Taking Some of the Pain Out Of Proofreading Your Ebook

Okay, everybody, raise your hand and wave it wildly if you love proofreading your ebook!

*crickets*

Yeah, me, too. Nonetheless, proofreading your ebook is essential. By that I mean, actually opening the ebook on your Kindle or Nook or iPad or phone or magic toaster, and going over it word by word, character by character. You’re not just looking at the text. Funny things can happen during conversion. You need to find the goofs and glitches and fix them.

If you don’t have an ereader? Download Calibre onto your computer. It’s free, the display is attractive, and while it doesn’t give you the exact display you’d find on a handheld ereader, it is good enough you should be able to spot the worst problems.

When I proofread an ebook I’ve produced, I load it onto one of my Kindles, run it through its paces (make sure all the links work, and that it responds properly to all the user-interface commands, and that the navigation guide is properly displayed), then I go through the text. I pull up the actual file on my computer and make corrections as I find them. No biggie.

Where the process gets sticky is when someone else proofreads. I prefer the author proof the text. Not just because it’s time-consuming and not much fun, but because the author is the most deeply invested in their work and the final proof is their opportunity to tweak and polish. Plus, they can actually see how graphical elements look in “real time” and see if text effects look good on the screen.

You can’t mark up an ebook. Oh, you can use bookmarks and notes, but it’s ridiculously difficult transferring those to another device, especially when working with “document” as opposed to “book” files. And because such things as “percentage of book read” and “location” depend on the device and the user font and spacing preferences, those are not reliable markers either. What I’ve been doing is asking writers to type out their notes with enough text for me to search and to note which chapter or section the goof/change is in. There are inherent problems with this method. One is typos (the writer’s and mine). Another is fatigue. If you’re tired, the temptation is there to think, Ah, a backward quote mark doesn’t really matter, or What difference does this not-quite right word make?

I stumbled onto a method with a book that required two proofreaders. The key is Square Brackets.

[ ]

In the books I produce, there is usually no reason to use square brackets. That makes them, for search purposes, unique characters. What I did was copy the ebook file(s) and turn them into text files. Windows and Mac users have a basic text editor included (under Accessories in Windows–mine is called Notepad). It will open a text file. So the writer opens the text file and while they are proofreading the ebook on their device or in Calibre, if they find a goof or want a change, they can mark up the file. All they have to do is enclose any changes in square brackets. It looks like this:

aProof1When the author is done, they send the entire file back to me. I open it side by side with the ebook file, search for square brackets and voila! I can see the author’s notes in “real time.” If there are text changes, I can copy the author’s exact text and paste it into the ebook file. No typos. (watch those quote marks and apostrophes–make sure you don’t accidentally use straight quotes instead of curly) Last night I keyed in the corrections from the above example. What would have been a two to three hour job using the old method, took me instead about 30 minutes. That included going back through and double-checking my work. The writer reports that after she got over her shock over how weird the text file looks, the job was much, much easier on her end, too.

What about the rest of you? Has anyone else found simpler or more effective ways for proofreading ebooks when two or more people are involved in the process?

 

 

One More Time (Nooooo!) The Final Proofread

I don’t know if I’m alone in this (doubt it) but I always reach a point in the process where if I have to look at a piece of writing ONE MORE TIME I will either a) take a blowtorch to my eyeballs; or b) curl up in a fetal ball and whimper. If I’m forced, if I have no choice, I tackle the job with all the enthusiasm of a sleep-deprived 4-year-old on an airplane. There is much whining involved.

I am, of course, talking about the final proofread. The “galley” proof stage. The book is written, edited, formatted and converted into an ebook. And it must be read one more time before it released into the wild.

I make a distinction between “pre-production” and “post-production” proofreading. Pre-production proofing is more akin to line editing. Purists, indeed, will call it line-editing, but whatever you call it, it’s the step after copy-editing and right before production. It involves style sheets, questions, research and a whole lot of nit-picking. I wrote about that process here.

Post-production proofreading is much simpler. The assumption is that the writing has been edited, fact-checked, and the style is consistent throughout. What you’re looking for is mistakes. Goofs. Gremlins. You’re also looking at the actual format and deciding if it needs tweaked. Trust me, folks, there will be mistakes, goofs and gremlins to find—some (horrors!) will have been introduced during formatting. If you don’t find them at this stage, readers will.

