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The highs and lows of academic proofreading

Posted on 5th April 2016

To give a slightly different perspective, I asked Bev Sykes of Superscript Proofreading to write about her experiences as a proofreader and copy-editor, particularly looking at what benefits, if any, she gets from living with an academic. Here's what she said:

I've done a lot of academic proofreading over the last six years or so since I became a freelance proofreader. Books, book chapters, journal articles, conference papers and theses have been a regular feature of my working week since the early days.

I was living on Keele University campus when I started my business – my husband worked there as a lecturer. 'Tell all your colleagues, here and round the world, that I'm a proofreader now!' I demanded. I knew a lot of people on campus, too, and spread the word among my academic friends and neighbours. And plastering every noticeboard I could find with posters advertising my services became my new hobby.

The work trickled in: a visiting Swedish academic needed an article proofreading – she just knocked unexpectedly on my front door and then we chatted in my living room (I tried to be professional despite having my slippers on); a panicked neighbour was due to go on holiday but had just been told by his publisher that the proofs of his book needed looking at urgently; and students sent me essays and dissertations.

One of the things I love about academic proofreading is the variety of subject matters I deal with. One day it's climate change, the next it's digital music composition, and a few days later I might be grappling with a text about culling wolves in Norway. There are downsides, though. There's what I call the 'page 8 syndrome', whereby a text that I initially found fascinating quickly descends into a grammatical nightmare, with virtually incomprehensible jargon and a completely inconsistent style. On the other hand, the joy of this is sending something back to the client that's been vastly improved.

My husband often has the unasked-for role of honorary in-house advisor. 'Do you think this style guide is odd and pretty useless?' I might ask.

'What? Yeah, probably,' he says.

'The text I'm working on uses "thereby", "whereby" and "hence" way too much. I'm tempted to suggest getting rid of most of them. What do you think?'

'What? Yeah, probably,' he says.

In truth, this representation of his responses is unfair. He has given me useful advice many times – he publishes lots of journal articles, co-edits a journal and has written a few books, so he has lots of experience. He understands what it's like to be a client: he's been full of praise for fantastic copy-editors and proofreaders who have dealt intelligently and thoroughly with his work and has ranted about a few terrible ones who have completely altered his intended meaning. He understands the pressures that academics are under and how deadlines invariably have to be shifted sometimes, so he can calm me down when I'm the one ranting about my work schedule being messed up by the postponement of work.

I was lucky to have potential clients all around me when I first started proofreading. And I think some credit must go to the in-house advisor – he has certainly earned his keep.

Written by Kate Haigh.