Literary Gruntwork

How many books have you read so far in 2019?  Five?  Ten?  Twenty?

I have read forty-six, and counting!


Though, “read” is not 100 percent accurate.  More to the point, I have proofread forty-six books so far this year.  I work in a freelance capacity for seven publishers–and have the editors at said publishers ever kept me busy!  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  After all, one of my favorite things is, and has always been, reading.  Getting paid to do it is akin to a dream job.


That said, the nonstop assembly line of book after book does get rather challenging from time to time.  There are weeks when I need to get through three books in six days–long books, too!  Again, I am not complaining–it is work I enjoy and am grateful for.  And the literary menu is varied.  I proofread both fiction and nonfiction, novels that range from suspense to literary to romance, nonfiction about religion, politics, finance, philosophy, health, science, pop culture, humor, and more.  I can go from reading a 400-page tome on investing to a crime-suspense novel all within the span of a couple of days.  It is interesting, to say the least.


And it all began by accident.  Way back in 2001, not far removed from finishing graduate school, I was calling around, looking for employment.  One of the places I contacted was a small book publisher here in Vermont.  “We don’t have an opening,” they said, “but we can always use a freelancer.”  At the time, I wasn’t even aware that publishers often utilized the services of freelance proofreaders.  As a writer myself, a grammar nerd, and a former English major, I decided, “Why not?”  I gave it a shot.  And, right from the outset, I realized–this was a gig for me!


The work is flexible, I can do it from home, and it even allows me to (virtually) meet editors and professionals inside the publishing industry.  It also has, over the years, strengthened my grammar skills and honed my ability to edit and check my own work.  Admittedly, I have always enjoyed grammar, dating back to high school (weird, I know).  But after proofreading close to a thousand books since the turn of the century, my grammar eye has become sharper, more observant, more disciplined.  And that matters.


I’ll be the first to admit:  grammar and mastery of style are not the most important skills in a writer’s toolbox.  Especially when it comes to creative writing, what matters above all is the talent to weave a story, engage a reader, create three-dimensional characters, understand the rhythm of words and the art of pulling it all together.  Some of this can be learned, studied, enhanced through reading and practice (i.e., writing).  But some of it, too, is innate–an inborn ability to tell a tale, an untaught sense of where to begin, how to escalate, where to pull back, how to capture the dialogue and mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of your characters.  In short, how to captivate a literary audience.


Nevertheless, if a writer completely ignores grammar, or is indifferent to improving in this area, it can deep-six his or her ambitions.  If a writer litters their manuscript with dozens upon dozens of grammatical errors, even the most patient editors and readers may turn away, no matter how riveting the content.  If you have a story to tell, you have to be able to master the tools and precepts of the language you’re working in to tell it properly.


“I’ll let my editor deal with it,” is the lazy writer’s way out–not to mention, many of us don’t have the luxury of a full-time editor to begin with.  Granted, the “small stuff,” the gruntwork of semicolons and commas and em-dashes and dangling participles and subjects and objects and prepositions can seem not only daunting, but boring, and anathema to the creative process.  And I’m certainly okay with overlooking these stodgy tools of the trade–for a while.  No need to sweat it out during a first draft.  But at some point, in order to dress your creation up in its finest clothes, to make it presentable for the discerning eye of your readers, that grammatical toolbox needs to be opened and delved into. (Ah!  Did I just end the sentence with a preposition??  Well.  It’s important to follow the rules, sure, but also important to know when and how you can break them!)


For me, proofreading helps me to stay sharp with all of this.  It’s true–there are periods when the workload becomes so heavy, I cannot find the time to do what I most want to do–which is write.  I need to put my own stuff on hold until the deluge ends and a season of relative calm returns with my freelance schedule.  But it’s rewarding to be “the last line of defense,” so to speak, in the publishing process of the books I proof.  If I fail to catch errors, the readers will–and they will let the editors know about it.  In that way, for sure, as a proofreader, the best news is no news.  No news means no complaints.


Such is the way of literary gruntwork.  When done well, no one notices the effort.  Absent the grammatical blunders, they just notice the story.

And . . . isn’t that what every writer wants?


