Why Proofreading Matters — Or, I’m Officially a Curmudgeon

imgresI read a lot of advance readers’ copies (ARCs). They all contain some version of this disclaimer:

Uncorrected proof: Please do not quote without comparison with finished book.

I get distracted when I’m absorbed in an ARC and I encounter a spelling or grammatical error. But I don’t begrudge anyone, because I was warned. However, when I read a finished book I don’t expect to see errors. Recently, I’ve been finding a lot of mistakes in published books.  Yesterday, at Printers Row Lit Fest, I picked up a copy of Megan Stielstra’s fantastic essay collection, Once I Was Cool.  I’d seen a great review of the book in the Chicago Tribune and was eager to read it. I started the book last night and finished it this morning, and I wholeheartedly agree with Beth Kephardt’s review — it is definitely “edgy, funny, surprising, a ricochet of wow”. (I could have done without the profanity, but maybe that’s because I’m not, nor have I ever been, “cool”.)

Here’s one way I know Once I Was Cool is an amazing book: I couldn’t stop reading it even though it was full of spelling errors. “Relator” for “realtor” (more than once); “assessements”; “bounncing” ; “MacBeth”. Every time I hit an error, my reading flow was disrupted. I know that Stielstra knows how to spell those words, and I know she knows grammar. Her mother, a teacher, instilled in her a deep love of reading and also taught her the importance of proper grammar:

Grammar was an important thing in our family. While my friend Becky and I were welcome to ride our bikes to the library, me and Becky most certainly could not.

Spelling and grammar are important to me, too. Am I an uptight fussbudget? Is it wrong that I was annoyed when the people in charge of my children’s education sent home a flyer signed “All the middle school teacher’s”? Or that I feel the urge to correct the chalkboard outside a deli that offers “Fresh sandwichs $6.99”?

Our store is so quaint that we still regularly mail a newsletter to our customers, with book recommendations and upcoming events. Once, someone anonymously sent the newsletter back to us with an error circled in red ink (I think the error was a misplaced comma), with an admonishment: “You need to proofread!” Not very nice, but it certainly made us more vigilant about proofreading.

Once I Was Cool was published by a small press, Curbside Splendor.  I’m sure they operate on a shoestring, and I’m willing to give them some leeway. Maybe I’ll volunteer to proofread for them. I once had a job in pharmaceutical marketing and I was required to proofread package inserts for prescription drugs. I was told that if we published an ad with an error in the package insert section, we could be sued and our whole team would probably be fired. (It turned out that our whole team did get fired, but not because of a spelling error.)

Of course, anyone, even a persnickety person like me, can make an embarrassing mistake. Recently, I updated the store’s website with the news that a particular “pubic” library would be hosting an author event. I received a very polite email, with a signature, suggesting that I might want to correct this . . .  immediately.

Anyone, including the overworked and underpaid people at Curbside Splendor Press, can make typographical errors. Is it best to point these out gently, or ignore them? I vote for letting people know about their mistakes, in the kindest way possible. In one of my favorite essays, simply called “Nice”, Megan Stielstra says:

If someone cuts you off in traffic, let it go, it doesn’t matter in the grand, glowing scheme of you and me and all of us breathing a little easier. Above all else, when you get home tonight, write these words on a Post-it note: BE KIND, FOR EVERYONE IS FIGHTING A HARD BATTLE.*
Stick that Post-it to your bathroom mirror and read it every morning, before you leave the house:
BE KIND.
BE KIND.
BE KIND.
*This has been attributed to Plat, Philo of Alexandria, and John Watson aka Ian MacLaren. My thanks to all those guys.

I’m a middle-aged suburbanite and probably not Stielstra’s intended reader, but I found a lot of wisdom and humor in her essays. Stielstra frequently appears at live storytelling events in Chicago. I’d love to see her perform — I wouldn’t have to worry about being distracted by spelling errors!

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