I was pondering the other day—how many goofs are acceptable in a book? This after reading a book that was so chock-full of errors I wondered if the editor/proofreader was even familiar with the English language or had ever opened a dictionary. A mass-market paperback put out by a Big 6 publisher. Appalling. Definitely a crime against literacy. I came to the conclusion that five errors per 100,000 words meets my standard of a properly produced book. Print or digital. That’s a damned high standard, but I have bookcases full of books that have met that standard, so it’s achievable.

So, whether you have formatted your ebook yourself or you’ve hired someone, it’s essential that you proof the copy in its final form. That means converting the file into an ebook and proofing the ebook on an ereading device. If you do not have an ereading device, you can do this process on your computer with a program like MobiPocket Reader or Calibre.

The most difficult part of this kind of proofreading is actually reading. When you read, your mind has a tendency to fill in the blanks and skim over goofs. Proofreading involves going through the text word by word, comma by period, quote mark by quote mark.

Some tips:

  • Mix it up. Go through the text backward. Or proof the chapters out of order.
  • Change the screen. Enlarging or shrinking the font, adjusting the line spacing, or even changing the screen color (if your device allows it) can serve as a reminder NOT to read the story and focus instead on the minutia.
  • Use a marker. When I proof printed manuscript I use a metal ruler. That is not a good idea on an ereader. I do have a six inch plastic ring sizer though, which is perfect. You probably don’t have a plastic ring sizer, but you can use a plastic bookmark or a strip of cardboard. Anything that forces you to look at just one line of text.
  • Read aloud, including punctuation. It sounds ridiculous—Open quote How dare you tell me what to do question mark closed quote—but it works.
  • Take your time. The temptation might be to rush the job and get it over with, but this final proofread is important. It is necessary. You owe to your writing and to your readers to do the best job you can.

What about you, dear readers? Any tips or tricks for doing a good job on the final proofread?

Writer’s Bane: Those Horrid Homonyns

It happens to the best of us. Writing along, fingers flying, prose printing on the screen, then from out of nowhere, it’s ATTACK OF THE HOMONYNS!

Your sexy hero is caught walking “bear assed” down to the fishing hole.

Your sweet heroine awaits him with “baited breath.”

Your pockets are filled with “lose” change and you can’t quit striking “cords” when your “sell phone” rings and it’s someone who desperately needs your “ade” and “who’s” fault is it anyway that there are so many pitfalls in the English language?

(By the way, I am perfectly aware that lose/loose are NOT true homonyms, but writers mix them up so frequently they might as well be)

Your spell checker won’t help you. The homonyms are spelled correctly. A dictionary will help you, but only if you catch the goof and say, “Wait a minute. Is that the right word?”

How to combat the horrors of homonyms?

  • Step number one is acceptance. Everybody gets tripped up by homonyms. Even the most careful writer will write “it’s” for “its” or “lets” for “let’s” or “your” for “you’re” (the most common, by far, homonym errors I see when proofreading).
  • Step two is awareness. You know you’re going to goof, so while you are going back over a piece of writing, make sure you double-check any word that is a homonym, especially those that become homonyms when contracted (you’re, who’s, let’s, it’s)
  • Step three is education. Familiarize yourself with homonyms, common and uncommon. I found a site, Alan Cooper’s Homonym List, that is as close to complete as I’ve ever seen (I love word nerds!). Bookmark the list or even print it. Read through the list, see if there are any homonyms you weren’t even aware are homonyms.
  • Step four is consider the source. Your spell checker will tell you not to worry when you write, “John put the jeweler’s loop to his eye.” The dictionary will tell you the proper word is “loupe.” (And no, I don’t care that dictionaries are unwieldy, old fashioned and out of touch. Until I catch my dictionary in a lie, I will continue to use it.) Ergo, Spell Checker is an unreliable doofus while Dictionary is your loyal friend. Never forget that.

So go forth and write, dear Writers, and keep an eye out for those horrid homonyms.

It’s All About Style: Proofreading

I’ve been doing quite a few proofreading jobs here lately (I tell everyone I dislike proofing because, you know, it’s not cool and only the nerdy kids get stuck with the job, but I actually enjoy it–it makes my inner nitpicker happy. So fine, I’m a word nerd, shaddup already). I’ve asked a few writers if they have style sheets for me to use. I’ve been getting blank stares in response. I finally realize “style sheet” sounds high falutin’ and fancy pantsy.

