Tips from professional proofreaders

December 15, 2014

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of Copyediting.com, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From: http://50watts.com/Fantastic-Plangent

 

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Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.


The slangy business of bird-dogging

August 22, 2013

Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a notorious film that effectively brought down the United Artists (UA) studio.

Steven Bach - Final Cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - book coverRecalling an argument he had with fellow producer David Field about work politics, Bach uses the term bird-dog in a way that appears to be slang and primarily American.

I’d come across bird-dog before, probably in a novel, in the sense steal (or try to steal) another person’s date, but here I learned of its analogous use in business – steal (or try to steal) another person’s project:

“How about the time I called Freddy Raphael—“

“In France,” he interrupted quietly.

“He lives in France. Where else was I supposed to call him?”

“You called him about my project.”

“I called him about UA’s project, to say I was glad we had made the deal, welcome aboard, be brilliant. I’ve known Freddy for years, and I was glad he was working for us, and I wanted to say so.”

“You were bird-dogging my project,” he said quietly. “I brought that project into the company, and I didn’t think you should have called him without my permission. The minute you got off the phone with Freddy, he called me in California because he thought you were bird-dogging, too.”

“And Alan Pakula is sitting upstairs with a pack of lousy preview cards thinking that we’re bird-dogging Mike Medavoy’s project. Is everybody nuts around here or what?” I downed the rest of my brandy and signalled for a refill. David bit his tongue and glared behind me at the wall.

Dictionaries that include bird-dog, such as the OED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, indicate other senses dating from the 1930s or 40s that come from the actions of the eponymous hunting animal: the verb has both transitive and intransitive senses having to do with following or closely watching a subject of interest, or scouting (e.g., for talent).

Another sense is that of dogged pursuit, as in bird-dogging someone for information or answers. There’s also the aforementioned sense: of stealing (or trying to steal) someone else’s date. This, I would guess, led to the business-related meaning we see in Bach’s book. Despite my unfamiliarity with the usage, I was able to infer its meaning from the context.

Just as well: aside from its standard meanings, bird dog has an array of (contradictory) slang ones. Jonathon Green includes seven noun and eight verb senses in Chambers Slang Dictionary, including (n.) receiver of stolen goods; one who lures victims into positions of vulnerability; an assistant, esp. in police or journalism; and (v.) to eavesdrop; to pimp for, to solicit for another person; to watch over, to protect.


Twitter tips for business writing

February 13, 2013

I’ve a new article up at Emphasis Training, a writing consultancy based in Brighton, UK. It’s about Twitter – specifically, it offers tips on how to reduce character count in tweets without sacrificing intelligibility or professionalism. (Twitter allows just 140 characters per message.)

The article looks at editing, abbreviation, punctuation, symbol use, and other areas. It’s aimed primarily at business-writing professionals but may also be of some general interest, and there’s a challenge at the end (with a small prize) for people who use the service.

Though I mention Twitter regularly here, I haven’t written about it much. So if you’ve any general thoughts on it – or tips along the same lines as my article – I’d love to hear them.

Some people have separate accounts for shop talk and personal use, but that wouldn’t suit me: too much blending has occurred! I tweet mostly about language, books, writing and editing, but I make room too for chat and miscellany. No breakfast photos, though.

Update:

Thanks to all who read the article, left comments, or took part in the challenge. Emphasis now have a follow-up article assessing the submissions and announcing a winner.

 


A short note on long words

June 7, 2012

A few weeks ago I was approached by Emphasis, a UK-based business-writing training company, to write something for their website. The article was published today, so I thought I’d mention it here for anyone who cares to read it.

It’s called “Does word length matter?” (not my title, but I like it) and the article is about the use of long words, short words, plain words and fancy words, right words and wrong words, half-known words and inkhorn words.

In short: it’s about words, and how to pick the best ones when writing for business – though it may be of broader use and appeal than that. There’s no commenting facility after the article, but any thoughts you might have are welcome here, as always.


Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

January 12, 2012

We’ve been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, this time Waterstones, has officially dropped the apostrophe from its name, sparking outrage from self-anointed protectors of the language.

Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said: (PDF)

Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

This seems entirely reasonable to me. The fact that it’s a bookseller, of course, compounds the agony for the is-nothing-sacred crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news websites.

John Richards, of the Apostrophe Protection Society, is predictably unhappy with Waterstones: “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.” If the quote is accurate, his use of slapdash is itself slapdash: the word means hasty or careless, and I’m quite sure Waterstones are being anything but.

Martin MacConnol, in a sensible post about the furore, points out that Waterstones’ name “is a brand mark, and thus doesn’t follow the normal rules of grammar”. David Marsh at the Guardian says it’s “no catastrophe”. But he recommends carrying a felt-tip pen and Tipp-Ex to tackle public lapses in punctuation, à la Lynne Truss, which sounds like a recipe for hypercorrection and Pedantry Gone Wild.

One blogger, whose identity I’ll spare, lamented the news thus:

So now you know: apostrophes that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in genitive itsas if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine Woodward studied in her interesting dissertation “The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation”.

My favourite reaction was from Waterstones of Oxford Street, whose Twitter account posted the photo below (cropped; source unknown), followed by a series of faux-poignant tweets about the apostrophe’s last day at work with the company. “A victim of rebranding”, indeed.

By the standards of common punctuation marks, the apostrophe has had a short existence bedevilled by instability and inconsistency. As Christina Cavella and Robin Kernodle’s paper “How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe” (PDF) shows, there has always been disagreement and uncertainty about how best to use it.

So no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few committed sticklers, to be relived next time a big brand or institution puts pragmatism over fastidious punctuation. Best get used to it.

Updates:

Two excellent posts on Waterstones and the use and history of the apostrophe: Michael Rosen explores the politics of punctuation; and David Crystal notes that English writing did fine for almost a millennium without the mark.

John E. McIntyre weighs in at You Don’t Say: apostrophe usage is “a mess and a muddle”, he writes, and resolving it all is “a doomed venture”. So we shouldn’t fret over brands and signs and menus but instead focus on our own writing. He concludes with a fine line — “You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden” — that echoes an analogy by C. S. Lewis I wrote about recently.

In my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail‘s apocalyptic panic by recruiting no less a barbarian than Shakespeare.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum rejects the argument that apostrophes are needed to avoid ambiguity. He finds it sad and irritating that people

[try] to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about “incorrectness” and “ambiguity” that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all.


A known unknown in the past future of publishing

February 7, 2011

In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”

Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.

After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.

Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.

At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:

What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.

I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…

Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.