Composition: Part Two


Alicia Crane WilliamsWhat can I say about a task that falls below cleaning toilets on my list of favorite things to do? However, mastering the discipline of proofreading is imperative. Your audience is counting on you to get it right, no excuses. It is also a Catch-22 – no matter how diligently you proofread, you will miss something and someone will immediately point that out to you as soon as it is published! “Paranoia is good” when it comes to proofreading.

Proofreading is not a one-time event. It is, from the beginning of your work, constant, relentless, incessant, unceasing, inexorable, and thankless (nobody notices what you did proofread successfully, only what you didn’t). If you are a fan of TV shows like NCIS, pretend you are Ducky performing an autopsy!

Hot proofs, cold proofs, warmed over proofs, and independent proofs

Hot proofs are done as you compose and type. Speed records are neither required nor encouraged, so stop frequently and read what you have written, particularly dates and numbers.

Cold proofs are done after the material has “cooled” off a day or more. At the time we type our mind knows what we were supposed to type and will insist that we did type it correctly, despite what our eyes are trying to tell us. By the way, if you type “saw” instead of “was,” it is because you were reading backwards. Your eyes got ahead of your fingers and in the process of getting back in sync, they read the letters from right to left, but your brain will swear on a stack of Bibles that “was” was what you typed! The further away from actual typing, the less your mind remembers.

Warmed over proofs are doing the above more than once because you have found a discrepancy and need to compare two or more sources, or in reading your text you find something that doesn’t look right, or you think you missed something, or paranoia is driving you to find the bug before somebody else does.

Independent proofs are done when you read the text without comparing it to a source. Read as if you are seeing it for the first time. Read it out loud. Are the sentences complete? Do all quotes have a beginning quote mark and an ending quote mark (my personal Achilles heel)? Does the text skip around from one topic to another? Is there a logical order? Is the chronology correct (e.g., do you have them dying before they were born)? Children in right birth order? Does it make sense? Now, read it backwards.

If you have a hard time starting or keeping up with your proofreading, do what I often do. Set the timer for 5 minutes and proof, then do 5 minutes of toilet cleaning – it gives perspective. Five minutes at a time of solid proofreading adds up if you have the fortitude to keep at it.

Continued here.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

20 thoughts on “Composition: Part Two

  1. Thank you, Alicia, for your proofreading perspective!
    I absolutely love to proofread – always have, maybe always will…
    Even had it for a job once upon a time.
    My trick is that while I am reading, I am in that time and place.
    If something isn’t spelled right, or details don’t match, it will stand out.
    An hour can go by in a flash!

  2. Hello Alicia, I always learn from your posts! Your cute line “Now read it backwards” reminds me of my own technique to make sure I have transcribed a number sequence correctly (especially a lengthy one). Reading the numerals backwards to myself after I’ve typed or written them forwards helps my brain be sure I’ve gotten them right.

    As for proofreading text, it is a task I actually enjoy. Perhaps too much! I have tendency to begin to overhaul rather than just oversee. (Hmmm, I can write this better!) So rather than just checking names and numbers, like I should, I spend too much time reworking text, and can avoid getting much of the proofreading itself done. (Or cleaning toilets, for that matter.) Here’s to getting both onerous tasks done!

    1. Candy, yes, proofreading and editing are intertwined and one always leads to the other. The trick is deciding when enough is enough!

  3. Alicia, this is invaluable advice. The “spell-checker” is only the crudest first step, since a mistyped word can so often be a correctly spelt wrong word. I can’t count the number of times I have made more-or-less obvious mistakes in a draft I thought was *done*. Read it again!!

    1. Jade, yes, and with a large genealogy the spell checker usually “shorts” out with all the names anyway.

    1. Excellent suggestion if you can increase the font without throwing off the formatting. Even a little increase helps.

  4. Oy! Proofreading! So far, I’ve been fortunate, serving as a church music director. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed something like “Nineteenth Sinday in Ordinary Time,” instead of Sunday, u and i being adjacent on the keyboard! Have always caught that one, so far, thanks to spell check. On the other hand, I would advise studiously avoiding spell check for the Latin text of Panis angelicus! Oh dear! Seriously, I’m my own worst proofreader — I feel much more comfortable if someone else proofs my text. That extra set of eyeballs can really help!

    1. Steven, yes, definitely. If you have someone who can proofread for/with you, the better. It’s just that with genealogies, most authors are working alone and/or the genealogical format confuses regular proof readers. I once had a proofreader hired for one of my clients’ books who did not understand “double dating” and changed things like “1645/6” to “1645 to 1646”!

      1. I know I’m late getting to this, but it’s an interesting topic. Right now, my spell check’s not working at all, so it reminds me how dependent we get on it. Your comment on “double dating” reminds me of a secretary in an office I worked in decades ago who was proofreading a typed document on “lake eutrophication.” She didn’t know the word, and instead of asking, she retyped an entire BOOK with “beautification” instead. When it went back to the author, who was proofreading his own stuff, he of course caught it right away. She had to type the whole thing over, which took weeks. At least with “replace all” on our computers, it would be easy to do. They were kind people, and instead of firing her, she got a little education in the subject matter of the complex work she was dealing with.

  5. Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of proofreading, not just spellchecking, should consider the difference between “I would now like to leave” and “I would not like to leave.”

  6. In addition to proofreading (many times) the text and footnotes, I’ve found 2 other steps are needed.
    Headings should be re-read separately. They just get skimmed over when going from one text paragraph to the next. Going through, reading only the headings, has uncovered blaring 14pt errors!
    Look at the layout without the words. Especially if the document has not been pre-formatted. Do lists have the different bullet points? Is spacing consistent (a little more space above headings than below, table alignment…)? The easiest way to foil a discordant layout is to actually lay out the printed pages to see them as a whole. Another is to reduce the page size in Word (or other) to 50% or 25%. This will give the ‘feel’ of the document and the text will not get in the way!

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