Friday, February 11, 2005

Twas brillig

I've just come back from Denny's (of the large tables and refillable coffee), where I spent the last three or four hours working on a proofreading job I somehow agreed to do. Actually I didn't agree to anything, come to think of it. The Man agreed for me when his friend asked if I'd be able to do it. The Man has great faith in my proofreading abilities.

I have finished four pages, and spent most of my time staring into space with a big question mark hovering over my head. I know about academic writing and how to do it, but I don't know the first thing about economics. This is an academic paper for an economics journal, written by an economics professor, in his second language. I feel as though I'm proofreading Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

Not that he's a bad writer; in fact he writes better than most native speakers. I'm having a lovely time making notes like, "Are you sure slithy is the right word here? Do you mean grobish, perhaps?" and, "Did the toves gyre and gimble in the wabe or a wabe?" and, "Can you prove that his thought was uffish? Citations, please!"

I've done this sort of thing before. I used to proofread articles for a laser research scientist. These would be published in international journals, and he told me that he liked my proofreading best of all because the editors never changed anything once I'd finished with it. Not understanding a word of what I'm proofreading apparently gives me some sort of advantage. His previous proofreader was scientifically trained and always missed something, probably because he understood what was intended. I didn't understand anything at all, and insisted on having everything explained to me, preferably with simplified diagrams showing the relationships between the various concepts or objects he was talking about. He would go through some complex explanations, and I'd simplify, simplify, simplify, until I was able to say, "So you mean the laser shoots out here, hits that square thing there, and goes through that blob, bounces off the mirror, and scatters over here and here and here?" and he'd stare disbelievingly and say, "Er, yes, but..." And I'd say, "Well in that case this word should be to, not at.

What used to make me laugh about the laser scientist's papers is that every time I did a job for him he'd make me promise solemnly that I would not divulge anything of what he'd written. It was secret until it was published. So I would promise faithfully that I wouldn't tell a soul about what happened to the dynamic properties of the output thingummy when a double mirroring non-linear technique was used to stimulate the whatsit.


Paula said...

I'm the opposite: I need to understand the subject matter to do my best proofing. Yesterday my boss gave me a legal agreement, the type of which I hadn't seen before and didn't grok, and I had a tough time with it.

Badaunt said...

I didn't say it was easy, though! But really, I'm not proofreading for meaning. I'm proofreading for grammar and style.

But I also need to understand it, or at least the relationships between things, if that makes sense. That way I can tell if the prepositions are right, and that the best construction has been used. And I found that even though I don't understand the science of laser technology, once I had everything simplified for me so I could see the relationships, then the grammar was easy. I'm SURE you could do this too. Anyone who is fussy about language can do it.

It's pretty much the same as 'understanding' Jabberwocky. You might not know what 'uffish' means, but you know it's an adjective of some kind. You know that gyre and gimble are verbs, and you can make them past tense by adding 'd'. You might want to know exactly what they mean and what a wabe is so that you can be sure that they're appropriate verbs, and that wabe really does need the rather than a, and that's why you ask questions.

My questions used to make the laser scientist scratch his head. He wasn't used to explaining things so that a complete ignoramus could understand them, and found it a real challenge.

Abby Taylor said...

Good writing. Very entertaining. I've bookmarked you.. thanks for the pleasant surprise.