Why a rhinoceros?

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515), The British Museum, London.

Behold! Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros! It is a marvel of imagination and technology. Not only did Dürer make his woodcut from written descriptions, but, with the arrival of moveable type printing, it became one of the best-known images in sixteenth-century Europe. The rhinoceros was the Grumpy Cat of 1515.

The rhinoceros and printing mark the start of a new job: the job of ensuring that printed versions of text correctly matched the handwritten version. How embarrassing, not to mention expensive, to send thousands of copies of articles and books into the world filled with printers’ errors and inaccuracies. Bear in mind that Europe’s wars of religion started two years after Dürer made his woodcut. They were as much about words as doctrine; a misplaced comma might cost lives, often the writer’s own! How useful to have a person read the first printing, the “proofs.” Someone to ask, “Is this what you mean? Is this what you want to say?” And so the job of “proofreader” was born.

Today, we no longer have to transfer the handwritten word to the printed word, and often we think onto the screen, not onto the page, but we still need proofreaders. With the printed word came standardization of grammar and spelling. It’s also true that even the best writers can get so lost in their ideas that words are lost or repeated as thoughts move from mind to page or screen.

That’s why teachers always say read through your writing with a fresh pair of eyes. There are two ways of doing this. The first is to wait. Put some time between your writing and reading it through. The second is to ask someone else to read to catch your errors and ensure clarity and accuracy, in a word, to proofread your writing. With that need unchanged, Dürer’s rhinoceros is the ideal mascot for a proofreader, even five centuries after the job came into being.

As much as I love that period of history, I cannot say I have five hundred years of experience. But with twenty years of working with writers, editors and students, I know that, like Europe’s first printed writers, it may be your life that depends on it!

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