There’s an argument a friend and I often have, and to many I’m sure it seems petty. It’s about the Oxford comma (or the serial comma, if you’re less into England and more into long-form radio shows). Conversations have gotten so heated that she and I have agreed to not speak of the subject while in the same room. I studied creative writing, and so am versed in the Chicago Manual of Style; she studied journalism, and so is AP through and through. I am a Montague. She is a Capulet.
In advertising, different types of documents require different proofreading styles: the means justify the end.
One of the tasks I perform at 88 on a daily basis is proofreading. Sometimes the documents I read are fairly long—proposals and the like, which can often run 50–60 pages—while others are quick snippets, about the amount of words you could comfortably fit on a billboard. I previously worked in publishing, where proofreading is a uniform task—the rules are hard and fast. A comma is always going to be a comma, needed where needed, excluded when necessary. The advertising world, though, is another beast entirely. Different types of documents require different proofreading styles: the means justify the end. “I’m lovin’ it” would never stand on its own in a block of published text, but in advertising, “I am loving it” is a far from memorable tagline. Different strokes for different folks, basically.
On a daily basis, I am the one who wields the red pen. This, I fear, gives me a bad reputation. People see my dreaded red marks on documents and advertisements that they have toiled over for countless hours, and take exception to the way(s) I sullied their work. Surely I receive some sick thrill from pushing the weight of the red pen around, making its presence felt by all, they think. The gall of that guy, they say.
I can say with full confidence that no ego goes in to the marks I make. I don’t lord my knowledge of em- and en-dashes over our designers; I am no supercilious proofer. Proper grammar is simply something I’ve always had an interest in (my mother being something of Militant Grammarian) and so pursued that line of study (if you want to call it that) in college. And graduate school. Yes, I used my own money to learn more about punctuation; that is, indeed, a real thing that happened, that yours truly is quite guilty of. I make the marks because they must be made. The rules behind them exist for a reason, and without them, I like to say, we risk utter chaos.
The rules of punctuation exist for a reason. Without them, I say, at the risk of hyperbole, we risk utter chaos.
The biggest misconception about proofreading is that it exists solely for the proofer, and not for the reader. That it survives just to give a reason for utilizing antiquated rule books. Nothing could be further from the truth. Proofreading, in my mind, exists entirely for the benefit of the reader. My objective, and the objective of all proofreaders as we pick up our respective red pens, is to provide ultimate clarity for the reader. When I comb through a document, any document, the one thing constantly going through my mind, flashing on and on again as if on a neon billboard, is that this should make perfect sense for the reader the very first time. If they have to re-read any part for lack of clarity, then I have failed in my job. So, really, you can just call proofreading quality reader UX.
There are certain commandments every proofreader must live by. Here are a few:
Know your style guide, use your style guide. Not the one you’re familiar with, not the one closest at hand, but the one that your agency/client/etc. uses. The first task on the first day on a new project for any proofreader should be to get intimate, completely familiarized with the house style guide. Know its ins and outs, its intricacies, all the little things that make it special. This is your playbook, your roadmap and your sacred text, all rolled into one.
If you’re going to break a rule, break it consistently. Let’s say a pharmaceutical clients uses the term “over the counter drug” in one of its communications. You know that this should be hyphenated—an over-the-counter drug—but do a little digging and see that the client has previously opted for the hyphen-less form. You let it slide, but make a note that, whenever this phrase is encountered in the future, in this document or any other, you always go without the hyphen. Consistency is key. It shows not a lack of care or attention, but a direct intention. Maybe, the curious reader will think, they just really dislike hyphens up there.
Never trust spell check. Ever. Though you might argue otherwise, I have my doubts that you were board at work, had your patients tested by your children, were excepted to college or thinking it’s about time you got a brake. And sadly, spell check seems to agree with you. That’s why a human set of eyes—algorithm-less, glaucoma-stricken, nearsighted and sensitive to sunlight though they may be—is still more reliable than any spell-check system.
At 88, I work for an agency whose style guide omits the Oxford (serial) comma. This pained me at first. I lost sleep over it. I’d spit-take my coffee when I encountered a sentence that I really thought needed it. I pushed my personal preference to the side, though, and have, just maybe, though I hesitate to even admit it, become comfortable working without it. It remains an off-limits topic for my friend and me, though, because, well, you know, there’s always that famous case—the one with the strippers, JFK and Stalin.