“Astronaut! Doctor! Footballer! Famous!” Few children dream of becoming a proofreader, for they are mostly unaware of what a proofreader is. All I know is that from an early age all I wanted to do was read books – I was fascinated by all those words, their sounds and their meaning. At primary school, mine was the last name called by football team captains, but the first when it came to quiz teams and spelling competitions.
TV’s David Mitchell wrote in his autobiography Back Story that during his spell as a proofreader at OUP he was so incredibly bored he would look for any excuse to leave his desk whenever he could. Not so me. Proofreading is the job I enjoy most, the one I’ve always returned to. But it can be a solitary occupation, for all distractions must be excluded as you anticipate the nature of the work ahead: the curious preliminary canter across the whole of the document, and the occasional frown during a brisk trot around an often not so helpful brand style guide. Finally, the warm-up lap over, your breathing slows and deepens as you gather your focus on the main event, a solemn procession through the pages, pacing steadily on in a world of your own.
In this heightened state of concentration, you suddenly become ultra-aware of an itch behind the ear, followed quickly by the return of a series of long-forgotten aches and pains, spots and grazes, and a new nose hair that chooses this very moment to unfurl its ticklish intent. Temporary alleviation arrives in the form of those small electrical frissons generated by close encounters with double word spaces and spectacular howlers.
Then, just when you think you’re nearly done, deflation and annoyance strike as you discover that a path of consistency you chose at the beginning is probably a wrong one and starting over is the only option. This is usually when the shoulder aches commence, nurtured by the stress of ‘How’s it going?’ enquiries from the client. I resist the temptation to say, ‘I have two speeds: this one and slow.’ I don’t want to seem unhelpful, but nor do I want to take shortcuts.
Sometimes, the lone wolf briefly visits civilisation. During one spell at an advertising agency, some of the account executives sent me lolcat spelin erurs images following my War on Error presentation. A week later I was sent links to a news story about a proofreader who had died at his desk, a tragedy that had gone unnoticed by his colleagues for four days.
The working day over, it can be hard to switch off. In a restaurant my partner snatches the menu from me. I’ve been caught red-handed, tut-tutting too loudly in its untamed garden of inconsistent capitalisation. I try hard not to do it, for no one likes having a list of dishes read out to them. I listen attentively, ruefully scratching my ear anew and rubbing my sore shoulder.