The Economics of Proofreading

by MDY

I witnessed a robbery on Thursday. A girl in snug gym-tights and a smug grin waltzed out of a bakery while the mousey shop-assistant plaintively yelled “you haven’t paid!” and “she just stole!” and people tried not to look. “What do you want me to do?!” barked the Lebanese pizza-seller next door when the small lady begged him to act, or at least to see. There was a moment, as the girl was half-way to the exit, when I could have interceded. After a while, you can taste the timing of these things; you come to recognise the sharp tang of a fork in the narrative, and the sugary rush or mild bitterness that follow depending on which way you dive. I calculated vectors, loaded a script; weighed up the risk factors (hidden accomplices; concealed blade) against the limiters on force (non-lethal, incapacitating under which parameters?). I looked away and the moment passed.

My friend proofread for me that night. She made additions and we had a wry, fragmented discussion on the dangers of verisimilitude. I rarely get other people to proofread my work nowadays, except when I’m unsure of myself. Even when sending things to my reader, I make sure to hold off until I am as close to a finished, refined product as I can get. This is because reading something for the first time is a precious commodity. Once a reader’s fresh, untainted perspective has met with your words, they can no longer assess them with that same pristine clarity that is so valuable to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s how this works mathematically:

Let x = the number of people who can provide useful feedback (erudite friends, literary critics)

Let y% be the level of completion/refinement of your work (with a vertical asymptote at y = 100)

So taking dy/dx = k where k is a constant (varying according to the profundity of the work), x must increase at an exponential rate inversely proportional to y. But because writers only ever have 4.7 people at most who will proofread their work, x is a limited resource.

Therefore, save your readers for when you have a clear shot.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

I often think of my readers – not my audience, but my core pool of assessors and guarantors of whom my big-R Reader is one – as shotgun shells. When you fire one, it can cause massive impact, but you need to get as close as possible to the target before you pull the trigger. And, like 00-buckshot, you can only fire a certain number of times before you’re plumb dry out of ammo.

So like choosing not to stop a robbery, your timing determines whether you win or you die.