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Proofreading Pays Off

May 13, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 13, 2015

For many writers, proofreading is not a favorite pastime. You may dread it, or you may laugh and wonder if you need your eyes checked when you find obvious errors on the tenth read of a section of text when you never noticed the error on the first nine passes.

Today I want to encourage you to face proofreading with a positive attitude. Whether you intend to self-publish or pursue traditional publishing, you need to proofread your stories. Or you need to hire someone to do it for you. Or you need to twist the arm of a friend, maybe nudge a buddy with the memory of a recent favor you did for her.

There’d be nothing wrong if you actually proofed your own writing and had someone else do it too. It’s likely that you’ll find words you want to change once you start to look at the fine details of your stories, changes a proofreader couldn’t anticipate. But a proofreader who isn’t you is likely to find errors that you, with your familiarity with the text, overlook again and again.

Proofing doesn’t need to be drudgery—make a game out of it if that helps. Maybe pay yourself (in dimes or M&M’S or minutes of pleasure reading) for every error you find.


Tricks for Proofing

Print your manuscript in a style different from the one you use to edit—make the words and punctuation look different on the page.

This may mean a different font or a font of a different size or color. This may mean printing on paper of a different color. Or you may want to turn your paper sideways and print two pages on the same piece of paper to simulate the look of a printed book.

Try proofreading in an environment different from where you typically read and edit your manuscripts—maybe at a library or the conference room at your office (after hours, of course). Proofread at the kitchen table, on the back deck, at Starbucks.

Proofreading should come after the rewriting and editing, after the major changes and the minor adjustments. It’s easy to introduce new mistakes into the text even when you’re only making minor changes, so save proofreading for the final stages. You won’t want to have to proofread again and again.


What to Look For

When you proofread, you’ll spend a lot of time checking the mechanics and less time with the fiction elements, though you should search for problems with both.

You’ll want to be alert for—

~  missing words and repeated words

~  misspelled or misused words

~  missing or incorrect punctuation

~  double punctuation marks at the ends of sentences

~  missing closing quotation mark

~  missing periods before closing quotation marks

~  missing punctuation in dialogue

~  missing second dash or comma of a pair (check asides, digressions, and nonessential clauses)

~  inconsistencies in capitalization or hyphenation (your style sheet will come in handy for these kinds of issues)

~  overuse of dashes or ellipses

~  missing capital letter for the first word of a sentence

~  extra character spaces between words (this can be easily fixed by using search and replace)

~  sentences inadvertently cut off

~  word repetition in neighboring paragraphs

~  overuse of I or there was/were/is

~  overuse of words you didn’t realize you used again and again

~  missing or wrong chapter numbers

~  timeline errors

~  inconsistent formatting*

~  placeholders that were never changed or removed

~  notes to yourself within the text

~  bookmarks that can be removed

~  highlighting that no longer serves a purpose

~  duplicate scenes or paragraphs

In addition to these items, you’ll want to be alert to inconsistencies between scenes. For example, you may find one character doing (or saying) something in one scene but find a reference to a different character performing that action in another scene. You may find a character in one scene when she couldn’t possibly have been there because she was off doing something else while the scene played out.

When you proofread, you’ll want to do one more check of the spelling of character names, place names, and business names. This is even more critical if you changed names while you were writing the story.

I assume that by this point in your process of story creation that you’ve verified facts, but if not, now is the time to verify. Check the dates of events and verify the parties involved. Check the spelling of the names of real groups, companies, and product brands.

*You want formatting to be consistent when you submit to agents and editors as a signal of professionalism. When you’re self-publishing, a consistent format helps you (or the service you hire) maintain consistency with the published document. Items you’ll want to check include paragraph indents, line spacing, font type and font size, and margins.


Proofreading takes an eye for detail, but it doesn’t have to be an intolerable task. And it’s especially important that it’s done well if you intend to self-publish.

Proofreading before you submit to agents and publishing houses and before you self-publish will save you embarrassment and help you put the cleanest product possible before your readers. Don’t skimp on this vital step of manuscript preparation.


Practical Steps

Take out your favorite fine-toothed comb and go through your manuscript line by line, word by word.

Read with a ruler or use a piece of paper to cover the text so you can concentrate on a single line at a time.

Try reading from the end of the story to the beginning (by sentences, not words) one sentence at a time. If that doesn’t work for you, at least try working through your proofing from the last chapter through the first rather than from the first through the last. Shake up your brain a bit by approaching the manuscript in a different way.

And take your time. Don’t try to rush through 350 pages in an afternoon. A good proofreading requires time.

And it deserves attention. Try turning off the TV and your music. Give your full attention to the task.

Find those niggling little errors that are hiding in your stories. Find them and ruthlessly do away with them.

And when you’re done, reward yourself.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Editing Tips

11 Responses to “Proofreading Pays Off”

  1. Great advice. I find that making a “cheat sheet” list of what to look for (like your list) and making one pass through the manuscript for one or two of the items at a time (like punctuation inside quotes and missing quotes), keeps me from getting sidetracked–and forgetting what I was originally looking for. After all, few people can catch everything all at once, so smaller increments makes the work go faster, and it results in less frustration.

