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Catch as Catch Can

Magnifying glass hovering over the word proof on a manuscript
A forensic eye for detail is needed when proof-reading

It's a closed-in, late-Autumn Sunday afternoon at Hobeck Towers as we grandly call our home base. The heating is on but the nature of 17th-century building techniques is such that the heat leaves as fast as it is pumped in. Even the cat has taken shelter in a blanket. Both halves of the Hobeck directorial team are hunched over laptops, eyes glazing and watering as we pore over the newly typeset manuscripts of our international man-of-mystery, Lewis Hastings.

Proof-reading fiction is one of those jobs. You know the ones I mean. You have to do it but you dread it all the same. It's a sure way to induce paranoia. What if I miss a rogue apostrophe? To Oxford comma or not to Oxford comma? (Is that even English?) As publishers, we want to ensure our finished books are perfect in all regards. Great stories, prose, covers, typesetting and mistake free. It's probably impossible to achieve, and many great books have needed multiple editions before all the issues are caught. Some never are.

Proof-reading to this level is new to me. In my previous career in broadcast news the only time we really worried about the grammatical accuracy of a script was when we agonised about what were known in the BBC as 'Astons'. These are the name graphics that pop up on screen during news reports and programmes. Had we spelt the interviewee's name correctly? Was their job title accurate? Was the live location Aston correct too? Get that wrong and we'd indulge in hours of recriminations and inquests as to who was responsible.

TV news graphics
A crucible of pain. TV news graphics were the bane of my life.

Conversely, there were many great journalists and broadcasters I worked with who would butcher the English language in their scripts, both in terms of spelling and grammar. As long as they understood what they meant to say, that was okay by them. The issue would arise if their piece had to be re-voiced by a colleague, who then had to decipher what the shorthand and squiggles meant. One very famous and popular member of the BBC TV Sportsnews team used commas to mark his breathing points, which made sense to him, but caused havoc for colleagues who started placing the emphasis in all the wrong places.

Broadcast writing had a strength and weakness combined in one. Brevity. Sixty seconds of script is only 180 words. That makes it easy to spot mistakes, but creates the challenge of trying to condense a complex story into just a few words. You'd be lucky if an editor granted you two minutes to tell your story, and then add in a couple of clips from interviewees, you might have at most 300 words to play with. A novel is a completely different proposition. Rebecca and I are working through some wonderful but hefty novels at present. The issue now is maintaining our concentration levels to find as many potential issues as we can.

I say 'potential' advisedly. Frustratingly, grammar, spelling and syntax is a world of rules with a myriad of interpretations. American or English spelling? Double or single speech marks? Italicise all foreign language use even if it's common lingua franca? We have frequent debates between us, some heated, others tinged with weary frustration. To be brutally honest, some we never resolve to our satisfaction. We do our best. We try to catch as much as we can, and find a happy compromise. Above all else we want our readers to be allowed to remain in the story without being jarred by a rogue typo. We're fortunate that with digital publishing a mistake is easy to correct when its spotted by a reader. That doesn't make it hurt any less though.

Finally, a nod to the title of this blog. The first part of my day was spent in bed reading a brilliant submission from a potential Hobeck author. The title? Catch as Catch Can. All being equal this superb novel will be published by us next year. Just don't ask me to look forward to proofing it!

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