What does your markup say about you?

This interview also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.

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A friend of mine was venting to me about his old boss, who used to look over his reports. Whenever his boss found an error, he’d not only circle it but also emphasize his discovery with an exclamation point—a practice that drove my buddy nuts. Encoded within this tiny mark of punctuation was his micromanaging boss’s chiding disapproval: “HEY! THERE’S A MISTAKE RIGHT HERE! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”

I was relating this story to my good friend Naomi MacDougall, an award-winning designer, and she told me she once had to work with a proofreader whose markup she found “overly aggressive.” We both had a good laugh about that, but the conversation got me thinking: Whereas most of us have switched to editing on screen, a lot of us still proof on hard copy, and our markup is often the only communication we have with a designer, whom we may not know and may never meet. It’s a bit of a weird working relationship—more distant than others in the publication production chain. How can we be sure that our markup isn’t inadvertently pissing off the designer? I asked Naomi to sit down for an interview to talk about some of these issues.

IC: When you mentioned that a proofreader you’d worked with had “overly aggressive markup,” what did you mean by that? What did the proofreader do that rubbed you the wrong way?

NM: Mostly it was the use of all caps and lots of exclamation points at the end of every note. It made me feel as though I was being yelled at. The tone of the markup put me on the defensive.

IC: Are there other things proofreaders have done that you wish they wouldn’t do?

NM: There have been times when the markup hasn’t been clear, and obviously that’s tricky. It’s frustrating to have to sit there and puzzle over what a letter is. Also, occasionally, I feel like the markup has left too much for interpretation. Because we’re often going through these changes quickly, I don’t want to have to be deciphering code.

On the flip side, if something is very obvious in the markup—like if a letter is dropped or a word inserted into a sentence—then you don’t have to spell it out again by rewriting the sentence in the margin. But when there are lots of moving words and punctuation marks in a sentence, it’s really helpful if the proofreader rewrites the sentence in the margin.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like as much clarity as possible in markup. I’m intelligent, but I’m not a mind reader.

IC: When there’s a problem like a bad break or a widow, would you prefer that the proofreader just point out the problem so that you can find a solution, or would you rather the proofreader suggest a fix?

NM: That’s a good question. In most cases I would say just point out the problem, unless it’s obvious it’s going to be very tricky to fix—then it’s hugely appreciated when the proofreader suggests a fix, especially if it involves cutting or inserting words.

IC: What’s your preference when there are more extensive passages of text that need to be inserted? How long would an insert have to be before it’s better to send you new text in an email rather than writing it in the margin for you to rekey?

NM: I would say I’d want new text for anything longer than one sentence or two short sentences. There’s just more room for error when I have to type a bunch of text. And if you’re moving more than, say, four words around in a sentence, just rewrite the sentence and have me retype it. It takes less time than moving all those words around and making sure they’re all in the right place.

IC: I think you were telling me earlier that different proofreaders approach word substitutions differently. Some mark a word as deleted and then add a caret to show that a word in the margin should be inserted, whereas others just cross out the word in the proof and write its replacement in the margin, without the caret.

NM: Yes, I like the caret. I find it clearer.

IC: It’s a visual cue for the designer to look in the margin.

NM: Exactly. It takes out that second of guesswork.

IC: Which can really add up!

NM: Yes!

IC: Is there anything else proofreaders do that you really appreciate?

NM: I always appreciate a neat printer, and I always appreciate it when a proofreader uses a bright ink, like red or purple or anything that stands out against the type. Often I’m scanning a page quickly, and if the markup is in pencil or black or blue pen, I tend to miss more of the changes. They don’t jump off the page as easily, so I have to take more time to look at each page closely.

Also, I really appreciate it when the proofreader suggests a global change at the beginning of document if a word is misspelled throughout. It’s so much quicker for me to search and replace these in one go. But I also like it when these words are highlighted in the text so that I can double-check that the change was made and check for reflow, since, during a global change, there’s always the potential for a line to break differently.

IC: Do you ever return communication on the proofs? What kinds of things to you say to the proofreader?

NM: Not often, but if I do it’s almost always a note that a change can’t be made because of reflow issues—mostly to do with hyphenation. And occasionally I’ll make note of a design style that overrules a type change.

IC: We’ve focused on hard-copy markup so far. Any thoughts about proofreaders working on PDF?

NM: I know in some instances I’ve missed smaller fixes in PDFs, like a change to one letter or a punctuation change, because they’ll just show up as tiny, tiny marks, and they’re easy to miss even in the full list of changes. If you click on the markup and add a short comment to it, though, it pops up as a little box, so it jumps out.

PDFs are great for shorter publications; I can copy and paste the text right out of the markup boxes, so that makes my life easy! But for a big book, hard copy is preferable. Having to go back and forth between windows on the computer is the issue.

IC: How much does it annoy designers when we make a change on first proofs and reverse it on second?

NM: It’s not usually a big deal—unless it’s a complete change from Canadian to U.S. spelling throughout, say. If that ping-pongs, then it can get annoying—though I’m sure it is for everyone involved! In that case a note about global changes is hugely appreciated.

IC: What can a proofreader do to ensure that the relationship with the designer is as collegial and productive as it can be, given that it’s such a bizarre, arms-length interaction?

NM: If markup is done professionally, then the relationship will be smooth. Just be clear, be thorough, and print neatly… and no all-caps yelling!

IC: Yes! I think those are all of my questions. Do you have anything to add?

NM: Just that I appreciate how much work goes into a thorough proofread, and I don’t know how you all do it! Sometimes your hawk eyes blow my mind!

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