Ode to the lowly proofreader
From today's Salon:
On the spectrum of skills, proofreading lies somewhere between
waitressing and stacking firewood. It is the ideal occupation for
writers waiting for the large contract on their first book or for the
recent graduate, waiting for life to start. It is also ideal for someone who is deeply conflicted, who imagines herself in a competition for World's Oldest Ingénue, or Longest Spinning of Wheels -- in my case, 23 years and counting. As long as I am a proofreader, my "real life," the one my vertiginous ambitions keep trying to lure me into, cannot begin. You wouldn't know it from the outside, but proofreading has a deeply Hitchcockian aspect: the dark and creaking house into which, in guileless youth, the temporary worker may skip, only to be found decades later graying and all but lifeless, writerly aspirations ash about her feet. This is why I start to redden immediately upon declining an invitation due to a deadline: I know what's coming next. "Oh, how nice. What are you writing?" When I have to explain that I am instead doing the literary equivalent of wiping the tables at Burger King, I wonder if indeed I am also a writer, as I purport, or really like the fellow I once knew who insisted he was an artist. Talentless as well as legally blind, he made paintings that were doomed to fail. Who was he kidding? Come to think of it, he was a proofreader too.
What do I know? I am faceless. But I love catching those little
inconsistencies, love putting the point of my freshly sharpened red
pencil on top of a comma that needs to be a semicolon, and inscribing
the delete symbol, like the letter "S" with a flourish, that will herald the disappearance of anything it touches. This I do with care and precision, two qualities I rarely exemplify in any other part of my life, and here is where proofreading allows me to better myself. I become someone who gets things done. Someone with good handwriting. Someone who pays attention, with great focus, and lets nothing get by her.
—"High Colonic," Melissa Holbrook Pierson
My first job out of college was as a proofeader for an advertising agency in Madison—I arrived at 23, fresh-faced, excited, eager to be liked and desperate to please. I did it well; I was careful, and quiet, and I made no demands of anyone; I nodded and said yes, and I kept my eye on the page. I proofed TV ads for banks and shoe stores; I proofed PowerPoint presentations for potential clients; I proofed 400-page catalogs of marine parts, four or five times over, and then over again, column after column of SKUs and measurements and prices in 8 pt. Helvetica. I also made a lot of photocopies, served client lunches (and cleaned up afterwards), and answered the phones when the receptionist was on her lunch break.
I made $16,000 a year, which I was (rightly) grateful to have, and which taught me pretty damn fast that you don't get much credit for cleaning up other people's mistakes. No one notices, or cares, until you make a mistake, which makes it just like everything else in life, only a little bit more. And after I learned that lesson, I moved on.