The Pudding is in the Proof
Christopher Walker is a teacher and teacher trainer at International House Bielsko-Biala. He is interested in teacher development, and in helping his students grow as English-language writers. As well as teaching, Christopher is also a published writer, with a series of books available on Amazon. Email: email@example.com
I think it all began at the covered market in Leicester. When I was a child my father would take me there to buy our fruit and veg from Lineker’s – the same family that gave the world the footballer Gary – and as we made our way down the aisles past the other stalls, we’d count how many errant grocer’s apostrophes we could see. There were many.
Later, I would turn out to be ‘that guy’ who would point out to the overworked barista that there was no ‘x’ in espresso, and I would cheerfully tell the woman in the discount book shop that, whilst it was true that their pens and pencils were not going anywhere, it was hardly appropriate to describe them as stationary.
It was inevitable really that I would one day become a proofreader, a person paid to point out such problems.
Getting work as a proofreader
I have worked for over a decade as an EFL teacher, and in that time numerous people have approached me with requests to proofread their work. Perhaps such people are attracted to the idea of an English teacher correcting their mistakes because, after all, that is what we do with our students’ homework. However, there is much more to the role, and, for me, the job itself is much more rewarding than that simple analogy would suggest.
But how does one get into the world of proofreading? There are many routes; the principle behind all of them though is availability, and that can mean different things in different places. For many clients, the ability to produce an invoice for the work you perform is essential, and so some avenues remain closed for those who lack their own business. Having your own business can be expensive – the national insurance contributions here in Poland are flat-rate, which can prove problematic during lean months – but the freedom to invoice clients here, there, and everywhere is a real boon.
One can certainly advertise as a proofreader. The business cards I made ten years ago carried the following under my name: “Teacher, proofreader, adventurer.” My wife objected to the latter, and to be frank I have had few paid adventures that resulted from handing the right person my business card, but otherwise I think that they served their purpose. Once people know that you can improve the quality of their written English, paid work is just a step away.
Word of mouth accounts for a huge amount of the work that I do as a proofreader. I proofread articles for one person, and when their colleague discovered that they needed their work editing, my name was among the first to be mentioned. I think that many of us teachers get new clients by the same means, but the difference with proofreading is surely the volume – there is a limit to how many new students we can take on, but given the nature of the work in proofreading that limit is much more expansive.
The work of the proofreader
An efficient and effective proofreader needs to keep a lot in mind when they work. They need to be thorough, that’s certainly true – and it is not rare for me to need to go through the same document twice to make sure that all of the smaller errors have been caught. Beyond that, though, proofreaders also need to consider the logic of what is being said. Did one paragraph contradict the message communicated in the previous one? If that cannot be resolved with a language-based edit (for instance, perhaps the wrong conjunction had been used in the latter paragraph, negating when it should have been confirming), then the proofreader must enter into dialogue with the writer of the text, usually by leaving a note in the margin asking for clarification.
The kinds of edits that are required are also determined by the genre of writing, and the audience that goes with it. These days I find myself proofreading more and more articles of an academic nature. The world is full of highly-competent users of English preparing articles that they hope will make it into peer-reviewed journals, but these journals are extraordinarily difficult to get into and if the quality of the language in the article is not flawless the submission is unlikely to be successful. I have proofread a large number of such articles, and in some cases I have worked through them with a fine-tooth comb, only to find fewer than three or four mistakes. But catching these mistakes means the author is even more likely to get themselves published than otherwise. Other papers require more work – the occasional reference is missing, or has not been entered in the approved format for the target journal. Sometimes a word or expression has been used inappropriately, usually as a result of L1 interference, and changes the meaning of the text in unexpected ways. Even though my knowledge of Polish is middling, I do know enough to spot a translation error and to be capable of realising what the author had in mind – and thus I can fix the problem without having to wait for confirmation of the point from the client.
In terms of the nuts and bolts, it is essential that the proofreader show their work to the client in a way that makes it immediately obvious to the client what has been changed. When I first started out as a proofreader, I’d print the whole document and go through it with a red pen, just as I might a student’s homework. When I’d finished, I’d scan and return the document to the client. Just thinking about how inefficient that was makes me cringe – I was creating more work for the client, as well as for myself, than I had any right to do. The next approach was just as bad: I’d highlight in red those parts of the sentence that contained mistakes, and then highlight in blue my suggested replacement. It was only with my discovery of the ‘Track Changes’ function embedded in MS Word that I realised that none of this was necessary, and I haven’t looked back since.
