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Proofreading Like a Pro

Manuscript Prep.

December 27, 2020

Best practices 

Nothing is more infuriating than to open your newly printed book, and the first thing you see is an error. Here are some tips to get you proofreading like a pro. There is no substitute for proofing your document. Software grammar and spell checkers are great tools to use, and they get better all the time, but actual hands-on proofreading is vital in the preparation of your document.

If you can enroll other people into proofing, fresh eyes can help catch more mistakes.  As a writer, you are often too familiar with your material, and you read what you meant to say, not what is actually on the page. Some people find that they catch more proofreading off a printed, paper hardcopy. Reviewing a printed copy is something you may want to consider. For many, it can be easier to overlook mistakes when proofing on the screen.  

Be aware of proofing fatigue.

Also, it can be easy to get what I call proofing fatigue.  Proofing fatigue is worse when reviewing the final designed manuscript because, by this point, it is likely that you have already read through the document countless times. However, it is essential to review every draft because it is often the last changes that introduce errors and inconsistencies.

Proofreading like a pro checklist

The first step:

check box Copy all the text into one file in the order you want it to be in the final book. Doing this not only ensures something does not get accidentally forgotten, but one file also makes it so much easier to search and replace stuff along the way.  If the content is in separate files, you are sure to miss something or be inconsistent with usage from one chapter to another.

Now is also an excellent time to include the caption text, the frontispiece, title, copyright, and other introductory pages. This way, any universal style changes you make get done on those pages as well. Getting all your book’s content in one file is also the first step in preparing your manuscript for a publisher, an ebook, or sending it off to a designer. See my article: Creating a Squeaky Clean Manuscript, for more on that topic.

The preliminary read:

check boxDo a preliminary read while considering the items listed below.  On this preliminary read, start two lists: 

  1. A To-Do list— List things you may need to research or double-check so you do not forget. List names you may want to double-check their spelling. Often there can be different spellings for the same name.
  2. Style Sheet list— This list will become your editorial style sheet. Your editorial style sheet will set the style rules for your book, so your document style is consistent.  Your style sheet will list things like how you want to use serial commas, what words should be capitalized, the spelling of regularly used names, titles, and entities, when to use n- and m-dashes, etc. This list will become your quick reference to go to when proofing your document. You will likely add to and revisit this list often as you continue proofing. 

To avoid missing stuff and proofing fatigue, it is sometimes best to “chunk” your proofing into little jobs.

On early proofs, scan the document in separate passes for: 

check boxPunctuation irregularities. Make sure that you are consistent with dash lengths and spaces after periods. Check to see quotes have beginning and end quotes, and spacing is consistent before and after dashes and ellipsis.

check boxSpelling. Check the spelling of names, company names, acronyms, and italics and capitals in titles, names, and products.

check boxPhone numbers and websites. Call phone numbers to verify they are correct. Visit websites too.

check boxDouble-check math operations and figures.

It is also useful to:

check box Flag “see page” references with brackets, so they stand out. Later you can make sure the reference is correct when the book is designed.

check boxHave another person proofread your work.

check box Read again aloud. If possible, have another person listen and read along to catch missing and doubled words.

On the design proof, you should also:

check boxReview the largest text carefully (headlines, subheads, and pull quotes). It is easy to miss typos and spelling errors in the larger heads.

check boxCheck artwork and captions to ensure correct placement.

check boxCheck art scanned from transparencies (slides) for flopped or (mirrored) images.

Catching mistakes is one thing, but proofreading like a pro also requires communicating those changes. And to keep costs down, you want to do it without a lot of back and forth.  When marking up your changes, be as clear as possible, don’t mark items with a question mark unless you want to pay the person making the changes to research your questions.  Spell your markups correctly, and don’t assume your typesetter, designer, or VA knows how to spell the words you don’t know how to spell.

And finally, agree on a system of marking up the document, so the process flows smoothly. I personally like the Chicago Manual of Style’s proofreader’s marks.  But other mark-up conventions work well too. Just make sure everyone involved is on the same page.

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