If I had followed my heart instead of someone else’s head when I was looking for my first job, it’s not beyond possibility that I would have found a niche in publishing. Not the small-scale variety I eventually started up myself at a time of life when many people are thinking about retiring rather than embarking on a new enterprise. I’m talking about the big kind, with glitzy offices somewhere in London, and books by famous authors piled high in the foyer.
The reason I didn’t – well, aside from rank cowardice – was that in my day (as we golden oldies are too fond of saying) careers advice for women mostly consisted of a steer towards teacher training and a dire warning about how fierce the competition was for the jobs we really wanted to do. These days, too late for it to be useful, I’m a little braver. Ten thousand applicants for every vacancy? OK – so why shouldn’t it be me who makes it to the finishing line? Other considerations aside, publishing is one of the few woman-friendly work environments.
But I did make it eventually, mostly through the streak of cussedness which my mother failed to quell; I set up my own company, ran it for seven years, and made a few useful contacts in the wider world of which I was a tiny fragment for those years. Consequently, these days I copy-edit and proofread a few books a year, which puts a little money in the bank and gives me a lot of pleasure.
In fact I’ve just finished the latest copy-edit and enjoyed every minute, especially since it meant I got a sneak preview of the next in a series I’d read from choice. But not every project is as effortless as that one, and sometimes I’m faced with a quandary. For instance, take the last proofreading project I was given. It was non-fiction, an account of a murder which in its time gave the tabloids weeks of headlines, written in a style which resembled fiction more than a factual record.
As a lot of people will know, proofreading is a whole different process from copy-editing. It’s correcting typos, ensuring paragraph indents are uniform, checking for minor glitches which have crept through the earlier processes. The book has already been typeset into its final format, and no one who is part of the production process will thank a freelance proofreader for recommending changes which upset that format. But it’s not always easy; sometimes, when I’m proofing, it’s hard to switch off my inner copy-editor.
A copy-editor is looking for timeline inconsistencies, needless repetitions, sentences which don’t quite say what the author meant, other sentences which don’t quite make sense, that kind of thing as well as the typos and minor glitches. If I see them, even at this late stage, I can’t un-see them.
So what’s a poor proofreader to do? The book has already been copy-edited by someone else – possibly by someone at the publishing house rather than a jobbing freelance like me. Do I ignore the obvious errors I spot, in case I offend that someone as well as making the typesetter tear her hair? Or do I flag up the issues, because if it were my publishing company I’d rather the book went out with as few mistakes as possible?
Answers on a postcard, please... Or as a comment if you prefer. I’d be really interested to know what anyone else thinks: author, editor or reader.