Let’s call it a “Cheat Sheet” instead.

Despite using computers for writing since the 1980s, I’m still very much a pen and paper kind of gal. Which accounts for much of the mess on my desk (watch for a future post on how Scrivener is finally breaking me of the paper habit). For my cheat sheets, I use a sheet of drawing paper (or two, depending), divvy it up into eight blocks and label the blocks alphabetically–A-B-C; D-E-F… and so on. Then, when I run across a proper name, a place name, preferred spellings, and other details easy to misspell or overlook, I jot them down in the appropriate block. That way, as I go through a manuscript, all I have to do is glance at the cheat sheet to make sure the usage is consistent.

That, my friends, is what it boils down to: consistency.

When I proofread, I’m looking for goofs and typos and missing or misplaced punctuation. I’m also looking for consistency. For instance, preferred spellings. Some words have two or more accepted spellings. The word “gray,” for example, which can also be spelled “grey.” It doesn’t matter which spelling you, the writer, choose to use. What matters is that the spelling remains the same throughout the manuscript. I also note how the writer uses capitalization. While a contemporary story might stick with standard capitalization, a fantasy novel or speculative fiction might use unusual constructs. I jot those down on the cheat sheet. The same thing goes for italics. I can usually get a very good feel for the writer’s style after only a few pages–always uses italics for direct thoughts (for instance), or only uses them in dialogue to emphasize speech, or italicizes foreign words in dialogue, but not in narrative. Once I see the pattern, I make a note of it, so I can check for consistency throughout.

Timelines are also useful. If your story is like the TV show, “24″ and depends on split-second timing, or if dates are very important to the plot, a timeline can help the proofreader help you. You meant to write “one week ago,” but a brain fart made you write, “one month ago.” With a timeline, the proofreader can note the inconsistency and ask you about it.

So, indies, you’ll have better results working with a proofreader if you provide a cheat sheet. The process will go faster and be much more efficient. It’s easy to whip up a chart in a spread sheet, or type up an alphabetical list. If you’re using unusual spellings or constructions, make a note.

Your preference in grammatical style is also a good thing for the proofreader to know. My fall back on questions of usage and style is my old Webster’s 9th, which is basic and standard. It is, however, over thirty years old and grammar styles do change. So it’s not so much a matter of correct or incorrect if you use serial commas or not, or which style of possessive you use, or if you spell out numbers or use numerals. The key is always consistency. If you follow a particular style manual or a style guide on the internet, let the proofreader know. That way when they have a grammar question, the proofreader can reference your source.

A little note about unusual styles and grammar usages. As an indie who doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s in-house style, you are free to experiment. Try to keep the readers in mind while you do so. It’s all well and good to try something nobody has tried before. Who knows? If it works, maybe others will emulate you. If your unusual construction or “creative” use of punctuation confuses or frustrates readers, then the experiment is a failure. A good copy editor or proofreader will point that out and you’d be wise to listen.

Be Your Own Copy Editor: Punctuation

Here’s how it worked in the good ol’, bad ol’ days. A writer sent a manuscript to his editor. The editor made notes of any necessary revisions and sent that back to the writer, who then bitched, moaned, felt horribly insecure and insulted, and stuck a few pins in the editor-voodoo doll, then buckled down and made the revisions and sent them back to the editor. The manuscript might pass through a separate line editor’s hands, but always eventually ended up with a copy editor who, with red pencil sharpened to a dagger point and laser vision set on stun, went after misspellings, inconsistencies, wayward grammar and ineffective punctuation like a ferret after prairie dogs. Depending on the publisher and scheduling, the writer may or may not see the copy-edited manuscript. If the writer did receive galleys, he went through them in search of typos (cautioned by the editor to NOT make any big changes, or else) then sent the proofread galleys back and that was that. Wait for the book, short story or article to appear in print.

Not a bad system. Lots of eyes on the manuscript, fewer opportunities for typos and bloopers to slip through the cracks.

Self-publishers are at a disadvantage in that regard. Funds are tight and editors are expensive. Many indies have to get creative in bartering for services, engaging beta readers, and exchanging proofreading with other writers.

The smart indie learns how to copy edit.

