How I Write: Proofreading

I previously discussed briefly how structuring the narrative works. Editing is a creative process, so I will be back to it next time. But recently I looked at the problem of proofreading, and this is something that has long intruiged me, especially since I can compare results in at least two languages.

As I stated elsewhere, there is nothing pedantic in my attention to grammar. Although I do occasionally make typos and miss commas, my Russian texts are usually grammatically impeccable, and it comes naturally. On the one hand, I have always read a lot; on the other hand, I know the Russian grammar rules well. When I put a comma somewhere in the sentence, it is both because I know the rule and because I can give an example of the placement in other texts.

With English, I think I can safely say that the articles no longer freak me out. To some extent, the understanding of how to use the English articles was facilitated by my studying of French. At the same time, back in 2003 I found a website that stated that “even native English speakers don’t use articles correctly all the time“. This statement helped me to relax and to start using articles better.

The very first fairy tale I composed was written in a sketchbook; although it was my first, it comprised about 10 pages, written mainly in prose, with a couple of poetic intermezzi. It’s long been lost, and I cannot tell you how good the grammar was. I suspect, though, it wasn’t good at all: I was 6 years old. Just two years later I wrote another fairy tale, this time entirely in prose, and it was co-authored with a classmate over the phone. The story was basically Andersen’s Mermaid, but with the happy ending. When I found it 7 years later, I was so mortified to see how bad the grammar was that I threw it away.

As you can deduce, I’m not that picky because I’m aware of my own faults. But these days we all too often come across the errors that make the author look truly dumb. This post by CopyBlogger dates back to March 2007 – Five Grammatical Errors that Make You Look Dumb. It’s received over 400 comments, and still counting. And yet the web is covered by the thick net of “you’re feedback”, “we may loose”, “this is effecting”… and I shiver each time I come across non-distinguishing between “they’re”, “there”, and “their”.

So, proofreading – how do I do it? You may be doing this differently, but here’re my bullet points.

1. Whether I write in Russian or in English, I don’t look at the keyboard. I was growing up in 1980-90s, so I even got to use the typewriter. Since 1997 I’ve been typing on the computer’s, and then laptop’s, keyboard. Regardless of what kind of “qwerty” I used, I always liked to look at what I was writing. To an extent, this feeds creativity: I am no longer just “hearing” a certain word in my head, I also see it on the paper or screen, and I may note something about it that can be further developed. But in terms of proofreading this saves me a lot of time because I often correct a typo or error as soon as it appeared. And I don’t use Russian stickers on my English keyboard.

How to master this: if you want to reduce the amount of time you spend proofreading, consider learning to type “in blind”. Open up a Word document, type there each key, row by row, CTRL functions including, and start memorising. There is probably a small text, maybe a tongue twister, that you know by heart and can use for training. In the same Word document, start typing this text. At first you will inevitably be looking for a key; but little by little you will begin to follow the keys automatically. When this is easy enough, start retyping short clippings from the newspapers, and eventually begin to type your own texts and emails, looking at the screen and not on the keyboard. Let me know how much your proofreading time has reduced. 🙂

2. Take your time. Don’t start proofreading immediately as you finished writing. Give it a day or two or even longer. If you don’t have much time, go make yourself a brew; if there still isn’t enough time, get up, have a stretch, and maybe have a quick walk around the room. When we write, we immerse in the process; occasionally this even results in minor “injuries” like the ache in your wrist or stiff neck (count those as the sacrifices for art’s sake). But to be able to proofread, we need to take ourselves out of this highly charged creative mood, and immerse in the more sober mood, to enable ourselves to be critical about our own work. So, take your time, take your mind off the text for a minute (or longer, if you can afford so), and come back to it as if…

