The Impotence of Proofreading of Proofreading

For those of you who do not know, my day job is in publishing as well. I commute to Boston (writing the majority of my manuscripts on the train in and out of the city) and toil away in a cube for a major publisher. This is not the first publisher I've worked for. The formula I put forward is: take the decade of your age (I turn 33 this Saturday, so my decade is 3), subtract 1, and that's how many publishers you've worked for. This holds true a ridiculous amount of the time. Publishing is an incredibly incestuous business.

Oh so long ago (going on 8 years now), I began in book production. These are the people who actually manage the typesetting and printing of your book. When you miss your deadline, it isn't your editor that makes up that time. No, it's the project manager that has to maintain your pub date with half as much time. Keep that in mind next time you're missing your deadline. If they have to make the same date, that means they have to cut things out (like proofreading, and let me tell you, that's one of the first things to get cut).

Anyway, I bring this up because I was ruminating on life as a lowly Associate Project Manager. My boss, in an effort to maintain the type of publishing she started in (back when leading meant something more than just a value entered in InDesign/Quark) made me proofread everything that came across my desk. We started with the red pen and then moved on to Track Changes in Word. I'm getting close to "graduating" and getting to act like a modern project manager and not the old-style project editor (a style the company had only just abandoned and which many publishers still use today despite the cost savings of using freelancers). I turn over a Word file. I've put a lot of spit and polish into this thing. I've used the company's style sheets (with the most bizarre rules for commas) and gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. This is a winner.

"Are you sure this is final? You're done with it?"

"Yes," I say with confidence--a confidence I gripped like a vice before it flee from that discerning stare she'd use on me.

She hits F7. I always forgot F7 is the hotkey for Word's spelling and grammar check. Really, I forgot about Word's spelling and grammar checker. I never used the thing because it always caught so many words that were actually words that it felt like a waste of time.

Wouldn't have been a waste that time. The thing didn't even get off the first page when it caught an error. She looked up at me, discerning turning to withering. Was that the end? Oh no, we went through the entire document, one error after another to show me how much I still sucked.

Being a fantasist, you can imagine how difficult spell check is (especially using OpenOffice, which has some pretty basic words missing from its dictionary). Fantastical names, places, monsters. Weapons that haven't been used for a thousand years or never at all on this world. Spell check seems like a headache. But let me tell you, friend, it's a worthwhile headache. It'll save you embarrassment down the line. Let my early publishing shame serve as a lesson for all: F7.

But how, Joe? you might ask. How can you ask us to wade through all those errors-that-are-not-errors? Because, I answer, you will create a dictionary for your wip.

Most word processors use a standard dictionary. Do NOT just add wip-specific words to this default dictionary. These words may be similar to real words that you may misspell later. Or they may be similar to other words you create for other wip and then everything goes to hell. No, sir, you're going to create a new dictionary for each manuscript you write (with a handy exception mentioned below). If you're using Word, a new dictionary is a copy of the default plus any new words you add. You can name this dictionary whatever you want. Hence, if I wrote in word, the dictionary I would currently be using would be "Jehovahs_Hitlist" or something along that line. When you click on a word marked as an error and say to add to the dictionary, it gives you a choice of which dictionary to add it to. When you are done with the wip, you can then change your Word processor back to the default dictionary.

This is one of the places where OpenOffice really shines. Rather than duplicating the default dictionary, you can choose which dictionaries are active at any time. Thus, "Jehovahs_Hitlist" is only the words I add for that manuscript (and I can go into that list and edit/delete terms as I choose). For series works, you can have have a series dictionary rather than a per-wip dictionary OR you can have individuals. Then, when events from those separate works collide later down the road, you can turn on and off the dictionaries relevant to the work you're creating. (OO also maintains the "ignore all" list even after you've shut down the program, so you don't have to do it all again when you restart later like you do for Word.)

What this gets you is that when you F7, you'll find genuine misspelled words, and your document will be all the cleaner for the effort (not to mention a list of all the custom words you created for your wip that you can then add to your stylesheet for the copyeditor to reference). Now, spellcheck isn't the end-all/be-all. Homonyms and Homophones still lurk within your pages along with the errant auto-correct-to-new-error. Always check your work before you send it off to beta readers or agents. You don't want to end up being this guy. When you finally send it off, it'll be much better for your effort.