  2. Catherine, it’s so easy to get sidetracked, isn’t it? Especially when we find something that needs to be changed.

    Working through a couple issues at a time is a good idea if you’ve got time to make multiple proofing passes. If you don’t, going very slowly for one or two passes, with frequent reminders of the issues you’re looking for, might have to suffice. And stopping when you’re tired, when your eyes are fatigued or when you realize that you’re not paying close attention, are necessary and helpful steps too.

    Is there anything from your cheat sheet that I should add here?

  3. Great advice. I recently sent two sample stories of my work (about 550 words each) to three proofreaders. I was surprised by the differences between them. They caught similar things, but each had a different take on how certain sentences should be punctuated, and structured.

    I decided then to look at my work myself, word by word, sentence by sentence, to find errors in spelling, punctuation, and repetitions.

    Using your suggestions, and list of what to look for, I feel confident I will catch my mistakes. Certainly I have option based on the proofing that was returned to me.

    I also think one can get too bent out of shape about basic punctuation. As long as a sentence makes sense, and the reader doesn’t struggle with understanding it, then really, what’s all the fuss about.

  4. Well, let me be the first to catch a spelling mistake in my work…

    Certainly I have option(s) based on…

    I caught the missing ‘s’ on the second pass. In too much of a hurry to get to my morning coffee! :)

    • Jenny, no one’s being graded on the content of their comments, so don’t worry. We all make typos.

      While some rules are clearer than others, there are options, so no two proofreaders or editors would always make the same suggestions for punctuation or grammar. But I have to admit that I always smile when I make a second editing pass through a section of text and, without looking at my first suggestions, I make the very same suggestions on the second pass. This is with several days and many thousands of words between edit passes. So there can be consistency. But you’re right that each proofreader or editor would have a different take or approach.

      It definitely helps to learn the rules for yourself.

  5. Debra says:

    This is a great checklist and I will make use of it.

    I have a question, I hope you will address. Lately, I have seen a lot of typos and errors in story logic in books that have been traditionally published. Are traditional publishers still editing authors? I am not particularly adept at proofreading, but these errors seem obvious. As a reader, I have come to expect more for my money. As a writer, I’m concerned.

    • Debra, as far as I know, traditional publishers still engage proofreaders and they do have editors. Yet I’m guessing that maybe the review process isn’t as thorough as it once was. And publishers expect manuscripts to be in pretty good shape when they arrive. Not perfect, of course. But clean to some degree.

      There have always been errors in printed books, but like you, I’m sometimes surprised by a few that make it through the publishing process. Still, most traditionally published books have relatively few errors. I sometimes find multiple errors in some books—typos, usually. And in other books, I find none. At least none that stop me from enjoying the story.

      Maybe some publishers allow greater leeway for style choices these days? Maybe the proofreader didn’t have time to be thorough before a deadline?

      And maybe you’re seeing more errors because your own skills at detecting them are being heightened as you write and rework your own stories? I know that there are some punctuation and grammar issues I wouldn’t have noticed 15 years ago.

      Maybe the publishers, wanting to put out more books, have to cut corners somewhere?

      I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I’m guessing the reason could be different for every publisher.

  6. This offers some excellent advice. The bit about changing the font and size highlights exactly what’s so difficult about copy editing your own work: when you read your work, your brain isn’t really seeing the actual writing, especially if it’s in precisely the same visual format in which you’ve written it. Instead, your brain is translating what you intended to write, making it more difficult for you to catch any mistakes. I’m a copy editor, and I’ve discovered that in my own writing I absolutely have to enlist a different copy editor. I especially like your advice that it’s okay to proofread AND hire a proofreader.

    • Jessica, our minds are great at tricking us, aren’t they? But those tricks allow us to make sense out of incomplete information, so the tricks are useful. Just not good when we’re trying to weed out our own mistakes.

      Proofreaders are awesome. They definitely have skills that I don’t have but wished I had.

  7. “Hi, Mom. . . . Just finishing breakfast. . . . No, he left a long time ago. He had to take his car to the shop. . . . I wish you’d told me before so I could’ve asked him. . . . No, I won’t. if I ask now, he’ll know you told me, so that’s not gonna happen. . . . But,
    Mom. . . . Okay, okay. I’ll make it happen. Gotta go.”

    It’s the “But, Mom. . . . Okay, okay” that throws me off. Up to that point in the one-sided dialogue, the daughter’s dialogue consists of sentences. But with “But, Mom. . . . Okay, okay” it appears to me that whether the daughter is interrupted or trails off the “But, Mom. . . .” is not a sentence and therefore ought to have only an ellipsis, not a period and an ellipsis.
    Am I wrong?

  8. elizabeth says:

    I enjoyed your article. What do you think of computerized proofreading programs? Don’t they save a bit of time? I know one can’t use them blindly and we must do some work ourselves but they highlight many of the areas you’ve mentioned.

    Can anyone tell me how often an editor gives feedback to a writer? Say, I want to send about 3,000 words (light editing) how soon should I expect the work to be done (assuming I keep up the pace of 3,000.00 words and send chapter by chapter…what should I expect, and how soon? Of course, all work is paid in advance and I paid for the entire book.

    Thank you for your time and courtesy reading my e-mail. I also wanted to know whether we can trust the internet to hire an editor.