Thanks so much for reading!


39 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dragthepen
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 14:42:46

    Very interesting. I enjoy proofreading academic paper’s not only do I learn some amazing information, its alao great practice for teaching my students how to proofread.


  2. laurelwolfelives
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 14:54:31

    I wish I had known you were a “proofer” before I paid someone quite a tidy sum…to miss things a first grader with half a brain could have caught. Sigh.


  3. kimberlywenzler
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 16:22:14

    That’s awesome. I didn’t know you are a proofreader. I did some proofreading myself for the small publisher I work with.
    Thanks for another great post.😊


  4. magarisa
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 19:09:21

    I also enjoy grammar, so I must also be weird. 😉


  5. leggypeggy
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 21:30:11

    You’re right. It is a luxury job to be paid for what you love to do. I’ve worked in publishing for years—proofreading, editing, and writing.


  6. joannerambling
    Jul 23, 2019 @ 23:56:09

    Proof readers do an amazing job not a job I could do


  7. Alexis Chateau
    Jul 24, 2019 @ 00:07:00

    This does sound like a dream-job, although I would rather be writing than proofreading. I’m surprirsed you don’t give up technical writing and focus on this full-time, but I guess that would also mean giving up benefits. At least you know you have an amazing retirement plan!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 25, 2019 @ 12:37:13

      Hi Alexis! The thought has crossed my mind about just being a full-time freelancer, but so far have been reluctant to take the plunge. Maybe someday! Each passing year, as the freelance workload continues to grow, it becomes more and more tempting . . .


  8. ellie894
    Jul 24, 2019 @ 02:33:03

    Ah! Well said Mike 😊 Do take care, suzanne


  9. Karina Pinella
    Jul 25, 2019 @ 02:49:21

    That’s a lot of books to have proofread. Excellent work! Haven’t you run across some boring material though? I can see how you can also learn a lot about different subjects.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 25, 2019 @ 12:39:38

      Hi Karina! Thankfully, about 75 percent of the books I proofread interest me from a content standpoint. About a quarter of them strike me as uninteresting. Not a bad ratio.:) It does of course make it more of a chore to work on the books I am not interested in, but even then, usually, the book on deck IS interesting, so there is always that next one to look forward to!


  10. Leonie M.
    Jul 25, 2019 @ 20:48:55

    Glad to know that you do proofread. Thank you for sharing.


  11. Lara/Trace
    Jul 27, 2019 @ 13:42:17

    I love that you do this work! Great post!


  12. Resa
    Jul 27, 2019 @ 19:30:48

    Sounds fabulous!


  13. Ste J
    Jul 28, 2019 @ 07:35:45

    Seven publishers, that is impressive, I work for two publishers, editing for one and proofreading for the other, on top of my full time job. It can be crazy but fun nonetheless. I hear you about strengthening the grammar side of things, I also get the joy of working between British english and American english which really throws me at points. It’s a great experience though, and free books is always a perk.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 29, 2019 @ 12:25:15

      That’s a great point about British and American English. I actually have that same issue, as, especially lately, I’ve been proofing more books that employ British grammar and punctuation. And then I need to switch over to an American book. It definitely keeps me on my grammatical toes!


  14. Joanna
    Aug 04, 2019 @ 08:21:56

    A lovely read Mike. It’s good that you have a day job which is within the field you love. Plus all that exposure to different genres and other people’s writing styles is bound to make you think about your own skillset, style and approach to your own projects. That’s probably a good thing, although it could be a nightmare I suppose 😅. But it would force you to find your true voice and commit to it. TQ for sharing! Joanna


  15. Anna Waldherr
    Aug 11, 2019 @ 20:19:29

    As a fellow grammar nerd and someone who actually enjoys proof-reading, I greatly enjoyed this post. 🙂 Unfortunately, I no longer have the concentration I once did, so no longer read as much. Kudos for your efforts on behalf of other writers!


  16. YBP
    Aug 15, 2019 @ 09:52:48

    Oh wow! It sure isn’t work if you truly love it ❤️ …. it’s more of happy, artistic, productive play! 😜 Way to go …. so happy for you! 👏👏👏👏👏


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