Why Writers Need a Second Pair of Eyes
It’s so easy to overlook mistakes when you’re too close to your work, and that’s why it’s essential that you find the right proofreader or editor.
The examples are legion; whole websites exist for the sole purpose of sharing writing gone wrong. Some are funnier than others, such as the release last year of Susan Boyle’s new album with the hashtag #SusanAlbumParty. Read it once and it is fine enough; read it more carefully and assume the woman behind it is actually called Su, and you see the problem.
A personal favourite of mine is typical of what happens when you try to squeeze as much information as possible into as small a space as you are granted with a newspaper headline. I read this originally in Steven Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct’, a clear case of ambiguity of meaning: ‘Prostitutes Appeal To Pope.’
It’s easy to laugh, and I encourage you to do so. But writer beware: it can happen to you too.
It certainly happened to me, but I was lucky that the mistake in question did not find it into the final draft of my children’s book. To be more precise, though, I have to tell you that luck had little to do with it, because I realised many years ago that I needed a fresh pair of eyes to go over my work, and this needed to be somebody who saw my story in a way I did not.
This person turned out to be a marvellous young woman in America called Neeka. I met Neeka quite by chance in Belgrade all the way back in 2009, and whilst we soon parted ways, me to travel south, her to head home, we have kept in touch ever since. Though her time is precious — she works far longer hours than I do — Neeka has always been an enthusiastic critic of my work, and I never have to worry that I'm sending her too much when I email off my latest Word document.
Her criticism was especially useful when I sent her my ‘Man in the Mango Tree’ story. At one stage in the tale the principal antagonist becomes very angry, ‘his face soon turning blue and then purple as he screamed and shouted.’
Neeka wrote back almost immediately to tell me that I needed to change this particular sentence more than any other. And why was that? Because I had simply forgotten where I had set my story. The story is set in Africa — vaguely, Nigeria — and therefore the characters would all have been black. Neeka is mixed race. I am white.
I didn't see my mistake, just as Susan Boyle’s PR company was blind to theirs. I had read my story through many, many times, but each time was with my own eyes, with my own cultural background, and with my own idea of what the characters looked like. I needed Neeka to show me how to see.
I am fortunate to have in my circle of friends somebody willing to take the time to point out the obvious mistakes that I have become blind to. All writers should be so lucky; there is little stopping them from becoming so.
Generally speaking the best proofreaders and editors are disinterested observers. The word ‘disinterested’ has sadly lost much of its currency in recent years, and has become synonymous with ‘uninterested’. The correct way to approach this word is to ally it with ‘unbiased’; scientists must be disinterested observers of their experiments.
Thus must a potential proofreader be disinterested. You may argue that Neeka fails on this point, but she has proven otherwise over the years. She is quick to tell me when a story needs work, and when one should be scrapped entirely. But if Neeka did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her.
Writers, seek out your disinterested observers. Other writers would be ideally suited to this work, provided you tell them little about your writing beyond what is in the text itself. And always be willing to reciprocate.
Your disinterested observer need not be another writer, but it must be somebody who has proven that they are good at spotting details gone awry. If in your initial correspondence with them they litter their emails with errors and slips, mistaking for example ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, tell them thank you, but no thank you, and keep looking.
After all, your reputation is at stake. I could not name a single song that Susan Boyle is famous for, but I can tell you one of her twitter hashtags. Do not follow in her footsteps.