A Key to Copyediting and Proofreading

Someone asked me today how long it takes me to write a blog, and I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it takes me about three hours from start to finish. I read once that a blog should take no more than twenty minutes to write, but that doesn’t make sense to me. How can anyone write anything of worth in so short a time, especially if a bit of research is involved? Still, three hours seems excessive, though to be honest, at least half of that time is taken up with editing and proofreading.

Proofreading is a problem for all of us, whatever we write — novels, newsletters, blogs. Our brains are structured to see what isn’t there, to fill in the blanks, to rearrange letters and words to make sense. I’m ssre you hvae seen a demontrasion lkie tihs keybefroe, a clveer gcimmik ot sohw you waht I am takling aoubt — that the brain can read jumbled words as long as the first and last letters are in the right place. (At least to a certain extent — sometimes it takes a while for us to make sense of what we are seeing.) Our brains are trained to see whole words. If we have to read each letter, laboriously spelling out the word, by the time we have finished reading two or three words, we would long since have forgotten what we’d already read.

This ability to read works against us when we write, or rather when we edit or copyedit because it’s so hard to pick out misspelled words even with a spell checker, especially if the misspelling is a real word in itself. Tow and toe, for example. Or point and paint. Even worse, we see the center of things. Our brains fill out the edges, and so often, that’s where we find errors — on the top two lines of a page, the bottom two lines, the first and last word on a line.

I know a few keys to improve your copyediting. The best way, of course, is to get someone else to do it. We know what we want to say, so our text makes sense to us no matter how convoluted it is, but so often fresh eyes find mistakes we missed every time we read it. If you have to do your own copyediting, you can work from the end of the piece to the beginning — that way you don’t get caught up in the brilliance of your own rhetoric. You can pay particular attention to the edges of your text, doing the edges as a separate edit, or you can temporarily make the text a different size. If you normally use 12pt Times New Roman, switch to 14 or 16 point. That way the words that were at the edges of the page have been moved to a different place, which makes it easier to see mistakes. (You have to change the size of the font, not merely zoom to a larger view because zooming doesn’t change the placement of words.)

Using these copyediting suggestions, I can improve my text and make sure there are few errors, but doing the whole thing still takes me three hours. No wonder I don’t have time for working on my novels!

[Click here to find out Why Mistakes Happen]

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Why Mistakes Happen

I worked hard to make More Deaths Than One typo-free, but there are at least two errors in the published novel.

        “I’m Kerry. Kerry Casillas.” She eyed the obit-
ary. “How many of those children are yours?
Bob massaged the back of his neck. “None.”

And:

“I thought you were in the jungle of your nightmares.”
Bob laid a had on top of hers. “I was.”
“Then let’s get you out of there. Finish the story.”

Errors in copyediting are easy to make. One website, Regret the Error: Mistakes Happen, capitalizes on this, chronicling the editing mistakes and corrections in newspapers around the world. If professional proofreaders and editors have such a hard time, what hope is there for the rest of us? Perhaps not much. And it’s not due to carelessness so much as the way we are made.

According to Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes, we have a very narrow angle of good vision, perhaps a thumb’s worth, which is why our eyes constantly flicker back and forth — they are trying to focus on a larger area. What this means for us is that we see the beginnings of words, pick up clues, and automatically fill in the rest —  such as the e at the end of the. Hallinan writes, “people were asked to read a text and cross out the letter e every time they saw it. It turned out that the later the e appeared in a word, the more likely it was to remain undetected. Not only that, the e in the word the was very likely to be missed — 32 percent of the time.”

I also know from doing puzzles such as Word Finds that we tend to see the middle of the page more than the top and bottom lines, and we tend not to see the far sides of the text. If ever I can’t find a word, I know to look at the periphery of the puzzle. More often than not, that’s where I find the missing word. (I seldom do such puzzles any more. They’ve lost their allure after all the copyediting I’ve done this past year.) And this is where the typos in More Deaths Than One are. The first error occurs on the periphery of the page, the other error occurs in the second line from the top. (It’s easy to see here, because it occurs in the very middle of the excerpt.)

We also see what we expect to see, and the better we are at something, the more likely we are to skim. Hallinan tells the story of a distinguished piano teacher and sight reader, Boris Goldovsky, who “discovered an misprint in a much-used edition of a Brahms capriccio — but only after a relatively poor pupil played the printed note at a lesson.” Since the kid didn’t know how the piece was supposed to be played, she played it the way it was printed, not the way the experts misread it.

So what does this mean for us amateur copy editors? Go slowly, word by word. Resist the urge to skim. Double-check the first couple of lines on a page and the last couple of lines. Check the far sides of the text. And if all else fails, have your kid proofread the book for you.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)