Proofreading: an Art and a Parable

Posted on August 14, 2016 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Off-topic

Taking on the formidable Murphy

Journalist proofreading

These days I’m working part of my time as the editor of Coller Venture Review, the journal of the Coller Institute of Venture at Tel Aviv university. An interesting job, where I get to interact with interesting researchers and experts around the world who write interesting papers for this interesting publication. And then there’s the less interesting – yet vital – part of the job: making sure everything in the printed journal is perfect and error free. In other words, Quality Assurance, which in this domain is called proofreading.

As an engineer I’ve learned very early to respect Murphy’s laws: if anything can go wrong, it will – and with the worst possible timing and manner. This is just as true in publishing, with the added advantage – on Murphy’s side – that a journal of 120 pages of text holds around 300,000 characters, which are 300,000 things that can go wrong individually – and that’s apart from layout errors.

And here is where proofreading comes into play: proofreading is the publisher’s challenge to Murphy’s laws, a defiant attempt to ensure that nothing will go wrong.

But then, Murphy is a formidable opponent. I still hang on to a mimeographed sheet that was sent to all employees in a place where I’d worked many years ago, that began

From: head of HR.

To: All slaves

In Hebrew, you see, the words Slaves and Employees derive from the word Work, and differ by a single letter…

How we do it

The way we do it at Coller Venture Review is to put every text through numerous checks:

  • First the authors of the papers try their best (with very mixed results).
  • Then I and my editor-in-chief read their work, suggest corrections, and the authors go at it again.
  • Then I send the papers to a professional copy editor, who suggests changes to ensure the flow, accuracy, readability, consistency and proper grammar. I approve these changes (or not), and the results go into layout, integration of graphics, and so on.
  • Then we have the authors go over their papers again, more to ensure they approve of any changes we made than to rely on their proofreading skills, if any; and then we integrate their comments.
  • Next we send the issue to a professional proofreader, who “dots the i’s and crosses the t’s” (a lovely expression no longer relevant in a world of computers) – i.e., catches typos and layout glitches, and sends all corrections back for my review.
  • Then we prepare a final version for the print shop – but before it goes there I and my fellow editors go through this final version once again, just to be on the safe side.
  • Then we pray. Not that there will be no errors – we know with certainty that something will slip through – but that those that do slip through will be minor and few.

So many rounds of checking and rechecking! Can’t a Productivity expert like me think of some shortcuts?

No shortcuts on the road to perfection

You’d think that in this age of computers and AI we could save ourselves much of the work described above. Can’t we just ask Cortana or Siri to proofread for us? Doesn’t Word have a comprehensive spelling and grammar checker?

So, some observations:

  • No, you can’t have a computer do your editing. Maybe after the “Singularity”; certainly not today. It’s not just the spectacular “Fails” the software tools make on occasion; it is that Language is an incredibly elaborate construct, and our brains still do a better job.
  • It does depend on your standards. At CVR we aim to produce a top notch professional journal, with no compromise whatsoever. To do that, you really can’t be too careful. To illustrate: we have an issue galley that has gone through three different readers, who found numerous errors and fixed them all. It then goes to the proofreader – and she finds 100 more errors nobody had noticed. That’s 100 errors in the supposedly perfect copy that had seen three rounds of checking!
  • You need professionals in this job. A person with academic education and excellent mastery of English will not cut it; you need an experienced proofreader with many years at that very job. You see –  the goel isn’t only to catch the misspelled word earlier in this sentence. This I could do myself. The goal is to notice that the dash in that sentence is, say, an En dash where an Em dash should have been used (look it up…). Or that the space following it is double rather than single. Or that a comma went after a closing quotation mark instead of before it. Half the errors a good proofreader would catch are such that you – an amateur – would never have realized were errors at all.
  • Personally prevent the worst errors. These I consider to be personal slights to the authors: misspelling of names, errors in titles and attributions, that sort of thing. The proofreader lacks the knowledge to fix these, so I always check them in person in the final-final copy.
  • You should always be on the alert to unusual problems. In one case I caught an illustration to an article about Africa that depicted an elephant – an Asian one (you can tell by the ears; also this one was carrying logs, which Africa’s elephants wisely steer clear of). Just a wrong choice of stock photo, but I’m glad I caught it!

Beyond proofreading

This business of proofreading can be viewed as a parable for a much wider range of work situations.

Basically, any job where your team creates something complex has a phase of Quality Assurance; in in any such case – be it the writing of software, the construction of a house, the organization of a conference, whatever – there can be no shortcuts. In all of these, you need to remember that:

  • You can’t trust a computer (alone) to assure quality.
  • To get a perfect product, you really can’t be too careful. Check, recheck, and check yet again.
  • You need professionals testers – experienced, knowledgeable, and utterly committed.
  • You should always be on the alert yourself. Trust nobody to the point of not going over their work one last time (some people are so good you can trust them blindly. In a 40 year career I can think of only one such coworker).

But then, even this doesn’t guarantee absolute perfection. To err is human… and to be human is to err. The best we can do is give Murphy a run for his money…