There’s another problem with some proofreaders, which is that they wish they were editors and try to second guess what you meant to say. Most proofreaders who want to be proofreaders and not something else, and stay proofreaders a long time, don’t get into it because they’re facile writers, but because they are nuts for spelling and punctuation. Often, they’ll completely miss the point of what an author was saying, because they’re too literal, too linear, and too obsessive-compulsive.
One time a woman wrote a letter to a magazine I worked on, in which she said, “On the average, my family receives a bazillion advertising magazines a month.” She was obviously being funny, because she made an official-sounding, statistical-sounding statement whose result was a number that doesn’t exist, except in kiddie slang. Anybody could see that – except the proofreader. She said the statement was illogical and deleted it. I put it back in.
This kind of thing is exasperating to me, because I have inherited my father’s habit of talking and writing in extended puns. I write sentences that sound like one thing but actually mean the opposite, or at least something much different. This device is common in Japanese, I understand, but it’s kind of rare in English writing. If I write something for publication, I have to watch it like a hawk, because a typical proofreader will think I’m simply misspelling and ruin my message.
The worst experience I’ve ever had was with a publisher somewhere near Prague. They’d asked me to translate a book of fairy tales, at which I’m evidently adept, but I had a problem with the editor. You see, in much of Eastern Europe, a native-English-speaking child can get a job that he would have to endure 10 or 12 years of instruction, mentoring, torture, punishment and hazing to attain in the US. Being as young and naive as he is, though, he’ll think he got the position completely on merit, he’ll get full of himself and become unbearable to deal with. He and I jumped into it with the translation of proverbs. He wanted the dictionary equivalent of each proverb, but sometimes the proverb books list only rough approximations, and a different proverb has to be used, or one has to be made up. In another run-in, I had a character “cursing a blue streak”. He claimed he’d never heard this expression and didn’t know what it meant. So I sent him its entry from the American Heritage Dictionary, but he still didn’t believe anyone used it. Then he pulled out the age difference thing, which immediately made me realize he was inexperienced. When that didn’t make me comply, he tried to slap me in the face with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago: “Maybe you’ve heard of it?” He’d seen my r?sum? and wasn’t even able to tell I had superior education and experience to his. I realized this would get nowhere, so I threw the project back.
It’s interesting that you won a book award at age 11. I once had a student in a remedial writing class who was in there because he was fresh out of prison, had published a children’s book that was selling and getting fan mail, and he decided he’d better learn how to write, if he was going to be an author. His success was a big wake-up call to whining authors who complain that they can’t get published. The story he wrote was completely inane: A little girl gets picked up by her grown-up brother in his old Trans Am or whatever. They go to the lake and fish. Then they eat lunch. Then they fish some more, go home, and Mom cooks the fish for dinner. The girl says her prayers and goes to bed. There was absolutely nothing witty or imaginative in the whole book, and the illustrations were pretty retarded. However, as I read the book, I found myself getting tender feelings and even being soothed by the story. I wanted to read another one.
One of the most interesting things about the book was that it was a redneck story written by a real redneck. Usually, children’s stories about rednecks are written by authors who rose above their redneck roots, got an MA or a PhD, and then write nostalgically about the noble savages they grew up among. This guy had a much different intention. He was writing his story to show how a non-dysfunctional family should behave, how kids should get three good meals a day, and how they should say their prayers at night. No nostalgia, because he never lived through that!
As for times when style manuals don’t make sense, I think they’re best used in hierarchical fashion. Go to the AP manual first. If that doesn’t answer the question, go to Gregg. That will always answer the question, but if it doesn’t, use the Chicago manual. If you flip the hierarchy over, you’re sure to get nonsense.