Do you really need a proofreader?

You hit the space bar, and a squiggly green line appears under your sentence. MS Word is telling you something is not quite ‘right’ with your writing. Again? You humph indignantly, place the cursor in the sentence, left-click and then click on ‘About this sentence’. According to MS Word, you have written a fragment, and you should ‘consider developing this thought into a complete sentence by adding a subject or a verb or combining this text with another sentence’.

You read your sentence again, twice. You are sure it has a subject (global justice is the subject, surely), and there is clearly a verb (dealing is a verb, right?). So, what is the problem? Then again, you are not sure if dealing is a verb in this sentence … maybe, it’s a noun. You vaguely remember reading somewhere about verbs acting as nouns; the word gerund springs to mind, but there is no time for a grammar lesson. Instead, you take MS Word’s advice, and you try to combine your sentence with another sentence.

After you spend a minute or two rewriting, the green squiggly line reappears. This time, you groan … loudly. MS Word informs you your sentence is suffering from ‘wordiness’ and ‘you may be using more words than you need to express your idea’. MS Word kindly provides an example to help you out: ‘Instead of “There were some days that Mary wished would last forever” consider “Some days Mary wished would last forever.”’ You read the example a couple of times but find it no help at all.

You study your sentence again and, in desperation, click ‘Undo Typing’ on the Quick Access Toolbar multiple times until you are back where you started – the fragment. You decide it reads just fine. Or does it? You have wasted at least five minutes on this one sentence; you cannot afford to waste any more time. You start composing the next sentence.

Your next sentence includes a quotation from a source. Now, what was that rule about punctuation introducing quotations? Is there a rule? You know dialogue in fiction is usually introduced with a comma, so maybe you should use a comma. However, you are not writing fiction. You wonder if a colon would be more appropriate. You decide to get this punctuation right, but after five minutes of Googling, you are more confused. Time is ticking away. You make a snap decision ­– you will use commas and colons, alternating them. Now, next decision: should you use double or single quotation marks? You choose double, but not with confidence. There, done. With a mild sense of satisfaction, you click on ‘Insert Footnote’.

You are at the bottom of the page typing your first footnote. You need to provide the pinpoint for the quotation. Now, what was that you read about dashes and spans of figures? You can remember something about en dashes and em dashes, but not when or how to use them. You suddenly recall that spaces play a role with dashes, but the memory is vague. Oh, never mind, there cannot be that much difference between a dash and a hyphen, can there? You decide to keep it simple and use hyphens for everything. No squiggly line appears under your hyphen, and you (unwisely) decide all is well. You are also slightly concerned about the author’s name: surname first or last, full name or initials – but you decide to worry about that later … if you get time, that is. Back to the next sentence.

Oh no, a foreign phrase – should you enclose it in quotation marks or italicise it? With a slight pang of regret – you were quite fond of that exotic flourish – you decide to ditch it. Easier, after all. Next sentence. Oh, bother. Should you use initial capitals for minister? What about government? You have seen government written with a capital ‘g’ and with a lower-case ‘g’. Maybe there is a rule, but you decide again to ‘play it safe’, and you capitalise both words. Does that mean you should use an initial capital for manager in your next sentence? Mm … maybe.

You are a natural writer. For as long as you can remember, people have told you so: your parents, your sixth-grade teacher, your creative-writing tutor at university. However, being a natural writer does not mean you will not benefit from the services of a professional proofreader or editor. Every error and every inconsistency in your writing distracts your reader from your message. If you are not confident about when to use a hyphen and when to use a dash, or the difference between an en dash and an em dash, you need a proofreader. If you cannot choose between a comma and a colon to introduce a quotation, or whether to use per cent, percent or %, you need a proofreader. If you toss a coin to decide whether to capitalise government, professor and manager, you need a proofreader. If you are not sure where to position commas, whether to hyphenate compound words, and when to use that and when to use which – and whether either should be preceded by a comma – you need a proofreader. With its squiggly green and red lines, MS Word may alert you to some potential problems, and you may avoid some embarrassing errors by running a spell-check, but a qualified editor or proofreader will remove all errors, polish your writing and add value as no software can.

Wendy Monaghan, accredited editor and owner of Wendy Monaghan Editing Services

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