Back in those innocent days when I was merely an aspiring writer, I often heard about ‘real’ authors (that’s authors with books in bookshops) having to face the task of correcting galley proofs. This was the last input that the author made into the publishing process before the book was printed and sold to the public, the last chance that they had to correct mistakes (whether their own or those introduced by the typesetter) and the last chance they had to make any changes to the text. Back in those days, I thought that correcting galley proofs must be a rather exciting phase for the author. After all, this was the first glimpse that they had of seeing their own words actually set in the typeface of the finished book – the moment when the author gets an inkling of what their story is going to look like in print.
In this modern, electronic age, printed galley proofs are a thing of the past. Publishers now send out proofs as PDFs or as e-book files, but they still need correcting, of course – modern digital publishing hasn’t abolished typos yet, and the human eye is still the best technology to hunt them out. This past week I have been correcting the proof of the second of the Springer novels, A Fistful of Seaweed, and it has been an experience of mixed emotions.
First of all, it’s nice to see that my manuscript is now well on the way to becoming a real book. I mean, it actually looks like a book, with a proper title page and everything. On the other hand, it’s not so nice to find so many mistakes. I can cope with the little things – little slips of the fingers, slightly dodgy punctuation. They are to be expected and all can be corrected, easily enough. Some of the mistakes, however, must have been there in the original manuscript, despite the fact that I checked it so many times before submitting it. Perhaps I can be forgiven for writing ‘lead’ when I really meant ‘led’ but did I really write ‘severally’ when I really meant ‘severely’? Did I really use the word ‘place’ three times in the space of two sentences? How could I have written such clumsy sentences, and (more the point) why didn’t I notice any of this before?
So I go though the proof, line by line, noting every one of the little changes that need to be made. This takes more concentration than I was expecting, because I find myself getting caught up in the story (even though I know what’s going to happen) and I forget to check the things I’m supposed to be checking, like punctuation. Is everything quoted correctly? Are all the commas and full stops in the right places. Oh no, I’ve said ‘Mr Ackerman’ in one place and ‘Mr. Ackerman’ on the very next line. Why didn’t I spot that before?
You reach a point where you think: I must have found all the mistakes by now. But then you find another one. There can’t be any more, surely? But then there is another one. That must be the last, but you still have to carry on checking, just in case there’s another…
That’s the biggest problem of all: how do I know that I have found all the errors? I certainly spotted quite a few on the first pass, but I still found plenty on the second pass that I must have missed the first time round. Now on the third pass, I’m still finding mistakes. Is that it? Or are there even more?
Will I ever make this story perfect?
Which leads on to an even deeper philosophical question: Is there ever such a thing as a perfect piece of writing? One that can never be improved, whatever the author does to it?
That’s a question I think I will leave for others to answer.