Talk About Bleary Eyes

While attending the George Washington University, I picked up extra scratch by proofreading patents for a law firm. Back in the early nineties, twelve dollars an hour seemed like a lot of money (though, being a college student, the firm might as well have sent my checks directly to the M Street bars).

The gig entailed traditional proofreading, not the popularly held catch-all sense that can seemingly mean almost any kind of copy editing. The job was to proof already-printed patents against documents the law firm submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). I worked as part of a two-person team, taking turns reading the office copy while the other proofreader followed along in the printed patent. (In practice, I followed along about 90 percent of the time. Yes, I had the more difficult task, and no, I didn’t make a cent more for my efforts!)

If the patent had already been printed, you might wonder about the point of proofing it. Would the patent be reprinted? No, but if the clients, who were billed for our services, thought the change important enough, an errata sheet could be filed with the PTO and permanently attached to the patent.

Lest you’re thinking, “Wow, you must have gotten a sneak peek at some crazy-cool inventions!,” I can assure you that wasn’t the case. These were chemical and electrical patents detailing processes for such things as substrate application for computer chips. The patents were highly technical, and their proofreading often involved the reading of long chemical strings and formulas, along with such text features as superscripts and subscripts.

Wait a minute. This was college. Shouldn’t I have been out kidnapping the rival school’s goat?

The work had to be done in the law firm because the firm, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t allow client files to leave the office. So my partner and I would steal into the office at odd hours (usually Saturday or Sunday mornings), grab the files, and find an empty conference room to spend the next six or so hours performing the incredibly tedious work.

And the work was tedious, but I credit it for helping me develop the mental muscles that allow me to concentrate for long periods of time. It’s common for people to see an error in text and say, “How could an editor miss this?” But that question presumes that the editor has had that bit of text and only that bit of text laid before him or her, when these instances are usually missed not because editors aren’t capable of picking up a specific error, but because of a lapse of concentration during the course of a long day of editing.

This is why frequent breaks are so important. When reading text, the mental red flags that go up when something is amiss might very well not be raised if the editor is fatigued. If tired, editors can easily read right over something that would jump out at them if they were fresher.

I can now look at all the work I did proofreading patents as training for my editing career, but I suppose the training would only have done so much good if I didn’t love the work as well. Even when proofing materials that were largely impenetrable to me, I loved finding errors, and while some patents were fairly clean, any problem that could go wrong at some point inevitably did. Missing lines or even pages of text. Words run together. Even an innocently introduced case of profanity. (Yes, I once caught the f-word in a patent.)

One of the fun parts of the job was that, because we did off-hours work, almost no one at the firm knew who we were. We felt a bit like secret agents Mission: Impossible–ing our way into the office, knocking out our work, and getting the hell out of Dodge.

Or maybe that makes it sound a bit cooler than it actually was. Maybe you wouldn’t think there was much cool about a job that involved making sure every little syllable was correct in a word like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. But I enjoyed it, and in many ways I miss the job that I will forever associate with a particular time in my life.

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