One time I owned a book about life at Life when the publication was in its heyday. Written by staff writer Dora Jane Hamblin, That Was the Life (1978) was probably only ten percent as amusing to read as it was to live but it was still great. Hamblin talked about the craziness, the rush, the highs, and the intense camaraderie that infused the magazine. It’s been years since I read it. Sadly, I no longer own it, a situation I shall have to remedy.
Perhaps the one story that stuck with me the longest is not the funniest, though it did have its amusing aspects, but the most useful—the copyediting process. Or maybe it was fact checking. Or both. At the magazine, both were . . . extensive.
She described the copy editors who used to have to physically dot every word to show that they had actually seen it. And depending on what the word was it rated a different color of ink. These colorful dots over every word in a typewritten manuscript—for it was certainly before the days of computers—grew so ingrained in the (mostly) women who worked at this job that one copy editor was actually found sound asleep at her desk with her hand going up the wall, reflexively making rows of tiny dots.
When I was first hired as the books editor for a weekly newspaper in my town, I was determined to turn in copy so clean and shiny the editor would need sunglasses to read it. Though I hadn’t thought of it in years, this story came roaring back into my brain.
Editing one’s own work can be difficult. There are recommended tricks like putting the piece into a radically different font with different margins, or reading it backwards, or printing it out and moving to a location that has nothing to do with where you created it to edit it. The idea is to break any mental connections so that your brain can look at the material with a “fresh eye.”
But Life’s copyediting process gave me an idea when I first began to write for publication. It’s tougher but it also offers the benefit of forcing me to look at each word individually and with full attention. With the process I now call the Measles Edit, I don’t read paragraphs or even sentences. I read, literally, one. word. at. a. time.
It is astonishingly effective.
Here’s how I do it:
- Print out the pages and grab that marker.
- Move to a comfortable chair.
- Begin reading each word and each punctuation mark aloud. Each word, no matter how simple or complex gets the full amount of time it takes to read it and dot it.
- Keep my eyes on the single word/mark I am reading until I am done reading it aloud. Then put a red dot on that word. Once I have completely and thoroughly finished I move on to the next one.
This process makes for very slow reading, but I can tell you that I catch almost if not every instance where I have you in place of your and other silly typos that without such intense scrutiny are easily overlooked. This happens because our eyes fill in or take out what our brain says should be there rather than what is actually there on the page. At least mine does. It takes a long time and it is tedious to “read” in this manner. Below is an example of how the process would look if it were written out. The red dots are indicated by italics, though you wouldn’t say the word dot you would just dot the words/marks:
The dot brown dot cow dot jumped dot over dot the dot white dot moon dot, dot which dot had dot risen dot in dot the dot eerie dot yellow dot sky dot made dot all dot the dot more dot insidious dot by dot the dot black tree dot silhouetted dot against dot it dot. dot
Yes, it’s exhausting. It’s also, as I said, very effective. And now, having said that, I want to do the same thing to this piece before I post it. What if I didn’t and you found that its was actually it’s? The horror!