Friday, December 31, 1999

the slog

[Originally published on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, 1:14 a.m.]

I think it's official:  proofreading is my least favorite thing to do at the office.  What sucks is that, despite the astronomical number of errors I catch, I'm always left with the feeling that I haven't caught them all, and this occasionally gets confirmed when we print a manuscript, and someone tells us that "There's a mistake on page 32."  Fuck.

The errors I deal with come mainly from my coworkers:  my American coworker and my Korean coworker—and also sometimes my boss (who is a Korean-fluent American).  I make mistakes, too, when contributing my part of the textbook's manuscript, but I'm a fanatical perfectionist, so my own errors are very rare.  My coworkers, by comparison, are sloppy as hell, and they often make the same mistakes over and over again:  omitted or inappropriate words, a legion of comma errors along with other punctuation-related gaffes, weird grammar, and so on.  I'm not just a proofreader, though:  I'm also an editor, which means I have to make sure that the reading-comprehension questions (written by Person B) match the content of the reading passage (written by Person A).  When there are mismatches, I have to fix that by either altering a given question to something that jives with the text, or altering the text so that the question makes sense.  I also have to make sure the answer key actually has correct answers.  This was a shit show at first, but my American coworker has greatly improved his game since last year, and the answer keys are now almost perfect, barring a few tiny errors.

My Korean coworker is our in-house designer; he takes the content that has been partially formatted by my US coworker and tweaks the formatting in Adobe InDesign, adding his own graphics (and some of my illustrations at the end of each chapter) plus the stock photos from—images that we pay to use legally in our course material.*  He then prints out the not-quite-finalized material for me to proofread, and that's when I make my tweaks and edits.  I do this old-school, i.e., pen to paper.  I can, if necessary, proofread electronically in Adobe Acrobat, but it's not my preferred method.  Manual is better.  Alas, my Korean coworker often makes boneheaded mistakes—always of the same type—and never seems to learn his lesson.  He's hampered by the fact that his English isn't much beyond beginner level, so I can't get too angry at his mistakes.  He's dealing with a torrent of English.  How would I function in Korean?  That said, he's not careful about text formatting, and this is a constant problem:  he takes a text formatted in Apple Pages, copies and pastes the text into InDesign, and automatically loses the text formatting:  anything that had been italicized or bolded, for example, gets rendered into InDesign as plain text.  The coworker then has the unenviable task of combing through every page in an effort to restore all the lost formatting.  Needless to say, because this coworker can't function well in English, he misses stuff.  All the damn time.

What's worse is when my Korean coworker tries to transfer over a page from one file, but somehow manages to transfer only two-thirds of the page while filling in the final third of the page with content from a totally different chapter of the textbook.  Part of the problem is how my coworker uses InDesign:  every page of every textbook is a confusing mass of text boxes, at least thirty per page.  So it's not a simple matter of copying an entire page from the Pages file and dropping it straight into InDesign:  my coworker has to port the content over, text box by text box, and this is where the errors creep in.  Imagine trying to keep track of thirty text boxes on a single page, then imagine trying to copy and paste text—box by box—into those thirty text boxes.  I don't use InDesign, so I don't understand how it works, but you'd think there'd be some easier way to grab a bunch of text, port it over, then tweak it quickly so that it's all in the right format.  But my coworker can't or simply doesn't do that.  Because of his piecemeal methodology, the probability that confusion and simple forgetfulness—combined with English-blindness—will cause errors is very high. And I have to proofread all that.

I've seen pages that I'd written get butchered by this process.  In Section 1, the instructions are correct, but the exercise questions are all from the wrong part of the book.  In Section 2, the questions are fine, but the instructions come from somewhere else.  In the advanced-level version of a book, there are no problems with the multiple-choice reading-comp questions; in the intermediate-level version of the book, those multiple-choice answers now have doubled periods and stray letters hanging off them.  In some cases, the entire page is from a different chapter.  How the fuck does this happen?  I'm genuinely curious.  I'd like to sit with my coworker and watch what he does, step by step, so I can understand what zaniness is pinging around inside his brain and causing him to make these gaffes.

Don't get me wrong:  I like my Korean coworker.  He's a very good guy, a good soul, and I can see he's stressed, overworked, and starting to burn out as this crunch period wears on and on (late May is when we'll see a light at the end of this tunnel).  He needs a break—at least two days off—so he can rest his head and then leap back into the fight.  My American coworker is burning out, too, and he's already taken a mental-health day off (something I refuse to do in the middle of crunch period, but that's another issue for a different blog post).  I'm getting a bit cross-eyed myself; this week, I decided to come into work two hours earlier than normal so I can proofread an entire chapter's worth of work per day—i.e., advanced, intermediate, and basic versions of the same chapter—and be done in a timely manner each day.  But what's happening is that I'm coming in early and staying late.

