Avoid These Mistakes That Undermine New Proofreaders

Just caught the boss misspelling ichthyosaur!

OK, masochist: You’ve decided that out of all the jobs you could try to launch your career in publishing, you want to start out as a proofreader.

First off, I want to kiss ya on the nose. I’ve spent several years as a proofreader, and we really are the few, the proud: a special species.

But we can also come off to other members of the content supply chain as a major pain in the butt. We know we’re a special breed, but we really need to manage those special-breed egos. Nobody wants to give credit to someone who saves the day while being a cocky jerk.

There are ways you can avoid alienating your coworkers by being a cocky jerk, though: namely, by being such a cocky jerk in your job application that they never become your coworkers. It’s pretty obvious that a proofreader’s job application should contain zero errors. But it should also contain zero cawing mentions of errors the applicant has noticed in the publication whose opening she’s applying for. If a newspaper makes a mistake, they notice it, and everyone has already gone through feeling terrible and getting chewed out for it, believe me. Having a job applicant show his superiority to the people who are already down in the trenches day-t0-day by bragging that he caught an error they missed is only going to tell them one thing: they don’t want to share an office with this guy. I’ve seen people do this on job applications in which they made typos, so you’re courting that kind of self-humiliation on top of appearing unlikeable. Your cover letter should get your potential coworkers excited about the skills and fresh enthusiasm that a young proofreader can bring to the table—not remind them of their own mistakes. Everyone is human, and someday you will be the one making the error.

I see a TYPO!

Speaking of pointing out other people’s errors, your performance during the first few weeks of a new proofreading job is a tricky thing. Obviously, you want to do a good job, and you don’t want to let any errors slide. But be very diplomatic about pointing out mistakes your coworkers have missed—even if it seems sad that there was still a reversed apostrophe by the time the copy got down to the new girl who’s reading it as part of training. Point it out as graciously as you can, and whatever you do, don’t go looking for errors; this is not the point in your career where anyone is going to be fascinated by your crotchety pet peeves. You might want to prove your unwavering dedication to verbal excellence and old-fashioned standards, but you’re better off letting people learn that about you through steady performance than an unsolicited lecture. I learned this the hard way. The simple fact that you wanted the job and were able to pass the proofreading test is enough to tell your coworkers about your priorities; let it go.

Once you have more experience as a professional proofreader, you will learn that we get tired, numb, and blind over time. Your newbie enthusiasm is great for catching those errors your more experienced coworkers don’t even see anymore, but make sure they know you respect what they can give you in terms of general wisdom and training in the specific house style of the job. Otherwise, six months before your first vacation, when you start making mistakes, everyone else is going to have a grand time pointing them out. And no one is going to warn you about the job’s quirks and booby traps till you’ve fallen into them in the worst way possible.

A related mistake is failing to really listen when your more experienced peers are telling you things. If you’re like me, the first day on the job, your head is spinning with nerves and details, and sometimes your inner dialogue (polylogue?) can deafen you to what’s being said. Try to tune out the inner crazy and pay attention, even if, like most editors, you are introverted and new people make you terribly nervous. No matter how good you are with the language, every job has idiosyncrasies that no genius can learn ahead of time. And whether they’re CMS or AP, EVERY house I have ever worked with has its own style, even if it’s just one exception to one rule. People will tell you these on your first couple of days; try to get them the first time around. (This will impress them far more than you pointing out their errors!)

If you work with other proofreaders, there’s a special camaraderie that very few other professions can touch. However, the proofreader mindset, when amplified through multiple carriers, can annoy everyone else at a publication. I know, it’s irritating that the copywriters get paid more than you do when they’re total idiots who don’t know how to spell. But they’re people too, not just typo factories—and who knows, maybe one day you’ll want to be a copywriter too. You don’t want snotty proofreader karma following you around. More to the point in the present, you don’t want to create unnecessary bad blood in your work environment—at least not at first. A few months down the road you and your fellow proofers might have some beers and a gossip session, but when you first set foot in a place, don’t agree too heartily with anyone’s negative assessment of anyone else. Writers and editors tend to be oddballs with big egos (raises hand), and you don’t want to put your foot in it before you know the lay of the land and the politics of the office.

Bottom line: Most proofreaders are pretty clever people with below average social skills, so it’s really easy for us to become disliked at the office in a hurry. If you do a little soul-searching in advance, though, you can get out ahead of your amazing personality and channel it away from self-destructive behavior. Turn your potential flaws into assets by being self-aware: instead of being a weirdo who tries too hard to be admired, be the girl who’s entertaining on the surface but quietly excellent in substance. Publishing is a small world, and you never know how that moron associate editor is going to be able to help your career in the future — or harm it.