Monday, February 17, 2014

The Proof Is in the Putting

Of all the many processes involved in bringing an idea into some form of finished, published product, the one still most daunting to you is proofing.

The process itself is mechanical.  You check each character in a man- uscript to see if it is the correct character in the proper place, mindful that the word "character" includes punctuation marks, sometimes even spaces.  

Proofing implies a significant enough familiarity with words in this remarkable language we call English to be able to sense when one or more of them is misspelled.  You have acquitted yourself well enough in that regard even though you are among the first to admit your acquittal is relative.  At one point in your life, were there awards given for adventurous or outright wrong spellings for ordinary words, you'd have come away with a sheaf of them.

As such things go, you have at least elevated yourself to the status of a speller, sans adjectival attribution, reminding you of yet another skill persons in your craft are assumed to have mastered.  That skill, in your youth, was called typing.  Now, keyboarding seems the better term.  You are reminded of a time in middle school when an exasperated teacher asked of you how you could hope to become a writer when you with some consistency scored lower in typing skill tests than anyone she'd ever known.

While it was true that you could rattle off the positions of keys in the standard qwerty keyboard, that was more a fluke of memory than a product of muscle memory as experienced by superb typists.  They were not only fast, they were accurate.  They not only use all ten fingers, they are able to do so without looking at the keyboard, seeming in their zoned-out way to enter some Zen-like state.

Somehow, you have managed to work around or in spite of these shortcomings, but memory is an idiosyncratic thing, perhaps in your case an ironic thing.  The irony is that more often than not, you are better able to give accurate spelling to words you would be the first to remove from a manuscript, the moment revision and editing come into play.  You have, for instance, no difficulty at all with the word "chthonic," including its pronunciation and etymology.  The problem would begin when an editor would ask you for a better word or clump of words.

Other words, those you'd be apt to use in spoken or written language, are more problematic.  You'd have to look up juxtapose if you were to translate it into some of its transitive verb forms, wondering, for instance, if translating it from noun to verb it should be rendered juxtapositioned or if juxtaposed were the correct form.

In addition to being wary of -ly adverbs, after all these years, you still have the tendency to give they more than the required l's, so that there is often a need to check out the adverbial form of usual, just to be sure.

You are now in the act of proofing your forthcoming collection of short stories, aware that proofing of this sort is for spelling and punctuation, but becoming distracted by the occasional curiosity if a comma would do well here, then recalling times when even such a simple matter as a comma appeared beyond your grasp as teachers, then editors began to wonder if certain of your nouns would ever recover to the point of coming out of their coma, thanks to your misuse of proofreader's and editor's markings, "insert coma here."

You do believe someone with your aspirations should have these skills to the point of their being internalized, muscle memory you can rely on.  But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth ed., unabridged, is once more at your side, waiting to walk you through the murk and gloom of your own sentences.  Until you confirm your suspicions by seeing them within the AH5's pages, you are not certain if you have pulled in an innocent suspect for questioning.

So short the life, so long the craft to learn.  Make no mistake, spelling and keyboarding are part of the craft.  The less time you have to fret about their deficiencies, the more time you have to chose the correct word, one which might then allow you to dispense with one or two others.

At one time, you were in such a hurry to get things down that you had no patience for such things as spelling, word order, and that great-but-abused-through-misunderstanding word, syntax.  You wrote as though you could not wait to get on to the next thing.

Times change.  You change in the sense that there is less time to get down all the things you wish but more time to see the need for the care in the process of making sure.

A completed manuscript, revised, edited, then proofed is no small thing to you now.  It may well be a small thing to others.  But not it you can help it.

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