Compulsive Proofreading

In 2001, when I was recovering from my first dot-com layoff by wandering around my San Francisco neighborhood, I discovered a book, written by Anne Fadiman, called Ex Libris. A series of essays on writing and reading, this book read like a conversation with a friend you really admire. Fadiman’s essays were smart, well-written, amusing, anecdote-ridden, and genuine. They normalized the pedantic intellectualism of my family of origin. We are not book editors and writers, but we have been known to red-line the Sunday paper together (after church, eggs, and a pot of Earl Grey tea).

‘Tis the fate of the compulsive proofreader.

For most of us, compulsive proofreading is like a Tourette tic; instead of blurting out an inappropriate word or drumming a hand on a desk, we keep a stash of brightly colored felt-tipped pens in our bags, ready to pull them out to bleed all over your paper at the slightest provocation. Like all compulsive proofreaders, I have changed hand-lettered signs, sent emails, and engaged in other public displays of copy editing. I’m sure my resume has been directed to “no” pile on more than one occasion when I used my cover letter to gently point out an error in the job posting (Is this a test of the “attention to detail” requirement?).

But my proofreading has responded well to a course of treatment that includes a post-grad copyediting certificate, a deepening knowledge base, and 10+ years of “yes, you really can start a sentence with a conjunction,” in my professional capacity. The rise of the grammar troll on the Internets probably has something to do with it, as does the medium of blogging, and the damn autocorrect feature.

There’s a time and a place to point out grammar, spelling, typographical, or formatting errors. There’s also a way to do this. As a parent, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to professionally edit The Boy’s science homework before he turns it in. But it is appropriate for me to point out spelling mistakes and homophone errors.

The Girl’s writing challenges are similar to those of the stats theorists that Mercedes Schneider wrote about yesterday: her brain moves faster than her fingers with a pen or on a keyboard. If there were ever a candidate for the dictaphone method of office work, it’d be The Girl. (And why not? Her prized possession at the moment is a 1940s typewriter.)

The Girl’s teacher shared with me her own fear that someone like me will notice or catch a grammar, spelling, or typographical error and call her out on it. Given the indefatigable scrutiny on teachers these days, it seems like a rational fear. Indeed, in forum discussions among the well-heeled NPN set, grammar errors make a regular appearance, while teachers’ (usually mild) grammatical errors elicit reactions of frenzied self-righteousness.

But the reality is, we all make mistakes of this nature and teachers/schools rarely have full-time editors to proofread their stuff before it goes out. It happens.


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