Take now, for instance. I'm still at the goddamn office, after midnight on Wednesday morning, writing this blog post because, despite coming in at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, I worked until 11:30 p.m.  Why?  My Korean coworker couldn't print out the material to proofread until 5 p.m.  I know he feels guilty about this, and his guilt is adding to his stress, but there's nothing to be done, I guess:  you can't whip the guy to make him generate material faster.  Graphic design, even at the best of times, is slow work and can't be rushed.  Unfortunately for me, this means that coming in two hours early doesn't help:  I'm still going to end up working late.  Ideally, my coworker ought to print out the three versions of a chapter by 2 p.m.  Instead, he's printing them out at 5 p.m., which ensures that I'll be in the office well past 10 p.m.  As I said, I worked until 11:30 tonight (technically, last night, as it's now past midnight).

OK... just blowing off some steam.  I do eventually plan to use the comp hours I'm racking up through all this extra work.  I'd like to use the hours in early May (when I hope to walk to the Andong Dam), but because we'll still be in the middle of crunch time, it's going to have to be late May when I finally take a much-needed break.

I have two more chapters of Book 6 to get through, which means I'll finish proofing Book 6 this Thursday.  On Friday the 30th, I have to go back and proof parts of Book 6 that hadn't been created until very late (my boss was lagging behind).  I'll therefore start proofing Book 2 this Monday, May 3 (Mom's birthday is May 4; she would have been 78).  It'll take ten business days to get through Book 2, which is also ten chapters long and three levels deep.  Ideally, this means I'll be done proofing on May 14, a Friday.  I had wanted to do my Andong Dam walk the week of Children's Day, which happens on May 5.  Originally, I was going to take the 6th and the 7th off as well so as to have a five-day weekend during which to hike and take advantage of the lingering coolness before the heat of late May sets in.  That's no longer in the cards, alas.  Anyway, Book 2, being a lower-level text, has less material in it, so it ought to be slightly easier (and maybe faster?) to proofread.

See you on the other side.


*My company had been sued, some years ago, for using copyrighted material from The Economist.  We had ripped off the material, placed the material into our textbooks, made money off those textbooks, and failed to give the magazine a single iota of credit for the material we had stolen.  I say "we" because I'm part of the company now, but the lawsuit, and the accompanying scandal, had happened before I came on board.  I think we've learned our lesson, which is why textbook-generation has since become a much higher priority.


John Mac said...

Wow, I had no idea what your workday involves. Obviously, I have no clue, but it seems as much a systemic problem as it does an employee issue. There must be a better way of moving that content around. Also, it sounds to me like you are understaffed.

Is this May deadline based on something legitimate or is it managerial fiat? What happens if it is missed?

That's a helluva work schedule you are dealing with. That kind of stress can't be conducive to mistake-free proofing. Good luck, I don't envy you.

Charles said...

I am inclined to agree with John that it sounds like you are understaffed, but I imagine that always seems to be the case during crunch time. It's not like you can hire extra workers just for crunch time and then let them go when crunch time is over. Too bad you don't have migrant proofreaders that you can hire on for a season and pay peanuts to pick out errors.

Now I am picturing a bunch of out-of-work proofreaders standing on a street corner, waiting for a pick-up truck to come by and port them over to a publishing house under siege.

Kevin Kim said...

re: the staffing issue

The boss has often talked about adding staff members, but I'm not enthusiastic about it, given all the crap that happened last time we tried working as a large group (to wit: personality conflicts, harassment accusations leading to a firing). We had a different staff member a few months ago, a seemingly friendly Brit, but she proved to be flaky and intent on immediately jumping to other work; she did a runner on us. I just don't think we have good luck at finding good people. I also think the boss gets overly ambitious when he does have a large staff to work with, so the workload problem never really goes away.

This is Korea, which means we face impossible demands but find some way to work things out, MacGyver-style. Right now, for me, MacGyvering amounts to working longer hours to make sure we meet the deadline. My coworkers aren't able to put in many extra hours because they're both married and have families. My US coworker will occasionally come in on a Saturday if needed. Occasionally.

re: proofreaders needed!

I love the vision of a bunch of out-of-work proofreaders. God knows this country needs native-speaker-level proofers and editors to clean up all the unintentional Konglish that's splattered everywhere like gleefully sprayed projectile diarrhea. I often shake my head at newspaper ads, cards, various signs, and weird TV dialogue that all could have been so much nicer-sounding had someone competent been around to clean up the English. Ah, well.

re: John's question about the May deadline

The May deadline is the result of an agreement between our office (i.e., our boss) and the teachers who will be using our materials later in the year. As part of the boss's new contract, it is absolutely necessary that we hew to whatever deadline is set for us, fair or unfair. The deadline itself isn't simply imposed on us, though; there's a negotiation process. The boss has a good idea of a realistic timeline, but even when the timeline seems generous, there's always going to be a crunch time as the deadline nears. That's just the nature of the beast in publishing. Work always fills the available time allotted.

re: a better way to handle text issues

I should probably learn InDesign on my own time. I think what my coworker is missing is a deep knowledge of the suite's many shortcuts. It pains me to watch him tweaking every single thing manually. Simply double-clicking to select an entire word seems beyond him. At the same time, he's competent at what functions he does know how to use. Go figure.