3. …this is not your text. I absolutely believe that the writer must be their own most rigorous critic. However, many writers tend to like their own texts a lot. I like mine, too, but delighting in good grammar usually comes as an important part of this experience. How do you switch your thinking from writing (creative) to criticising (destructive to some extent)? This is precisely why the previous point was about taking one’s time. To quote O’Henry, a good burglar who respects his art always takes his time before taking anything else. When I start editing and proofreading my text, I am never in the same frame of mind as I was while writing it. The text may be written on my computer, in my file; it may be written by my hand. But because my emotional and rational relations to the text have changed, this means that I changed, too. I no longer relate to the text in the same way as when I was writing it, and, as a consequence, I don’t proofread my text. I’m no longer emotionally attached to myself as a writer, and instead I read the text as if it was written by somebody else. A comma in the wrong place? Of course, I shall correct it. An odd fact that raises my doubts? I’ll check it, no problem.

4. Read aloud. A Russian author Isaac Babel was known for writing fairly short sentences. When asked to explain, he said: “I suffered from asthma, and writing long sentences meant that I was out of breath by the middle of a phrase, when reading aloud“. I don’t suffer from asthma, and back in the day I was quite fond of periodic speech, those endless phrases popularised by Leo Tolstoy in Russia and the Modernist writers elsewhere. Two things made me reconsider this devotion. For one, a lot of Russian journalists began to write in this style, and then it spilt over to the popular cirlces, and everyone began to compose those long-winded sentences, with varying grammatical success. And secondly, I started reading my own texts aloud, especially prose. Eventually I got tired of following my own long thoughts, and by the same token came to understand that readers were probably having exactly the same problem.

Reading aloud will generally help you to notice if your sentences are too long; if they’re too cumbersome; if they’re difficult to follow and to understand. When you read aloud, again make every effort to detach yourself from your text. Imagine yourself as a reader who knows next to nothing about the writer and who will read this text on the train. Can they follow the text?

Reading aloud also helps to weed out all the grammatical imperfections you would otherwise not notice. When we speak we don’t use punctuation, but we “mean” it. When you make a pause during the speech, you probably mean a comma, or semicolon, or colon, or dash. To go from one sentence to another we use a full stop. You may skip some of these while writing, but when you read aloud you’re likely to notice these errors.

Lastly, reading aloud allows you to make your text a music to your readers’ ears – or to hear that it’s not quite musical yet. I cannot give advice on how to train yourself to do this because I have a good ear for music in general, so hearing that the text doesn’t sound right comes naturally to me. Still, the key point is listening to what you read. You often notice that two words form a strangely sounding combination; or that it is hard to make sense of what you’re written. I bet if you do this regularly, you will stop composing sentences like the one below (quoted from Brian Clark’s post):

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.

I am sure you would hear that this doesn’t sound right.

5. Be attentive – but don’t be too hard on yourself. Back to the beginning of the post: we are not perfect, neither is our grammar. If we were perfect, grammar included, this would most probably mean that something isn’t quite right. That we probably keep ourselves too well in check, and that means in turn that we are afraid of not being as good as we think we are. Alas, the culture of being too opinionated and too critical influences the fact that, instead of constructive feedback on someone’s work, we end up labelling the erring author a “joke”, a “loser”, an “illiterate”, etc. I suspect if you’re influenced by this culture you may be labelling yourself precisely the same when you come across an odd error in your text during proofreading.

I’ll tell you what I do on such occasions, and you see if you can do this for yourself. Usually my errors bemuse me. There is at least one instance with reading a Russian poem aloud that made me look for a different word to describe the sound the dove makes: because the noun and the verb I used, pronounced together, merged to make funny sounding nonsense. If I do find a really stupid mistake, I accept it as a fact and make a note of it, so that I don’t run into the same error next time. But what really makes my day after I finished proofreading is that all those errors and typos remained unknown to the critic who would’ve loved to call me “illiterate”, to avoid paying attention to whatever else I wanted to say.

If you cannot motivate yourself to proofread, use this latter point as the stimulus. Chances are, you may discover that your grammar isn’t that bad at all, and this in turn will raise your confidence significantly. And go to the beginning of the post and read again about how I stopped worrying and began to love the English articles. Realising that I am no worse than those who must be perfect helped a lot.


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