Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Proofreader's Lament

It's not terribly often that I complain about a project I'm given at work. At least, I don't feel like it is. I just try to do the best I can with whatever I'm given, and the crappy stuff I just try to get out of the way as quickly as possible so I can move on to something else. No matter if I enjoy what I'm doing or not, I take great pride in doing it to the best of my abilities, in coming up with a finished product that is done as well as or better than anyone else could have done it. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant--I'm being paid to do it, so I may as well do it right.

That said...

One project I've been spending some time on lately is a real dog (and not a cool dog like this one or this one, either). About a week or so ago, I was given for proofreading a couple of procedural manuals for the warehouse. It was terribly written. I say this not to denigrate the person or persons who wrote it (I honestly don't even know who wrote it) but merely to illustrate what I was starting with. It was a mess. The format was inconsistent, the instructions were often unclear, sentences that were run-ons or fragments probably outnumbered those that weren't, misspellings abounded...you get the point.

All of that, however, is not why I say the project is a dog. I realize that writing is neither the forte nor the responsibility of many of our warehouse employees. And that's what I'm here for, after all: to clean up the writing foibles of others. Indeed, I attacked the project with relish, glad to finally have some substantial text to proof as opposed to the small blurbs of marketing copy I normally get. I will admit to some frustration as I got started since I was forced to mark quite heavily all over the pages I was given rather than being given the digital files and just making the changes myself, but other than that I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

I got both manuals through the first proof and handed them back, and that's where my troubles began. The warehouse person in charge of the manuals (I don't think he's the one who wrote them, although he may have been) came into our department shortly thereafter to complain to my boss about the volume of changes I had made--he didn't have time to go through them all (he said), and beyond that, he really didn't want the wording changed because he needed to be absolutely certain that someone working in the warehouse would be able to understand them.


I should point out that these manuals were originally submitted, before I ever knew they existed, as final. Needless to say, that notion was nixed by our company president when he reviewed them. That's how they came to me in the first place--because they were under orders to be cleaned up. So I'm not sure what the whole point of me looking at them would be if none of the wording was to be changed. I also have to take issue with the contention that they were clearer before they were edited than they were afterwards. It's not even close. Even people who have a hard time writing clearly, you can't tell me that they understand things better if they're written poorly. That doesn't make any sense. The one contention I could understand is that some of my changes would have changed the meaning of what they were trying to get across, since these manuals are for procedures that I don't undertake as part of my daily responsibilities. That's fine. That's why I was writing the changes down rather than just changing the files directly--so any significant changes could be taken as suggestions to be fine-tuned. Besides, I've done at least some time in the warehouse, enough to have a little feel for how things work out there. I didn't think it was much of a stretch to take the instructions given and re-word them so that they actually, you know, made sense. I mean, this isn't brain surgery or rocket science. It's taking DVDs and CDs off a shelf and putting them in a box. Again, I don't mean to denigrate what they do out there, but it's not all that complex. Given what I had, I felt totally comfortable that my suggestions were more than viable.

At any rate, my changes didn't get made. I wasn't sure if the project was tabled or not, but it didn't seem like I was going to be involved anymore, and that was fine by me. They obviously weren't interested in having it done right, after all, and that being the case, there are definitely other ways for me to spend my time while I'm at work. So that's where we were until the end of last week when we, as a department, went out for a few drinks to celebrate the passing of another successful catalog deadline. I was having a conversation with my boss when she mentioned she had a project to discuss with me the next day, and that I probably wasn't going to like it.

Despite her admonition that I probably wouldn't like the project, I was looking forward to at least hearing about it. I like having specific things to work on, and I like new challenges. That was until I actually found out what the project was, of course. When my boss and I actually sat down to talk about it and I found out what it was, I found out that she was right. I don't like it at all.

Apparently, after some discussion on the manuals (discussions from which I was excluded), it was decided that the changes I had suggested should be thrown out and that I should go through them again. This time, though, instead of the full proofreading treatment the manuals so desperately needed, I was only to focus on punctuation and blatant misspellings. Everything else was to be left alone. I kept my mouth shut about how I felt about such an undertaking, but I'm sure the look on my face said it all. For what it's worth, it seemed like my boss agreed with me, but that was my task nonetheless.

Doing such a half-assed job seems totally pointless to me. Poorly worded and unclear complete sentences are little better than poorly worded and unclear fragments and run-ons, to my way of thinking. It just doesn't help. Some may argue that at least the end product would be somewhat better than it would have been otherwise, but I would disagree. If a procedural manual contains instructions which can't be followed, it's completely useless, perfect punctuation or not. Nevertheless, I did it. I went back through both manuals (one was 58 pages; the other 68) and fixed the punctuation as best I could. It's not as easy as it sounds. When the words don't make much sense in the order they're in, sometimes it's difficult to figure out where the punctuation should go. I did my best, though, and the manuals are out of my hands now.

I'm sure I'll be seeing them again, though. The reason I saw them in the first place is because upper management didn't like the condition they were in, and they're not really any better off now than they were two weeks ago. Once someone finally realizes that punctuation doesn't improve clarity on its own, maybe I'll finally be able to make the changes that need to be made. Until that happens, they may as well have someone else look at them--I don't know that it makes a whole lot of sense to engage the professional proofreader (who has plenty of other stuff on his plate) for something that doesn't need (apparently) to be professionally proofread.

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