HOMER SIMPSON AND THE ART OF PROOFREADING Daerest Marge, Only inetgenillt poelpe can raed this! Mrage, you are so vrey srmat so I konw taht you undretsnad waht I am wtiirng! The hmuan mind, aoccrdnig to a rseerach taem at Cmarbigde Uinervtsiy, dosne’t crae waht oedrr the ltteers in a wrod are in! The only iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be in the poeprr plceas. The rset cloud be slleped like our sutipd boy Brat sellps (a taotl mses) and you can still raed it.Tihs is bceusae the haumn mnid does not raed ervey lteter by itself but the etirne word as a wolhe!Phennomeal! Lvoe, HmoerPS: Pelsae don’t tlel Ned Flnadres, he mghit tinhk trehe’s smethoing wonrg wtih God.
For my monthly critique group I sent Linda and Kate a 162 page non-fiction manuscript, Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow: A Year-Long Guide to Publishing Success. As usual they examined every nook and cranny of the text with the precision of an anal-retentive forensics team. This was the first time Kate had seen it and it was the third time (under three different titles) that Linda had seen it. My older brother and oldest daughter had read the manuscript in earlier incarnations and had provided spelling, punctuation, and textual feedback. I’d since incorporated those changes and had confidence that I’d sent my compatriots a clean-bordering-on-sanitary text.
“Page 13,” said Linda before her tea had cooled to sipping temperature, “you’ve quoted Homer Simpson and misspelled D’oh!”
D’oh! has been selected, recently, for inclusion in The Oxford English Dictionary and means, well, D’oh!
Only I had spelled it: Doh!
I felt I was-up-a-critique-without-a-paddle.
Despite my seven-part-proofreading-routine I’d mis-quoted Homer and made a host of other faux pas: grammatical sins of commission and omission. It’s nearly impossible to get a manuscript operating-theater-clean but following these steps will keep you out of trouble with most editors.
1) PRINT OUT A HARD COPY TO PROOFREAD.
You can write on it. Scratch words out, compose margin notes. Erase, amend, and if need be, incinerate an offending manuscript. Not only is it difficult to compare margins and distinguish mis-used homonyms (spell check won’t underline: Deer Mom, I’m baroque please send me a Czech four fifty dolors…) but I suspect that we also laze a little mentally while proofing on a computer because it’s so easy to change things.
2) READ IT AT A DIFFERENT LOCATION.
Get out of your house (the backyard will do) and read with a fresh perspective in a re-freshed environment. You’ll be amazed at the bonehead mistakes that will jump out at you.
3) READ IT ALOUD.
First, and most importantly…this…will…slow…you…down. Secondly, reading aloud is the acid test for dialog. A knock-down-drag-out spousal spat you thought sounded like Mamet sometimes sounds like a 2-For-1 Yoplait coupon when actually enunciated.
4) READ SPECIFICALLY.
Especially if it is a screenplay or a novel make several passes through the script. Like an orthodontist straightening teeth (while emptying your wallet) it takes more than one attempt and takes time. The proofreads must be methodical and can’t be hurried. Our minds have an amazing capacity to fill-in missing words and correct spelling (“Daerest Marge…”) in order to glean the meaning from the written word. Take one trip through your novel and read just the dialog, paying particular attention to proper positioning of quotation marks and all the he said, she saids. Make another trip through checking tabs, margins, indents, pagination, and headers & footers. Check for widows, orphans, and proper paragraph spacing. Then read the narratives. Triple-check tables of contents and other graphs and footnotes.
5) USE A STYLE SHEET.
If you are writing for a magazine (even if it’s a query letter asking for an assignment) download and printout their latest style sheet. If there are two queries, all else being equal, on an editor’s desk the query following the magazine’s style sheet will get the nod. It’s sooo simple. The style sheet tells you whether “1st” or “first” is preferred; “Staff Sergeant” or “SSGT”; accepted abbreviations: “etc, ibid, ASAP” and whether you need to e-query or snail mail with an SASE.
If you are writing fiction just be consistent with all abbreviations and how you use cardinal and ordinal numbers.
6) READ BACKWARDS.
Get a #2 pencil and using the eraser end start at the end of your manuscript and, proceeding backwards, touch each word and look at it. Misspellings will jump out at you because you’ve temporarily short-circuited the Syntax Monster that provides mental White-Out while you’re reading. The bad news is you need to be aware of Booby Trap Words. There, their, they’re can be spelled properly but used out of context. They’re, Their There are other Booby Trap combinations; most nettlesome and so often misused are its and it’s. It’s is the contraction for It is. Its, though lacking an apostrophe, is the possessive.
It’s It is an ice cream sandwich: vanilla, mocha, or mint chip.
The word Its’, despite the fact it shows up fairly regularly in print, doesn’t exist. For more Booby Trap Words check out The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White.
