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The man who comes to service our boiler (a delightful chap) has a touching faith in my ability to understand its inner workings. Without fail, and with no encouragement, he will launch into a detailed description of in-flow, out-flow and carbon monoxide ratios, complete with lively actions. I just nod my head at intervals and say, “Mm hmm.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled that the laws of physics and chemistry are applying themselves so diligently to keeping the radiators warm and the hot water flowing. And Mr Boiler Man understands, even if I don’t.

The point is, the world is full of things that I don’t know much about, but I’m grateful that someone does. Our boiler fixer clearly has a greater affinity for the mechanical than I do.

But I do ‘get’ words, which is why I’m a proofreader. The mechanics of a piece of writing are as mysterious to many people as boilers are to me. They fling words into sentences in the same way that I operate the thermostat or press the ‘boost’ button – accepting these everyday things with no deep feeling for how they actually function.

Making words work

Writers, editors and proofreaders know. When a piece of writing works well, a good writer feels it. Equally, when it’s gone wrong, an editor or proofreader can spot the problem and explain it, but not necessarily so that the uninitiated could understand.

And why should they? I would prefer Mr Boiler Man to know more about valves than verbs. The same could be said of my doctor. You have your own area of expertise that you want others to know about. From websites to newsletters, words are how you promote yourself. A proofreader’s job is to make sure the words are working properly.

Now, it might be a chore to keep getting the boiler serviced when I can’t see a problem with it. But I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a cold shower, so I get it checked.

Words sell things… or not. The short, sharp shower of a writing faux pas can be avoided. Just ask a proofreader.

Can we fix it? Yes, we can!

Catherine Kendal

Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website