Friday, April 7, 2017

Catching Fleas

I’ve heard a story—perhaps you’ve heard it too, although it’s probably more an urban legend than reality—that the makers of Oriental carpets weave mistakes into their work, because only God is perfect. Frankly, this story always makes me laugh. Does anyone have to manufacture mistakes? I can make a dozen before breakfast without even trying, especially with a middle-aged memory working on my behalf. Which brings me to today’s topic: proofing.

As some of you know, I handle all the typesetting and proofing, as well as much of the copy editing, for Five Directions Press. I make my living the same way. And like most editors, I am a perfectionist. Show me a poster or an advance review copy, and my eye goes immediately to the extra space, the comma that should be a period or vice versa, the preposition that ends a sentence. I can’t help it. When I’m reading for pleasure, I wish I could turn off that inner voice commenting on faulty grammar or words that break across lines when they should not, never mind spelling and capitalization errors.

So it may come as something of a surprise that of all the parts that go into my job, proofing is the one I dislike most. Editing fiction is usually fun (if nonfiction not always—it depends on the topic), typesetting artistically satisfying, writing pure joy. But proofing demands intense focus on tiny, essentially arbitrary details. Worse, it’s so final. From proofing, a book goes to press, where any mistake that’s missed will remain visible forever. Small things, big impact—a classic prescription for stress.

Proofing is, of course, essential. Work riddled with errors brands an author or a press as unprofessional. But as an activity it is humbling, especially to a perfectionist. Proofing reveals the places where one’s eye skipped over the same mistake a dozen times before. In the novel I’m working on now, I read the file before typesetting, during typesetting, as a printed PDF after typesetting. I created an e-book and checked the formatting, although the error I have in mind would not show up in an e-book. Only when I went to investigate a problem the author identified—which turned out to be caused by her computer, but that’s another story—did I realize that I had assigned the wrong tag to one chapter opener, so that the pretty small caps that set off the first line everywhere else didn’t appear. This after going through the file about eighteen times to check specifically for typesetting errors: things like vertical justification (facing pages ending at the same place) and ladders (same word stacked two or three times at the left or right edge of a paragraph). I saw a thousand trees and missed the giant rock sitting smack where it should not be. That’s proofing.

One thing that helps, I find, is changing formats. Things I can’t see on screen or miss in printouts leap out at me in an e-book or the actual book. CreateSpace lets authors order bound proofs, which look exactly like the final output. I always insist on seeing the bound proof before I sign off on a book, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. In the past, I’ve found incorrect headers, photographs that printed too dark, tables of contents that didn’t match the chapter headings, authors’ names spelled incorrectly, and more—all this in articles and books that three to six people have read, sometimes more than once. We learn to read by recognizing patterns, to see words rather than individual letters. So faced with a page, the mind fills in the blanks, and nothing but kicking it out of its comfort zone lets the proofer see what’s really there or not there in place of what we expect to find. Then there are the errors no one could predict, like the cover that looked perfect on screen but developed a color mismatch or stray lines on export, visible only in the final output or when blown up to 600% in Photoshop.

And that is why I don’t worry about inserting errors in my work. Because hard as I try to root them out, they multiply like fleas, and there are always more to find. But as irritated as I become every time I finally catch sight of that giant rock, I’ve had to learn to chill. Because it’s true: only God is perfect.

Image: Clipart no. 109370633.

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