Sweating the small stuff

Sweating the Small Stuff as a Proofreader

The phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff” was coined by Richard Carlson, an American author, psychologist, and motivational speaker. His book bearing the same title, was essentially about putting the trivialities of life in perspective and not taking them too seriously. Which is great advice for life in general . . . except if you are a proofreader, because well, that’s when you DO need to sweat the small stuff. And that’s because this is the job of a proofreader.

how to become a proofreader

So, What’s the Small Stuff?

The proofreader analyses the details and subtleties of grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and formatting. The refinements a proofreader makes to the text are what makes it more readable, coherent, and ultimately pleasing. The proofreader is last in line in the publishing process and that’s a pretty huge responsibility – everyone relies on the proofreader to ensure the text is error free.

Daunting? Yes, but there is immense satisfaction in sweating the small stuff if you take pleasure in perfection, are detail-oriented, and really care about the reader’s experience.

The Small Stuff is Insidious

Consider this: you’ve reached the end of a page-turning thriller, the paragraph you’re reading is revealing all – and then, there’s a spelling mistake, confusing syntax, or bad prose. Your attention to what you’re reading is broken immediately. The pace slows down because you’ve been interrupted and your attention is drawn away from the story, even if it’s for a couple of seconds. It’s jarring, annoying, and it can even make you question the worth of the book.

If you go back a couple of steps in the book publishing process, think about how a literary agent or publisher evaluates a manuscript. They don’t expect it to be free of errors, but they do expect a high level of writing, especially when the average literary agent gets between 5 000 and 20 000 submissions a year. A great plot and a fascinating cast of characters diminish very quickly if the manuscript is riddled with basic mistakes.

There’s no doubt that mistakes undermine what has been written and the reader’s faith in the writer, and if there are too many mistakes (albeit subtle ones), there is the possibility that the reader will abandon the book completely. Readers of fiction are probably more forgiving, but when it comes to non-fiction or academic writing there’s not a lot of leeway for errors – and perhaps none at all.

A typo (short for typographical error) is usually a technical mistake made while typing. The author is human after all. But in this arena, mistakes weaken credibility because the reader expects an even higher standard of writing. The reader also does not want to waste time thinking about what the author is trying to say – not to mention the fact that the readers of academic work have a pretty high standard of language themselves and are consequently far less tolerant or sympathetic to careless errors.

The Small Stuff Makes a BIG Impact

Not paying proper attention to the small stuff in business documents can cause all sorts of problems ranging from reputational damage to significant financial loss. In 2015, a typing error caused a $225 million loss at the Tokyo Stock Exchange when a stockbroker mistakenly placed an order for 610,000 shares of a company, instead of 6,100. It goes to show how a tiny piece of punctuation in the wrong place has the potential to cause a lot of headaches!

Typos in advertising material also prove the point that it’s much better to sweat the small stuff before you publish than after. From advertising “wokks” and “lemonande” to encouraging consumers to buy an “erotic” instead of an “exotic” boat cruise, and wishing clients a “Happy Exmas”, there’s a plethora of mistakes out there that have been gleefully pounced on by the sharp eyes of social media.

While many companies can retract, apologise, feel a bit silly, and move on, grammatical errors and typos can literally spell disaster for the legal fraternity when the small stuff potentially spirals into some very big stuff. Misspelled or incorrect names, ambiguous language, incorrect dates or amounts, and omitted or incorrect clauses can all lead to confusion or disputes that can prove to be costly.

Fans of the Oxford comma emerged victorious in the Oakhurst Dairy law case, also known as the “missing comma” case. The legal dispute revolved around the interpretation of a state law in Maine that regulated overtime pay. The law stated that the following activities were not eligible for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:” However, the law did not include a comma after “shipment,” leading to confusion about whether “packing for shipment or distribution” was one activity or two separate activities, and therefore whether workers involved in distribution were eligible for overtime pay. The court ultimately ruled in favour of the drivers, concluding that the law was ambiguous and should be interpreted in favour of the workers.

Superhero of the Small Stuff: The Proofreader

Whatever the nature of the text, the proofreader is the safety net. Basically, the hero of the process because identifying the small stuff – that misspelling, that awkward sentence, that inconsistency – is what ultimately saves the day. The proofreader not only sweats the small stuff but enjoys sweating the small stuff.

A qualified and trained proofreader has the skills and experience to know what to look out for. Most of the mistakes a proofreader finds are not unexpected or uncommon. Writers of all kinds of text tend to make the same mistakes: a double space, a misplaced comma, incorrect subject-verb agreement, a stylistic error, such as incorrect numbering, a misplaced image, and so on. Writers rarely sweat the small stuff and that’s because it’s practically impossible to proofread your own work. Writers focus on what they want to say – their concentration is on meaning and the point they want to convey. This causes a blind spot because when reading through their work they will generally see what they thought they wrote, and not what they actually wrote.

Some people have a natural talent for spotting the small stuff in texts, but it is in fact a skill that can be learnt quite easily. It is fundamentally the skill of observation coupled with a good foundational knowledge of language. The proofreader learns to pay attention, actively, intentionally, and patiently.

Proofreading is a mindset – it’s about training your brain to integrate what you read with what you know. Proofreading is a process where you slow down and focus. Proofreading is not a rushed or rapid process because it’s not possible to be observant when you are distracted or short of time. It’s also about critical thinking and problem solving. It’s about reading with sensitivity to language and words. Proofreaders read line by line, all the while questioning, analysing, and evaluating the details that add or detract to the quality of the text. Decisions are made, adjusted, or changed.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

So said Oscar Wilde. And this quote will ring true for many a proofreader. It’s a considered and careful process, rather like painting a picture. You go forwards and backwards, and forwards and backwards again and again as you search for inconsistencies and errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word usage, and formatting.

The Role of a Proofreading Course in the World of Small Stuff

Attention to detail is a highly sought-after competency regardless of the industry. Sweating the small stuff in a professional capacity is about diligence and taking pride in your work. And it’s also all about trust and reliability – important qualities that will find you plentiful work as a proofreader. By completing an online proofreading course, you will leave with all the skills, passions, and critical thinking you need to become a professional proofreader.

WordWise – Proofreading and Editing Courses Online

Does the minutiae of proofreading appeal to you and are you drawn to the satisfaction and reward of polishing and refining a manuscript? If you’re ready to sweat the small stuff, take a look at our online proofreading course and sign up to become a skilled proofreader.

Contact us for more information.

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