7) UTILIZE CRITIQUE GROUPS.
If you can’t find one; start one. Post an index card at the local bookstore or a message on-line. Two simple rules: The writing is really secondary; do you enjoy the company and respect the opinion of (not the same as agreeing with) the people in the group?
If you don’t the experience will suck and your creativity will suffer.
Nuns shouldn’t date bikers (actually, now that I think of it, nuns shouldn’t date anybody, but you know what I mean) and vice-versa. A critique group is not a competition. Kate, Linda and myself are all together in the same leaky rowboat: fending for our lives. Sometimes I row and they bail. Sometimes they row and bail and I cry. But we’re all in it for the long haul. Respect the work that you critique, be honest and when in doubt remember Robert Brault’s saying: “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am what is true.”
Rule Two: Give more than you get. The fact that grammar and spelling and proofreading aren’t my forte prompted me to write this article. I make a lot of piddling (and glaring) errors that the group catches and I try to repay them with my strong suits: plotting, dialog, character development and, well, catering.
Today we had twice-baked potatoes and a fennel, goat cheese and leek frittata.
The girls brought pastry and copies of Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow that were winnowed and weeded. Proofread and dog-eared.Thank you._______________________________________________________________________________ SIDEBAR 1IT’S AGAINST YOUR “F-ING” NATURE
Count each occurrence of the letter F in the following:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
How many did you find?
There are six. Go find them, they ARE there.
Go, don’t cheat.
Okay, your conscious mind doesn’t register the word “of”. On the first try finding three f’s is normal, four is rare, six is genius.
10 Days From: Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow: A Year-Long Program for Publishing Success DAY 18QUOTE OF THE DAY: Most people die with their music still locked up inside them. —Benjamin DisraeliDAILY TIP:What can you write today that would unlock your music? DAY 19QUOTE OF THE DAY:Rejection slips are living proof that I send my work forth, that I am being read, that I am casting my lot. They help define me to my writing self. —Shelly LowenkopfDAILY TIP:Make a habit of sharing your rejection slips with your critique group. The writer in the group who collects the most rejection slips is most likely also the writer who publishes most often. DAY 20QUOTE OF THE DAY:Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? —Harry Warner, 1927DAILY TIP:What belief or thought is holding you back? DAY 21QUOTE OF THE DAY: Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. —Colette DAILY TIP: Prioritize your writing goals. First write them down. Then assign them values: one, two, or three. The most important are given a one; so-so are given a two; back burner items are given a three. DAY 22QUOTE OF THE DAY:TODAY—The word carved into a stone on John Ruskin’s deskDAILY TIP:Take all the writing goals, from yesterday, that you assigned a value of two and make them either a one or a three. Make them MUST DO or CAN WAIT. This will focus your priorities. DAY 23QUOTE OF THE DAY: Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking. —GoetheDAILY TIP:Go for a walk today and see the bark on a tree, the blemish on a neighbor’s face, the nuance of color in a cat’s eye. Return home and write one descriptive paragraph about what you saw. DAY 24QUOTE OF THE DAY: If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter. —Blaise Pascal DAILY TIP:Take yesterday’s descriptive paragraph and make it exactly half as long but just as descriptive. DAY 25QUOTE OF THE DAY:Last winter I forced myself through his Tale of Two Cities. It was a sheer dead pull from start to finish. It all seemed so insincere, such a transparent make-believe, a mere piece of acting. —John Burroughs on Charles DickensDAILY TIP:Never give up. DAY 26QUOTE OF THE DAY:No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. —Charles DickensDAILY TIP:Who can you help with your writing today? If you’ve been swindled at an auto shop write the Better Business Bureau so it doesn’t happen to someone else. Write a Thank You note to a shop or restaurant where you enjoyed great service or a meal. Write 100-300 words with the specific intention of making someone feel good. DAY 27QUOTE OF THE DAY: Forever is composed of nows.. —Emily DickinsonDAILY TIP:Write down all the reasons you have to NOT write today. Are you certain you can’t postpone one or two items and squeeze in time to write 1500 words? DAY 28QUOTE OF THE DAY:D’oh! —Homer Simpson DAILY TIP:Errors in style and judgment will happen. Unlike Homer, writers need to learn from their mistakes.
I’m going to go write: WRITERS NEED TO LEARN FROM THEIR MISTAKES
on the blackboard 100 times.
Rob’s Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow: A Year-Long Program for Publishing Success is available at www.lulu.com. He’s been published 200+ times in: Playboy, Chicken Soup for the Single Soul ,Inside Sports, American Brewer, Vintage Voices, Woman’s World, SCR(i)PT, Boy’s Life, Heartland USA, Fine Gardening, California Wild, Men’s Health, Ladies Circle and other magazines.