The last stage of getting a manuscript ready for publication is critical. This is where the final person in the process comes in--the proofreader. Perhaps you have volunteered to proofread a friend's book. The friend arrives with the proof copy (or maybe you have been sent a manuscript). They ask you to look for typos, cut-and-paste-errors, or autocorrect errors. These are things they and their editor may have missed.
Before we go any further, proofreading is not editing.
Editing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere and is completed long before we get to the proofreading stage. A good proofreader will understand that the author has already been through the editing gauntlet with that book and is satisfied with it in its current form. A proofreader will not try to hijack the process and derail an author's launch date by nitpicking his/her genre, style, and phrasing.
The proofreader must understand that the author has hired a professional line editor and is satisfied that the story arc is what they envisioned and the characters are believable with unique personalities. The editor has worked with the author to ensure the overall tone, voice, and mood of the piece is what the author envisioned.
You will note that I have used the word ‘envisioned’ twice in my previous paragraph. This is because the work is the author’s creation, a product of his/her vision, and by the time we arrive at the proofing stage, it is intentional in the form it is in.
At this point, the author and his/her editor have considered the age level of the intended audience, so if you feel their work is too dumbed down or poorly conceived and you can't stomach it, simply hand the manuscript back and tell them you are unable to do it after all. DON'T go through it with a red pen and mark it up with editorial comments, or critique their voice and content because it will be a waste of time for you and the author.
But what if it is your manuscript that needs proofing? What should you ask from a proofreader?
Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there may be places where the reader's eye will stop. Words have been left out, punctuation is missing--any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur despite the most thorough of edits.
I say this only because even in the traditional publishing world, proofing errors slip by. Most editors are really good, but no editor is perfect–even editing programs are inherently imperfect (they lack the ability to see context). And in the end, an author may not see (or understand) what the editor has pointed out and may choose to ignore it. We who write and publish books are only human, after all!
If the person who has agreed to proof your work cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader, and don’t ask the first reader for help again.
A problem that frequently rears its head among the Indie community occurs when an author who writes in one genre agrees to proofread the finished product of an author who writes in a different genre. People who write sci-fi or mystery often don’t understand or enjoy paranormal romances, epic fantasy, or YA fantasy.
These are genres with specific styles and reader expectations, and many authors don’t understand this. For this reason, some otherwise wonderful people become terrible, arrogant readers, when they have been asked to proofread in a genre they don’t care for, or for an author whose voice they don’t like. They can’t proofread because they are fundamentally driven to critique and edit.
It is your task to ensure that your intended proofreader is aware of what they are to look for.
In the publishing industry, proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made, and hopefully, it is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things in your otherwise perfect manuscript will stand out.
What The Proofreader Should Look For:
Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don't immediately stand out as being out of place. A human eye is critical for this.
- Wrong: There cat escaped, and he had to chase it
- Right: Their cat escaped, and he had to chase it.
- Wrong: The dog ran though the house.
- Right: The dog ran through the house.
- Wrong: He was a lighting mage.
- Right: He was a lightning mage.
Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won't always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
- Wrong: First of all, First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
- Wrong: First of all, it is accepted practice to practice thoughts.
- Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts.
- Right: First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
Missing punctuation and closed quotes:
- Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man? asked Officer Shultz.
- Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man?” asked Officer Shultz.
Numbers that are digits:
Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
- Wrong number: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
- Better number (but still written wrong): There will be 300 guests at the reception.
- Right: There will be three-hundred guests at the reception.
Dropped and missing words:
- Wrong: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table me gently.
- Right: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table grilling me gently.
Make your corrections with care. Each time you create a new passage in your already edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error.
At some point, your manuscript is done. The line editor has beaten you senseless with the Chicago Manual of Style. The content and structure are as good as you can get them. At this stage, all you want is one last eye looking for small flaws that may have been missed.
You, as the author, are the last person to see the manuscript. You will make many changes after the editor has sent the revision requests. It is at this stage that these errors happen most often, and also this is where the final proofing must happen.
Before you upload that masterpiece to Kindle or wherever, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by several intelligent readers who understand what you are asking them to do and who are willing to do only that.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and editor and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Parts of this post, Proofreading VS. Editing, have appeared previously on Life in the Realm of Fantasy.