Proofreading is basically taking someone’s work and polishing it until it shines. It sounds simple, that is until you consider the extremely wide range of documents a freelance proofreader sees every day. Many writers and editors work with long-term clients so they get a sense of what they are working with and what to anticipate. However, as a freelancer, you’ll often be working on one-time edits for clients that require quick turnarounds. That means the assignment that’s about to hit your inbox could be anything. Read on for some of the delightful problems I’ve encountered over the years.

The Absence of Articles

When my career first started, I was freelancing editing academic papers for graduate students. This freelance challenge led me to find my editing strengths (and weaknesses) while learning about a huge variety of technical topics. The problematic part was my clients weren’t really coming to me willingly. Their messages usually stemmed from the cajoling of an academic advisor or professor to get them to seek out an academic editor.

In most cases, the ideas were solid and the technical interpretations were sound. So I needed to make the documents readable. One day, that all changed. There I was sitting in a room with a paper copy of an extensive report, nothing new. I had a 4 or 5-hour deadline to do my review but every sentence I read just wasn’t making sense. Was I tired? Was the content to technical?

Nope, the problem was clear around paragraph three. The paper had entirely omitted any use of a, an, or the. Without articles, technical papers are essentially jargon strung together with the occasional verb.

Take this simple sentence: The dog is a friendly animal with an excellent sense of smell.
Now take out the articles: Dog is friendly animal with excellent sense of smell.

It still means something, but it sounds off. Now imagine that you didn’t know what a dog or a sense of smell was.

Now the sentence is down to this: THING is friendly animal with excellent OTHER THING.

Remember, I was dealing with complex technical details and systems that not only had I never heard of, but I couldn’t even look up online. I did my best to insert some articles where I could, but honestly that ranks as one of my biggest proofreading failures. It still haunts me whenever I notice a missing “the.” When you see a challenge like this, doing your best is really all that you can do. This document taught me to highlight a paper’s strengths, in this case technical content, and try and minimize issues that detract from that central message.

The Monster

While less concrete, another proofreading nightmare that came to me is what lingers in my head as a never ending table of doom. I’m sure it had to be about 70 pages of table columns packed with tiny text that had to be kept to similar line lengths. Not only did the formatting break around page 20 due to some extremely unpleasant technical errors, but human error caused all sorts of problems as well.

Each table cell had specific and very detailed contents, which is to be expected from a technical document. The challenge was hidden within the tone of the writing. Each team member had given extensive input on the document which turned every cell into strange melding of facts written in completely different voices and styles. The document-level consistency was just nonexistent as the wording changed drastically from one cell to the next, even while discussing exactly the same things.

I honestly didn’t know how to approach fixing this document in any reasonable amount of time. This was still early enough in my career that I didn’t feel comfortable giving pushback on deadlines. It was definitely the project where I learned the most about how important expectation setting can be in freelancing.

You might find it hard to give clients an honest assessment of the work, especially because it can make you feel like you are risking losing the contract. Consider the alternative though, which is you promising a flawless draft and then returning their original Frankenstein document with shiny new bolts and pretty stitches. While you might understand the efforts that it took to take the document from unreadable to decent, your client likely won’t. Giving them an idea of what they can expect given their time and budget will keep you from sending apology messages (or worse giving discounts) when they aren’t actually warranted.

The Baby

We all have had clients who consider his or her work to be their baby. You know, the project they are so tied to that it’s basically an extension of themselves. These projects are tough because when you want to change the wording or just polish the document it’s an entire ordeal and sometimes things get heated.

One particular project sticks in my mind because the author didn’t want to change anything even the slightest bit. Sometimes that is fine, especially if you’re dealing with a subject matter expert who is pretty good at communicating their ideas. In this case, however, every sentence was a paragraph long. That’s not embellishment for dramatic effect, they really were just the longest sentences imaginable. In terms of proofreading, this job wasn’t that hard. In terms of being a freelancer who wants to make clients happy, it was impossible.

Just Do Your Best

Every writer, editor, and proofreader runs up against these issues and more. This also highlights one really critical aspect of freelancing, if things don’t go well you probably won’t have to deal with it for as long as you would with a full time office job. Contracts come and go, and some just don’t go well. That’s life, and in an office tackling paper after paper written by the same temperamental author or bad writer may drive you insane. In freelancing, you have a lot more flexibility to brush yourself off and move on to the next challenge.

Any other horror stories out there? Tell us your biggest proofreading nightmare in the comments below so we can all share in your pain!