Writing 101: Proofreading, and Why it Matters.
There is something special about that moment when you finish a piece of writing; when you write that final word and end it with a full stop, knowing that it’s finally done. You pat yourself on the back, feeling good about what you’ve achieved. You’re finished… Or are you? Is simply writing that last sentence really the end?
The answer is no. Most established writers will tell you that. It’s nowhere near the end. In fact, it’s just the beginning of that often overlooked process known as proofing and editing. The process of revision, where time is spent on rewriting and correcting mistakes, perfecting and streamlining the text, should be part of every self-respecting writer’s writing routine. Is it easy? No. Is it fun? Probably not (unless you’re a masochist). But, it is crucial, both for professional and hobby writers, and not something that should be taken lightly. Even the smallest error can significantly lower the quality of a piece as it not only alters the perception of the work itself, but also about the time spent on it, as well as the writer. Work that feels worked on and cared for is so obvious when stacked against something that’s got that first draft stink. And I bet you can guess which ones do better when submitted to competitions, magazine, and agents.
We’ll skip editing for a minute, because it’s such a subjective process, and honestly there are so many ways to go about it that quickly outlining it here will only serve to cheapen how deep a process it can, and should be. So, instead, we’re going to talk about proofreading - because errors are the first thing that present themselves when we judge, and a piece fraught with them will never win. If you’re a crack editor or not, proofing is where comps are often lost, so let's talk about what it entails, and how you might want to go about doing it efficiently, and properly.
What Proofreading Means
To proofread is to read through a text with the aim to identify and subsequently fix any errors. It’s such a gruelling process at times, that writers are known to pay others to do it. If you’re really good at it, you can proofread professionally, where you work on somebody else’s writing for them.
But, just because these services are out there, it doesn’t mean you should skip doing it for yourself. Proofreading is not only an essential part of the writing process, but also an essential skill that should be developed. Now, I’m not saying that you should never seek help from others when it comes to your own work, but first you should be trying to get the work into submission-ready shape yourself. If you still don’t think it’s that important, why not think of it in terms of another profession. A baker would never deliver a wedding cake with the wrong names on it. They wouldn’t bring five separate un-iced sponges to the reception and tell the wedding party that it’s finished. Wedding guests would see that the cake wasn’t assembled, wasn’t decorated, and ultimately wasn’t finished. And readers and judges can tell the same thing about writing.
In the same way that a baker must take pride in their work, making sure it’s as good a representation of their skills, and themselves, as they possibly can - so must a writer.
It’s not an easy, or fast process, but knowing that is half the battle. A common practice when proofreading is to go over the text slowly and carefully, sentence by sentence, to try to spot those typos and mistakes which might have snuck in there. It is so easy to accidentally add an extra blank space, a letter which doesn’t belong, a misplaced apostrophe, or to misspell a word you normally spell perfectly. It’s something that happens to all writers - beginners and pros. If you’re struggling to slow your pace down, then try reading aloud. Most (avid) readers will read at between 200-250 words per minute, so it’s natural when proofing to elevate your reading pace without realising it, and by doing so you make it less likely that you’ll catch any mistakes. By reading out loud, you’ll force yourself to read at a much slower pace, increasing your focus on each word, and in turn elevating your chances of catching all the mistakes in your writing.
The Consequences of Rushing Through It
Let’s face it – proofreading can be boring. But it’s just something a writer needs to learn how to deal with. The writing industry is incredibly tough to break into, considering how hundreds of writers are turned down by publishers and literary agents on a daily basis. And, many of these writers who are getting rejected are meticulous proofreading experts who would never dream of submitting work unless they’re absolutely sure that it’s 100% error free. And if these individuals struggle to find someone who wants to publish them, with their “perfect” pieces ending up getting slapped with a form rejection, do you honestly think that not proofing, and submitting a piece that has mistakes in it will get you anywhere?
Now, we all love our own work. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t write it. And it is tempting to think that your story will be mind-blowing enough to sway a potential publisher, agent, or judge, regardless of the errors - but, the harsh reality is that most professionals will likely stop reading the second they come across a grammatical or spelling error. It’s not the errors themselves, usually, but it’s what they say. You haven’t bothered to take the time to proofread, so why should they spend their time bothering to read your work? It’s a sign of disrespect, and it speaks volumes about not only the importance of the work to the writer, but also their frame of mind. Their attitude.
One mistake is likely not the end of the world in an entire manuscript, but the obvious ones - those that could have easily been corrected had you bothered to read through your work before submitting it, are what will kill your chances. Take it from us. We’re not literary agents, and we’re not publishing houses. We’re also not saying that if you proof your work properly, that you’re guaranteed to succeed. But, what we do see is a lot of good pieces that are ruined by shoddy proofing and editing. We can tell what an edited piece looks like. We can tell if something’s been proofed. And we can also spot a first draft or something that’s not been read over from the first sentence. And trust us, those pieces are never considered.
At the end of the day, it’s not about proofing and editing to win competitions and get published (though those are often by-products), it’s about taking pride in yourself, and your writing, and telling your readers that you’re serious about doing this. And, there are a thousand reasons that an agent or publisher may not want to take your work on, but you’re honestly throwing away any chance of getting picked up if you’re not combing through your work ten times over before sending it out.
Looking to Others for Help
Most typos can be found and fixed by the writer themselves, but what about grammatical and syntax errors you might not even be aware of? Perhaps it’s something you’ve always done incorrectly without realising. So, how can you correct something, then, if you don’t know it is wrong?
By asking for help. It’s both acceptable and recommended to have someone else proofread your work for you after you’ve gone through it. Be it a friend or someone you trust (and who is proficient enough in grammar and language) to give their honest opinion and help you iron out any mistakes you failed to spot. And it’s fairly common to do so. Writers are prone to get too close to their own work. Too close to see mistakes. And it’s easy to become blind to them (and because you’re blind to them, you obviously don’t know that you’re blind to them), and asking somebody with a critical eye read through a piece before submission is always an excellent idea. Their contribution or assurance could be the thing that really makes a difference.
Proofreading should never be seen as a hassle or a waste of time, but as a part of the writing process. And you’re not done until you’ve done this (if you ever consider a piece of writing “finished”, that is). Skipping it will do you no favors, and it’s not a shortcut you’ll want to risk taking. So, instead of gambling needlessly, show that your writing matters to you and take the time to proofread and perfect. Writing submitted error-ree is rare, and we can vouch for that.
But, when it really feels like a piece has been worked on, edited, and thoroughly proofread, we’re able to focus on the writing, and not on the mistakes, or the clunky sentences, the bits that make us stop and re-read because they’re cumbersome and fatty. When a reader gets trapped in that mindset, it’s very difficult for them to get out of it. We reward hard work here, and we want to punish a lack of care and attention to show our entrants that it doesn’t pay off. Lots of the feedback we write and send out has things like ‘this was almost great, but was held back by the errors’ and ‘though I thought this was an excellent story, it was really affected by a lack of proofing’ in it. We don’t like saying it, but we have to. Spare us from doing it, and let us see the best in your work by spending an extra hour or two going back over your writing.
We’ll thank you for it, and so will your writing career.
Keep up the good fight!
Jann & Daniel