I caught the proofreading bug at the tender age of 9.
My father instituted a mandatory hour of reading before bedtime for my brother and me. He didn’t want to read to us and didn’t really care if we read (in fact he allowed my brother to choose comic books!). Later I learned that the true purpose of the bedtime reading hour was to give our parents some alone time. (Duh!)
No doubt I would have become an avid reader anyway, but this cemented my destiny. I began to read everything I could get my hands on, from novels to the backs of cereal boxes to newspapers and magazines. I even wrote my own book, “The Magic Pencil” (which my grade-school teachers wanted to encourage, so they pulled strings for me to work in the library and to write my book during all my classes, even math!).
My mother was self-employed as a transcriber (typist) for courtroom reporters, back in the days when a human performed this job.
One summer day when she was on deadline to turn in her completed work for the week, she asked me to help her proofread. In hindsight, my 9-year-old compulsively chatty self was probably getting on her nerves (all of you stay-at-home mompreneurs can relate, I’m sure!) and this was a novel approach to channeling her daughter’s abundance of mental energy.
I was euphoric, to say the least. Mom, whom I idolized, had asked ME for help! I took my new job as proofreader VERY seriously and spent hours poring over transcripts for workers compensation court hearings. Oh, how I wanted to be her hero and be the one to spot mistakes she could correct before her boss saw them!
Unfortunately, in those days before memory typewriters or computers, revisions had to be made on all 8 or so carbon-packed sheets in the set. Often it was easier for her to retype the entire page. So I had to learn the difference between a “glaring” error that should be fixed and a “neutral” error that wasn’t worth the trouble to fix. This would stand me in good stead, as it turned out.
When I was in my 20s, Mom’s job was taken over by dictation machines and she decided to take a course in word processing at the local community college. Less than a year later she had reinvented herself as a “legal word processor” for law firms.
I followed in her footsteps and took the same college courses myself a few years later.
My college English teacher was so impressed with me that she wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for me. I didn’t tell her that it contained a typo. (It was a missing apostrophe.)
After earning my certificate in word processing I spent the next 12 years working in the Information Processing Center of a corporate insurance broker in downtown Seattle.
There I learned the art of copyediting by working with a professional freelance editor the firm hired for big bread-and-butter projects like the annual “stewardship reports” we prepared for clients. It soon became apparent that copyediting requires a completely different skillset than does proofreading.
In addition to word processing, I was trained to run our high-volume copying center on the graveyard shift. While collating pages for stewardship and other top-priority reports my eyes would invariably leap to an error my proofreading coworkers had missed, and I would take responsibility for making the corrections and reprinting the affected pages.
This did not sit well with my coworkers, and I had to learn that in addition to glaring vs. neutral typos, it’s best not to chortle about the mistakes I find. 🙂 Another lesson to remember.
In the late 90s the firm adopted a Total Quality Initiative program and identified the 12 eagle-eyed employees in the Seattle branch (I was the only one from the IPC) who were best suited to provide a “second pair of eyes” on all correspondence that went out. Finally, I was given carte blanche to let my freak flag fly and be my stickler self! I really enjoyed developing my proofreading muscles… that “hero complex” again, I know.
In 1997 the firm was absorbed by their largest competitor, so I used my severance pay to go back to college and reinvent my career. In May of 1996 I had caught the Internet bug, and by December I had coded my first website (20 pages of handwritten HTML).
Ironically, I have never actually worked solely as a proofreader or a copyeditor, but of course I use my editing skills to make my web-design clients look good.
When I see typographical and other errors in Web pages, I think about the days when it was so costly and time-consuming to fix mistakes after printing. It was unthinkable not to have a whole team of proofreaders providing a “second pair of eyes” before work went to the printer.
With work published online rather than printed out, I think businesses no longer feel the need to hire proofreaders. Instead the author will grab whoever is handy to check work before uploading to a Web page. (And if no one is handy, no problem! A reader will no doubt furnish corrections, right?! Argh!)
The problem has grown to severe proportions over the 2 decades I’ve been online.
I myself learned to spell and use proper grammar by imitating what I read in books and professional writing.
How will future generations manage to learn what I learned, when mistakes abound even on Fortune 500 websites that could easily afford to hire proofreaders?
Do we want our descendants to pooh-pooh correct spelling and grammar as being too “fussy”?
Do we want Americans to get even dumber, reading websites full of word pollution? Will they be forced to wear mental blinders, much as the people of China are forced to wear face masks to avoid smog pollution?
I registered WebWordsmith.com in June of 1998, and have been percolating ideas for it ever since.
In 2002 I attempted to hang out my shingle as a proofreader/editor and devised a “$1 per error” price point. This attracted the famous Jill Whalen, one of the pioneers of search marketing who was starting her own newsletter for what would grow to be a base of 25,000 subscribers. She didn’t make many errors and simply needed a second pair of eyes before publishing her SEO gems.
I found about 60 errors (not all glaring, many neutral) in each newsletter, and Jill soon grew weary of deciding which were worth the dollar and which to ignore. We switched to an hourly rate that reflected the dual role I provided of both copyeditor and proofreader. (I had been studying SEO since 1999 so was well versed in the industry, another plus.)
The 6 years I spent as editor of the High Rankings newsletter also gave me an excellent foundation for doing SEO keyword research, which became my mainstay until 2012.
That was the year I finally landed a long-term copyediting project I could sink my teeth into. Dr. Guy DaSilva was an extraordinarily gifted alternative-medicine doctor who created his own website and wrote scads of medical advice on anti-aging that should have gained more traction in search results than it currently had. He found me in Google while seeking an SEO keyword specialist. What began as retrofitting his articles with their proper keywords soon turned into a full-scale copyediting project. It was a bit daunting to turn Dr. Guy’s clinical writing into more consumer-friendly articles, but he gave freely of his medical knowledge to help me along the way. He also gave me carte blanche to rearrange and reorganize his entire website so his articles could be more easily found.
While I do love editing and have even done well as an SEO copyeditor/writer, I’m now at the age when it’s time to think about leaving my legacy.
WebWordsmiths will soon become a website where Americans from any walk in life can come to improve their writing skills.
The next phase is to create a utility of some kind to make it easy to notify websites when mistakes are found. In the meantime, our Hire A Proofreader.com site has already begun taking applications for 10 free charter memberships.
I hope that by the time you are reading this, WebWordsmiths and Hire A Proofreader.com have made a huge dent in online word pollution!