This is the first in a series of articles I’m going to be doing, providing a proofreader’s perspective on spelling, grammar, and manuscript preparation. The purpose will not be to lecture, but to inform and to help. I want to provide the answers I wish someone had given to me in school. Lots of us grew up under a teaching philosophy that held that we should pick up a lot of the niceties of spelling and grammar by osmosis. And the problem with that is that a) we didn’t, really; b) a lot of what we picked up was conflicting; and c) a lot of what we picked up has changed since we picked it up. All of which can lead to a lot of uncertainty and mistakes and anxiety.
I plan to do a bunch of short articles on common misunderstandings, problems, and puzzles from the perspective of someone who proofreads and copy-edits both fiction and academic writing for a living. And I’m going to start with a bit of demystifying of the ‘rules’ and what exactly it is that proofreaders and copy-editors do. My hope is that this will make your approach to writing ‘correctly’ a less anxious process.
But first, a bit about me, and why you should listen to anything I say in the first place.
About Rhube and her Profreaderly Pedigree
I’ve been a writer all my life and actively engaged with writing critique groups since I first came to university, thirteen years ago. This has made me both good at picking stuff up and sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of different writing styles, and a lot of different opinions about the ‘correct’ way to write. Prior to that, at A Level, I had been taken to task because the content of my essays was good, but my writing style was rubbish. My sentences were a paragraph long, my paragraphs could last a page, and I didn’t really understand about the purpose of introductions or conclusions. It was hurting my grades, so I sought help, something I think a lot of intelligent students don’t do. There’s a culture of believing that if you’re good enough, you’ll pick it up on your own, and whilst you can get part of the way there on your own, a little direction and a willingness to admit you might be wrong really helps.
Learning to write well was a process. A process that was informed by the twice-weekly Creative Writing Group I attended, feedback from essays, and self-reflection. Some of the stuff I ‘figured out’ along the way I have since learnt was wrong, but somewhere between being taken to task for my hopelessly confused grammar and style at A Level, and beginning my Masters, I became someone who routinely received feedback on how much easier to read my writing was than other students. Most attributed this to my undergrad having been a joint honours with English Literature. Which was, of course, complete bollocks.
There’s an odd assumption that being good at reading and analysing other people’s work necessarily involves being good at writing yourself. I think it goes back to the myth of learning-by-osmosis. Alas, just because you read a lot and understand a lot of what’s going on in fiction, doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand how to write. I learnt to write by going to critique groups a lot, writing a lot, revising a lot, critiquing other people, and looking things up when I wasn’t sure. But whatever the reason, people noticed that I wrote well, and when I started my PhD, in 2006, a lecturer friend of mine suggested my name to a friend of a friend of his as an English language proofreader for the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and I had my foot in the door.
After proofreading for EuJAP for a year, I was offered work on the journal edited by my department, Mind, which is published by Oxford University Press (OUP). I started proofreading reviews and occasional articles, and eventually I was offered copy-editing work, too. Of all the things that have taught me about the nuts and bolts of writing, my work for Mind has probably been the most significant. OUP is exacting, and our editor is meticulous. I’m very grateful to him, both for his extensive style sheets, and for his personal guidance. I learnt to look things up, to check and double-check; I learnt that many of the rules I had learnt were either wrong, or simply not Mind style. And whilst I learnt to be exacting about house style, I also learnt to respect authorial style.
Meanwhile, I had kept up with my own fiction writing and had come to know Lee Harris, senior editor at Angry Robot (AR), via the writing group I joined after the university one I had attended for years died a death. Lee knew of my work for Mind, and in December 2012 he asked if I’d like to do some work for Angry Robot. I applied and was accepted and completed proofreading my first novel in January 2013. A year later I have begun to support myself solely based off my proofreading and copy-editing work.
What I’ve Learnt Along the Way
I’ve learnt a lot. The biggest thing I have learnt is that there is no one truth about grammar, style, or even spelling. It’s not just national differences, like the US/UK spelling variations; the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries differ on some of their spellings. There are different conventions dependent on house style and even different mediums within the same house. An article may have different requirements to a review. Authorial styles vary, and how much leeway you give to an author varies dependent on house style, too.
This doesn’t mean that there are no rules, and it doesn’t mean that anything goes. It does mean that if you and your friend disagree about whether it should be ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, there is no objectively right answer. Some consider ‘learnt’, ‘dreamt’, ‘smelt’ etc. to be somewhat old fashioned, but it’s not obsolete, it’s still permissible. I like it, so I use it. If I submitted work to one publisher, they might let me go with that; if I submitted it to another, they might change ‘learnt’ to ‘learned’. The important point is that no one is going to turn down your work simply because you used a different spelling convention to the house style. That’s what they employ people like me for: to make your writing fit their style.
You should, of course, read any guidelines provided by the publisher you want to submit to. But those guidelines are highly unlikely to get down to the nitty-gritty of spelling conventions. They might have a blanket statement to the effect of ‘We use UK spellings’, but that’s rare. Two of the publishers I have worked for have respected authorial choice concerning US/UK/Canadian etc. spellings. OUP, unsurprisingly, insists on using the spellings as indicated in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But even there, no article is rejected for using US spellings; we just change all the spellings by force at the copy-editing stage.
Of course, you want to look professional. If you chop and change between different spelling and grammar conventions enough, your writing will look sloppy, and that might affect the acceptance of your piece. The key is to be consistent. Use the Oxford (serial) comma, or don’t. Spell it ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, and stick to your choice. It’ll make you look more professional, and it’ll be easier on your proofreader – if she has to make changes, then it’s easier for her to change all of x-spellings to y-spellings, as opposed to keeping track of your varied options and making a call about which you use more.
Not everything is just a convention. Well, all spelling and grammar are just conventions in the strictest sense, but some things are widely agreed to be wrong in professional writing. It is ‘a lot’, and not ‘alot’. When in doubt, look it up. There are some good texts you can buy that have status and reliability. My two favourites are:
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first edited by H W Fowler, third edition edited by R W Burchfield
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, edited and compiled by R M Ritter
These things get updated periodically, so make sure you have the most recent edition.
There’s also a wealth of advice online (like this series – hi!) but a lot of it is people asserting or debating their personal favourites or ‘feelings’, so be careful. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips are a great, reliable, and clear resource.
So that’s the main lesson to take away from this, our inaugural session: don’t worry too much, just be consistent and, when in doubt, look it up!
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