I have never been a good proofreader. This has been true since I was a kid in grade school. My teachers used to get so angry with me over it and I admit, as a professor myself, I sometimes get personally offended when students hand in work that is full of typos, and other goofs. However, I have since come to the conclusion that a lack of proofreading isn’t always a lack of respect for the project.
Sometimes people don’t proofread because they can’t stand to read their own work. It’s like listening to your own voice on a tape recording. There is also the fear that you will read over the story closely and find out that it’s terrible and then what would you do? The story is due? So you just print it out and turn it in.
Insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some people’s insecurity makes them perfectionists. They sweat every little details for fear that one typo or error will somehow invalidate all of their hard work or cause people to mock them. These folks may hang onto a manuscript way longer than they should have for fear that it’s not perfect.
Because I am not a good proofer, I hired someone to proof my manuscript before I submitted it to publishers. ($600. More than mere chump change.)Imagine my dismay when I made a mistake with MS Word and accidentally left a few “notes” in the margin! I think one said, [Should I double space here?]
I called all my friends hoping that one of them would say, “That doesn’t matter. No one is going to disqualify your manuscript because of that little mistake.” Rather, almost everyone said, “Oh no! Can you get the manuscript back?!?!?! Certainly there is something you can do!!!!!” I was really freaking out about it. I felt as though a few little margin notes from a professional proofreader would somehow undermine the five years of work I had done on this book.
Finally, I called my agent who wasn’t all that upset. “That’s too bad,” she said. “But we’re not going to worry about it.” I called my publicist. “How about you act like you never even noticed. It’s not a big deal.”
The difference in the reactions is that my agent and my publicist are professionals, not artists. They don’t have the same insecurities. They had distance and promised me that no one was going to say, “I reject this manuscript because the professional proofer asked about double-spacing on page 104!”.
The other day, at Greenlight Books, Tiphanie Yanique told us about a story that had been chosen as a prize-winner by Junot Diaz. She said he contacted her and said, “I am about to choose your story as a winner, but you really need to clean up these typos! This is ridiculous.” Everyone laughed, because everyone loves a happy ending. Tiphanie is a great writer. Of course Junot would see it despite some carelessness.
I guess the obvious lesson is that you don’t want to turn in a manuscript full of errors. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too obsessive about the details either. When I met with my editor for the first time, I sheepishly mentioned those margin notes, and she didn’t even know what I was talking about.