I’m almost finished with the first-pass page proofs for The Endless Forest, and I hope to hand it over to FedEx late today or early tomorrow. As I am at the hair-pulling stage, I’m taking a break to tell you about this process and how I handle it. Or don’t.
I believe I can pinpoint the very moment when my proofreading phobia started. Writing a dissertation is never easy and everybody who has ever written one will have horror stories to tell. I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories that more recent doctoral students. Usually, though, the horror stories don’t happen after the fact.
It was the day after I defended my doctoral dissertation. A beautiful late spring day, and I was free. FREE. I was so full of energy, I was almost floating. Three years of hard work in which I often doubted that I could ever finish — much less defend — my dissertation, but I had done both. I can still recall that feeling. It ranks up there with the first sight of the Girlchild’s little new-babies-look-like-monkies face, and seeing the Mathematician down there at the end of the aisle smiling at me, and getting the first copy of the first published novel delivered. It’s that good.
Then the phone rang, and I made a mistake. I answered it.
On the other end was a very earnest librarian from Princeton’s library, who was holding a copy of my newly minted dissertation in his hands.
Librarian: Dr Lippi, I have a number of questions regarding your dissertation.
Librarian: Before I can add it to the library’s collection there are number of … infelicities that need to be addressed.
I remember my gut rising into my throat, which explains why my voice came out like Minnie Mouse on steroids.
Me: I defended it yesterday. I’m done.
Librarian: I’m afraid not. Do you have a copy so you can follow along as I ask my questions?
Librarian: Dr. Lippi?
What I wanted to say: But you don’t understand, I swore last night that I would never, ever, open my dissertation again. In fact, my plans for today include embalming my copy in a barrel of wet concrete. In short: no, I don’t have a copy to follow along, and no force on earth is going to compel me to go get one.
Me: Just go ahead.
Librarian: On page 223, chart 27a is not titled. And on 275, chart 55 is titled ‘Distribution of Marked Phonemes by Generation’ but in the index, the title is given as ‘Distribution of Marked Phoneme by Generation.’
I think I went into shock at that point. I simply stood there listening as he droned on with his list of missing commas, reversed index numbers, and other details I did not care about. Not one bit. A long time later I realized he was waiting for some kind of reply.
Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that last bit.
Librarian: These problems will have to be corrected before your dissertation can be officially logged.
Librarian: Dr. Lippi?
Librarian: If I might make a suggestion, I could make these corrections for you —
Me: You could? Really? Oh, bless you. Bless you. Please go ahead and change things as you see fit. No need to run things past me, no sirree.
And I hung up.
Ever since that day, I cringe when a proofreader makes him or herself heard. Which happens a lot while you’re doing the first-pass reading of a manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, the proofreader is crucial at this point because I don’t see half the small things she catches, and those things do need to be caught. For the most part there will be a couple of marks on a page — a comma added or a semi-colon changed to a period, for example. More serious and important are the small errors in continuity, so the proofreader will write “Do you mean Nathaniel here instead of Daniel?” And 99% of the time she’s right.
But every once in a while I flip over a page and see a long paragraph in the margin in dark blue ink, and my heart leaps into my throat. The proofreader has found a major problem in logic or a large inconsistency in backstory, and attached to those observations is a list of pages on which the fact in question has come up and has to be compared to the current page, so that corrections can be made all around.
Today I’ve run into more than the usual number of those marginal blocks, which explains why my heartbeat is galloping along and my lip is bleeding where I’ve been chewing on it. I think it was especially bad today because of the dog.
There is a dog in this story, as you probably would have guessed if you’ve read any of my stuff.
Here’s the problem: the dog is mentioned and described as a puppy, belonging to a young couple. From its first appearance, the proofreader is obsessed — obsesssed, I tell you — with this dog. Wherever the couple shows up, there must the dog be also or the proofreader is unhappy. I stopped counting the ‘where’s the dog?’ queries after ten or so. By that time I was ready to slash right to the heart of the problem and instruct her to take out every reference to a dog, anywhere. Everywhere. In everything I’ve ever written. Please, just don’t ask me about the dog anymore. And you know how much I love dogs, so things have to be pretty dire around here just now.
So now I have to go back to proofreading. Light a candle, would you? I need all the help I can get.