A personal delight
I have grown, over time, to love proofreading. For a teacher with limited energy resources – not to mention a fairly heavy timetable – being able to take on work that doesn’t require human interaction, and that can be completed when I choose (within reason – the turnaround is usually very fast with my work in academia), means that I feel more in control of my workload than I generally do at school.
But there are even better reasons to love proofreading. I wish, for example, that I had more time to read academic articles; the problem, as always, is the time required to sit down and pay close attention to what I’m reading. Academic articles are not to be treated in the same way as a good novel, though I do find a nice cup of coffee to be just as good an accompaniment. But when I receive a request to proofread something academic, it means that I get to spend some time in the company of some very clever writers, and by reading their work closely and with a critical eye, I inevitably learn something along the way. The fact that I’m being paid to do this is just the cherry on the top of this wonderful pudding.
That reading is not always closely allied to my own interests, but it is almost always highly interesting in and of itself. Since I started to offer a proofreading service, I have edited over five hundred pieces. The longest was a book on the various shepherding metaphors found in the Bible and early Christian texts – definitely not a field I would ever choose to study, but made engrossing by the intelligence of the writer. The book is available on Amazon now, priced in excess of a hundred dollars – typical for an academic publication. I have also proofread a volume of essays on the writing of J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate from South Africa; before being tasked with the proofreading, I’d never thought to read anything beyond ‘Disgrace’, arguably Coetzee’s most famous book but not it turns out his most fascinating. By the same academic, I also proofread an essay examining the philosophy behind William Golding’s ‘Pincher Martin,’ a book I had skimmed through years earlier, but whose greater meaning passed me by. After proofreading this article I returned to the novel and saw it as a classic to rival ‘The Lord of the Flies.’ Besides these literary endeavours, I’ve proofread a vast array of articles about the university of the third age – a worthy avenue of exploration, and one that I am very glad now to know about – as well as a host of papers examining the effects of COVID-19 on education around the world, and even a paper or two on the formation of dental enamel in the teeth of horses. As a proofreader, you never know what to expect next.
Proofreading has also opened doors that I didn’t really know existed, let alone ever thought were closed to me beforehand – you don’t know if the door is closed to you if you fail to see the door in the first place. As a proofreader, you don’t get your name on the paper (except in rare occasions, such as when the writer is kind enough to add you to their Acknowledgements), but word travels quickly, and a job well done soon begets other jobs. Not all of it has to be proofreading, I might add – as well as occasionally securing new teaching clients through my proofreading work, I have also started to form professional connections with those working in academia.
Among those connections, the most pertinent to this particular tale is a man by the name of Łukasz Tomczyk of the Pedagogical University in Cracow, Poland. I forget now how we came to know each other; all I can say is that, whoever the kind intermediary was, I owe them a drink out of gratitude. My work with Dr Tomczyk has moved beyond the world of proofreading; it is thanks to his kind encouragement that I am now a published academic, with an article in a peer reviewed journal. If you care to check it out for yourself, you’ll find that it’s available through open access at the link below. If I ever wish to become an academic myself – which will mean applying for a PhD programme – I will already find myself with one foot on the ladder.
The life of the professional proofreader is not an easy one, and nor is it generally very lucrative. But it is certainly something that EFL teachers with the right personality traits (i.e. those who find fault with everything) can pursue alongside their regular teaching commitments. From a pragmatic, slightly mercenary viewpoint it can add a little extra to the limited salaries most of us earn in the industry, and can be a particularly useful way to cushion the drop in earnings we experience during school holidays.
But most importantly, it can help us to make connections with those around us, both within the industry and without. That has certainly been my experience, and I cannot think of any more serendipitous decision in my career than to start offering proofreading services. I have made friends this way as well as professional contacts, and my career is now in a much stronger position as a result. I have been lucky; the pudding surely is in the proof; but it can be there for anyone else who wants it too.
Tomczyk, L. and Walker, C. (2021) The emergency (crisis) e-learning as a challenge for teachers in Poland, Education and Information Technologies (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10639-021-10539-7)
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