Friday, 28 July 2017

Reading Proofs - Clémentine Beauvais

I've just finished proofreading The Edinburgh Companion to Children's Literature, which I'm coediting with Maria Nikolajeva. It's coming out later this year, and it's a pretty thick volume with 29 contributions by some of the best people in the field (including one who may be lurking around on this blog and wrote a brilliant chapter on counterfactual historical fiction. Guess who?)
our baby's cute little face 

Proofreading the mahoosive thing really took over my life in the past week. Proofs in French are called épreuves, which can also mean a chore, trial or ordeal, and it's really what they are. A lot of chocolate is required.

chocolate, coffee and red ink

Reading proofs is one of those activities that are associated to writing, but that are not really writing, and that are absolutely incompressible - you just can't speed them up, you have to go through them. Others include reading contracts, answering emails to plan school visits, all kinds of admin, etc. However, reading proofs has that particular texture, frustrating, mind-numbing and also, as Dianne Hofmeyr says, perversely satisfying, that sets it apart in my mind from everything else.

You have to adjust everything in your life in order to read proofs. Carve out three hours at a time, no distraction, no music, no phone winking at you from the corner of the desk. It will take however much time it needs to take, no less. That's weirdly stabilising. Somewhere in the world, a big pack of pages awaits, and it's got its own internal duration that doesn't care at all about your own clock-bound imperatives. In a world where you don't really take the time for anything, you suddenly have something forcibly taking your time.

You have to adjust your mind to read proofs. Reading line by line, with a ruler blocking the rest of the paragraph, you let your eyes drift robotically across each word, letter by letter, fighting the urge to process everything whole-word as you might usually do. Only then can you spot the mipslaced lteter, the verb ending that doesn't works, the the repeated particle, the sneaky apostrophes', the weird change of font for no reason, the word that missing.

Because of this insane amount of concentration on tiny units of language - the word, the letter, the punctuation mark - there's, episodically, moments of complete brainfreeze. Not sure anymore how 'children's literature' is spelled. Is it childrens literature. Childrens' literature. Chlidrens laterutiure. Can I even speak English anymore ? And you are taken back to childhood, when you would repeat your own name fifty times in front of the mirror and both name and face would gradually disappear into absolute nothingness.

At that stage, profound anxiety strikes. What am I doing with my life? How many people are actually going to read this? What would my 15-year-old self think?

You have to radically adjust what you consider to be existentially meaningful. It's impossible to proofread such a massive academic book without thinking often that these are hours of your life that you'll never get back.  To be clear, the chapters are brilliant, I promise. But for the proofreader there is no newness. You've already read the contributions many times, edited them at least twice on screen. You know that in the grand scheme of things, it absolutely doesn't matter if someone misspelled the name of Valdimir Propp. Yet when you catch that Valdimir, there's this strange endorphin rush, and even though it's such a minute, inconsequential thing, it gives meaning to the whole chase.

Your reward system gets completely mixed up. A week ago, for true joy to occur, you would have needed an email telling you gushingly about how wonderful they found such or such thing you did. Today, a missing comma in a reference list is all you need. What you are doing suddenly has meaning: you spotted that one of the entries in the bibliography isn't in correct alphabetical order.

You have just made the world a tiny bit more orderly.


Clémentine Beauvais is a children's and young adult author in French and English, as well as a literary translator. Her latest YA novel, Piglettes, is out with Pushkin Press.


Catherine Butler said...

Delurking briefly in Brussels airport to say how much I'm looking forward to seeing this! (Oh, and yeah, proofreading sucks. Although not as much as spotting a typo in the finished book.)

Joan Lennon said...

Please may I steal your ruler idea? That is very clever!

Susan Price said...

Yes, the ruler idea is brilliant. And I've never read a more evocative and accurate account of the chore that bloody proof-reading is.