Proofreading Nineteen Eighty-Four

The most unexpected job I’ve recently been asked to do is proofread George Orwell’s famous novel.

You may be wondering why a book originally published in 1949 would need proofreading and what problems a proofreader might be looking for in a book that has already been read by millions.

A proofread was needed because a new imprint of the book is being released. The copyright on the original Penguin edition has recently expired at a time of renewed interest in the book due to Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ at the start of his presidency sounding positively Orwellian, devices that monitor us being ubiquitous (you may be reading this from such a device!), and the recent publication of Julia, a novel based on the main female character in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I received the typeset proofs. Typesetting is a process that converts a text into pdfs with the appearance of the pages of a book (the proofs). This process can generate a lot of problems.

For example:

  • A new line of conversation might not start on a new indented line and continue on the same line, like this: ‘No,’ said O’Brien.
  • Lines of text might appear too close together.
  • The typesetting software may experience problems with unusual characters and print them incorrectly. Café became Cafe´ in several places.
  • A longer word with a breaking hyphen that originally spanned two lines in the Penguin edition may appear in the middle of a line still with the breaking hyphen, such as ‘com- promised’.
  • The new arrangement of words can result in widows, orphans, runts and other layout problems. See here for an illustration of these problems.

In addition, there are some editorial issues. Orwell’s book was written over 70 years ago, and language changes over time.

For example:

  • ‘Over-heard’ is no longer hyphenated. The Penguin edition contained many such words.
  • These days, broken speech usually ends with an unspaced em dash (‘It’s got blocked up and—’). Orwell used a spaced hyphen (‘It’s got blocked up and -’).
  • Orwell wasn’t consistent in his style, even using ‘vaporise’ and ‘vaporize’ on the same line.

It was up to me to decide how much to change the great novelist’s work!

I queried possible changes with my manager, and we agreed that only a handful of changes would be made to the words themselves, a decision I feel happy about. After all, Orwell’s minor errors haven’t prevented Nineteen Eighty-Four from becoming one of the best-known books of the 20th century. Working on Orwell’s novel turned out to be an excellent experience in deciding what is really necessary to change when proofreading and what can be left alone.