You Need a Proofreader

Crossposted from my blog.

I play a lot of games with a lot of text. Visual novels, interactive fiction, RPGs—if it has words, I’ll read them, goddammit. There is, however, a teensy-weensy little itty-bitty tiny problem with a lot of them.

They haven’t been proofread.

It is very obvious when a text hasn’t been combed over by a proofreader. They’ll be filled with ambiguous syntax and tyops – not to mention inconsistent punctuation and spelling. They range from totally illegible to mostly okay, but they’re all at least kind of annoying.

So, what is a proofreader, anyway?

Like many things, it depends on who you ask.

In the publishing industry, a proofreader is someone who reads proofs (the already-edited version of a text) to find and fix errors and inconsistencies. The British Society of Editors and Proofreaders has a good overview of what a proofreader does…for books.

Outside the publishing industry, “proofreader” generally means “someone who corrects spelling, grammar, and punctuation.” This causes a lot of overlap between a proofreader and a copy editor, the latter of whom is usually responsible for spelling/grammar/punctuation fixes, as well as many other tasks, in the publishing industry.

Of course, games and books generally require different approaches. Generally, you can make as many changes to an in-development version of a game as you need; a proof, meanwhile, requires minimal changes because of the costs of printing (a proof is often a physical copy of the manuscript). Games also tend to have fewer restrictions, or at least different restrictions, than books. It makes sense, then, that the two roles would be combined, especially considering that a Venn diagram covering the skill sets required for both positions would be damn close to being a circle.

Oh, I can just do that myself!

Sure. (This is only partially sarcastic.) For something like a blog post, it’s fine to just look it over once or thrice before publishing it. (I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise.)

But for a game, especially if it’s a commercial game, you want your text to be as polished as possible. The easiest way to do that is with a proofreader who’s proficient in the language in which you’re writing. Nobody is more familiar with a text than its writer, and when you’ve spent hundreds of hours with the same text, it’s easy to miss small (and not-so-small) errors; your brain is so used to your text that you can’t see them no matter how hard you look. Your proofreader won’t have this same familiarity and will be able to spot any problems much more easily.

Additionally, hiring a proofreader rather than trying to proofread your game yourself frees up time that can be used for things like bug fixes and marketing.

What’s the difference between a proofreader and an editor? Do I need both? If I need to choose, which one should I pick?

Let’s back up and address these one-by-one.

In short, the difference between a proofreader and an editor is that an editor manages the content of a piece of writing, while a proofreader manages the presentation. Your editor will tell you about all your plot holes; your proofreader will tell you about all the times you mixed up “there,” “they’re,” and “their.”

Ideally, you should have both an editor and a proofreader, but especially for indie projects, that may not be financially feasible. (You are paying them…right?) If you have to choose one…well, that’s a decision you’ll have to make yourself based on your text and what you think your strengths and weaknesses in writing are. I’m biased, so maybe I shouldn’t be the one to make that decision.

Grammar is a social construct. Why should I care if my text is “correct?”

You don’t need to care, of course. You’re more than free to release your game out into the world with as many spelling errors as you can pack in there—but people will notice, and this will affect the way your game is perceived, especially if you’ve released it commercially. If your game gets a reputation of being typo-filled, it may even cost you sales. For indie devs, a handful of sales can be the thing that allows you to pay rent or buy groceries this month.

In the worst cases, errors can literally change the meaning of a sentence to its exact opposite meaning. A famous incident involves the so-called “Wicked Bible,” whose Ten Commandments tell good, God-fearing Christians, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” (It also features God showing off “His glory and His great-asse,” so maybe it wasn’t an error so much as deliberate sabotage, but the point stands: it’s very easy to change the meaning of a sentence.) The more text is in a game, the more likely it is that there will be a big mistake like this in it, and the more a proofreader can help keep them out.

Meanwhile, an infamous gaming example comes from the classic RPG Final Fantasy VII. There’s a quirk in the English version during the first boss battle. The Guard Scorpion puts its tail up, and Cloud gives Barret (and the player) some helpful advice…

Cloud: “Barret, be careful!”

“Attack while it’s tail’s up!

It’s gonna counterattack with its laser.”

Ignoring the “it’s tail” thing, this “advice” will get you a face full of lasers. What it’s trying to say is, “If you attack while its tail’s up, it’ll counterattack with its laser[, so you shouldn’t attack it].” Many players will see the first and second lines and immediately think the game’s telling them that they should attack while the Guard Scorpion’s tail is up. Keeping the game’s line length constraints in mind, I’d render these lines like this:

Cloud: “Barret, be careful!”

“Don’t attack while its tail’s up!

It’ll counterattack with its laser!”

Much clearer, don’t you think?

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And let’s not forget this classic line. (Image source: Know Your Meme)

Of course, part of being a good proofreader—at least in my opinion—is knowing when to break and bend grammar rules, too. The best example of this is when your characters are texting each other. The vast majority of people don’t bother with those pesky “rules” when they’re just asking “wyd.” Internet speak is almost a dialect in itself, with even simple changes in punctuation changing the tone of a sentence wildly. (Just go on Twitter for a bit and you’ll see what I mean.)

In short:

Get a proofreader. It may seem like a thankless position, but your players will know when you’ve skimped, and having a competent proofreader will do a lot to make your game just that much more polished.

Author: lunaterra


I'm a freelance writer/proofreader for visual novels and other text-heavy games.

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