Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.