm unlikely to notice one extra word that shouldn't be there.

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

The problem here is psychological, because our brains are used to filling in the gaps. Consider the image on the left: we presume that underneath the hat, the fence post is the same as the four that we can see in their entirety, because our experience tells us that this is usually the case. Likewise, we don't believe that a person's legs have disappeared just because they're obscured by a pair of trousers.

When reading a sentence (in English at least), the object, subject and action are the most important. The rest is largely irrelevant to understanding the meaning, hence we can skim through entire paragraphs and follow the action without recourse to reading every single word. The more experienced we become, the easier it gets to accurately fill in the gaps and we start to do this unconsciously - a mental shortcut we can usually afford to take. Unfortunately, to override this requires considerable conscious effort, but is absolutely essential to the editing and proof-reading process.

Our innate capacity for language enables us to convey thoughts, emotions and actions through intricate, yet shared, symbolic communication systems. This gift gives physical presence to our imaginations and can be trained and refined, as every writer knows. However, it is also a curse, in the sense that we are designed for efficiency; reading the same thing over and over again defies this natural instinct. The key then, is to be vigilant: disable autopilot and consciously read your work, whilst remembering that, despite extensive proof-reading by author and editors alike, somewhere in Harry Potter there is a stray capital letter.

No comments:

Post a Comment