Editorial Emergency recently collaborated (on behalf of our beloved client Marketing Factory) with the design firm Graphics 101 on the 2008 Honda Civic Tour souvenir program. One of the value-added services Graphics 101 provided was the eagle-eyeing of professional proofreader Susan O'Brien.
You all know what a word nerd Julia is, so it may not surprise you to discover that "professional proofreader" has long been a fantasy career of hers (right up there with cheesemonger and supermodel). She was thus impressed by O'Brien – for her choice of vocation as well as the razor-sharpness she brings to it – and felt it necessary to share.
O'Brien works full time as a senior proofreader at Rubin Postaer Associates (RPA), an advertising agency with a client roster that includes Honda, Acura, La-Z-Boy, and SOY JOY, and as a freelance proofreader/copy editor for Graphics 101, which does print work for radio stations, including concert programs, logos, and T-shirts.
Following is a brief Q&A with O'Brien, in which she discusses bringing order to her plush menagerie, the expectation of perfection, and (at Julia's urging) a rare proofreading stumble, among other juicy tidbits. Julia reveals her own most-embarrassing copy moment thereafter.
Editorializing: What are your primary professional responsibilities/day-to-day tasks?
Susan O'Brien: At RPA, I proofread Honda National broadcast, print, collateral, direct mail and event copy, as well as all things La-Z-Boy. Basically, I review the copy for errors and inconsistencies. Then I supervise how it's typed up so it's as clean as possible for our studio. I review mechanicals and print proofs for errors in type, format, missing elements, etc. My work at Graphics 101 involves more fiddling with the copy itself. Depending on the project, Graphics 101 often doesn't have copywriters producing text, so it typically needs more cleaning up.
E: What early experiences/personal attributes have prepared you for this work? Are you a natural-born stickler?
If I sweat the small stuff (like, do I really need that comma there?), I'll drive myself insane.SO: I have always liked organizing things. As a kid I'd organize my drawers, my stuffed-animal collection, the food on my plate – you name it; I'd line it up and give it structure. I look at proofreading and copy editing as providing order and clarity to the written word. I've also always loved to read, so I can't ask for anything better than spending all day doing something I love.
E: What educational background/previous professional experience do you bring to the job?
SO: Oddly enough, I don't have a degree in English. My educational background is in psychology (B.A., M.A.), but I have taken several English classes, a novel-writing course at UCLA, and poetry classes at the University of Washington. On a professional level, I learned how to proofread at Roxbury Publishing, a college textbook publisher, while I was an editorial assistant there. I've worked at Yahoo! writing comments for websites, I've written book reviews, and I've taught phonics to grade-schoolers. So I guess my work has always involved picking apart words or language in some manner.
E: How do you rise above the unique pressures of your position, i.e. the expectation of perfection?
SO: I had to give up perfection on a personal level before I could be okay with a lack of perfection in my work. Everyone is human; everyone messes up. If I sweat the small stuff (like, do I really need that comma there?), I'll drive myself insane. Luckily, I have a boss who recognizes that I am not a machine. It takes a lot of the pressure off. Of course, having fresh eyes review something I've looked at multiple times helps! It also helps for me to slow down, especially when I'm under a tight deadline. More mistakes come with more pressure.
E: What do you find most satisfying about your work?
SO: I like saving companies from potential embarrassment. I also find the work soothing since it's so quiet and focused, and I am, and have always been, an introverted girl.
E: Care to relate any notable screw-ups?
SO: RPA does the advertising for the LA Marathon, since Honda's one of its biggest sponsors. I boo-booed on one of their ads – and I'm a two-time runner of that marathon. It's in a line of tiny legal text, but it's there staring at me when I open various magazines. The mistake? It said this year's competition was LA Marathon XXII, but it's actually XXIII. Granted, the LA Marathon website had it wrong in some places, so I'm not 100% to blame, and it did go through account-exec hands, etc., but I'm still ashamed! All the stickler runners are wagging their fingers at me.
We don't believe for a minute that O'Brien's fellow stickler runners are so lacking in compassion, but she has empathy in this corner. Julia is still haunted by her biggest proofreading boner, which occurred when she was the publicity editor at Geffen Records. It was 1998. Hole had completed their much-anticipated follow-up to 1994's epochal Live Through This. Entitled Celebrity Skin, it was partly inspired by the Fleetwood Mac classic Rumours, according to frontwoman Courtney Love.
Julia worked long and hard on the album bio, copy editing repeated drafts and even adding a passage about The Gold Rush, of all things. Needless to say, she proofed it within an inch of its life. The stakes were particularly high as the bio would be serviced to 4,000 or so media outlets and a lot of the recipients would actually read it because of the aforementioned anticipation.
It wasn't until she got her own copy in the mail that Julia realized she'd spelled "Rumours" in the (in this case ugly) American fashion – without the "u." O! the ignominy. How it stings, even to this day. Then there was the time she misspelled "vassal" throughout a typically overstuffed high-school paper on medieval games, but we'll save that for another issue.