That goes for experienced writers, too, who have left traditional publishing to strike out on their own. Judging from what I’ve seen, many of them aren’t obsessive-compulsives who compare original pages to the copy edited manuscripts to see what the changes were and why they were made. They sent in their quirks and copy editors fixed the quirks and the writers didn’t pay much attention to what the copy editors did. Without a copy editor, their quirks are showing. Need to put a stop to that nonsense.

Copy editing is a skill anyone smart enough to write fiction can learn. Today, let’s start with the most basic of basics: Punctuation.

Get a style manual (White & Strunk’s The Elements of Style is short, sweet and easy to understand). Read it, study it, take it to heart. I use a sad-looking and tattered Webster’s Ninth Dictionary I’ve been using for over 30 years. It rarely lets me down.

I’m not going to write a primer on punctuation. A style manual will tell you everything you need to know. Study it and learn the rules of punctuation. Apply those rules to your work.

Instead, I want to discuss something I’m seeing a lot of in self-published works. Writers trying to use punctuation for effect or for pacing in ways that call attention to the punctuation itself. A copy editor would strike such shenanigans with a red pencil, and for good reason. Punctuation that attracts attention distracts the reader and weakens the prose.

Think of punctuation as wait staff in a restaurant. Their job is to seat everybody, maintain order, get the food to the right diner at the right time, and keep everybody happy and content so they can enjoy the dining experience. Wait staff remains in the background, doing their job without drawing attention. Punctuation for effect is akin to the wait staff suddenly breaking into song or line dancing or marching through the restaurant with sparklers singing Happy Birthday. It’s obnoxious. If the food is good enough, diners tolerate it, but unless they’re under ten years old, nobody actually likes it.

The three marks I see most often abused: Dash or em dash; ellipses; exclamation points.

I’m a huge fan of all three. There is a fine line between effective use and ineffective use. They are what I consider “strong marks.” They alert the reader and put them on notice that something must be paid attention to. So, if they are overused they become the literary equivalent of car alarms. If they are misused, they confuse the reader and jerk them out of the story. Do that too often and your book could end up in the DNF pile.

The RULES:

DASH (two hyphens in a manuscript, a long dash in published form–indies, remember to use search-and-replace to convert your double hyphens into em dashes during ebook formatting)

  1. usually marks an abrupt change or break in the continuity of a sentence
  2. is sometimes used in place of other punctuation (as the comma) when special emphasis is required
  3. introduces a summary statement that follows a series of words or phrases
  4. often precedes the attribution of a quotation
  5. may be used with the exclamation point or the question mark
  6. removes the need for a comma if the dash falls where a comma would ordinarily separate two clauses

Rule of thumb: Use the em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue or to set off a parenthetical thought or clause in narrative. If  your pages are crawling with em dashes, ask yourself what exactly is it you are trying to do? If the answer is, you’re going for an effect (rapid pacing, disjointed thoughts, choppy movements) it is time to question each and every em dash. If the usage doesn’t coincide with the above list, strike the em dashes.

ELLIPSES: Three periods (When formatting a file for an ebook in Word, use the search and replace feature to make a proper ellipsis. Enter … in the search box and … in the replace box. Word will create a joined ellipsis for you.)

  1. indicates the omission of one or more words within a quoted passage
  2. indicates the omission of one or more sentences within a quoted passage or the omission of words at the end of a sentence indicated by using a period after the ellipsis
  3. indicates halting speech or an unfinished sentence in dialogue (no period, though a question mark is acceptable)

Rule of thumb: Use sparingly. Ellipses are NOT for authorial throat-clearing or to pace the action. If every line of dialogue contains ellipses, you need to rework the dialogue. Try to avoid using it in narrative. Remember that most readers associate ellipses with omission, so if you overuse them, your readers will be wondering what isn’t there instead of paying attention to  what’s on the page.

EXCLAMATION POINT:

  1. terminates an emphatic phrase or sentence
  2. terminates an emphatic interjection

Rule of thumb: Use your indoor voice, please. Using an exclamation point is the equivalent of shouting. When you use it in dialogue, be aware that your readers are “hearing” your characters shout. If you use it in narrative, the readers will feel as if you, the author, are shouting at them. So every time you come across an exclamation point in your writing, question it. Unless you absolutely have to use it to make your meaning clear (as in, the character is actually shouting) strike it.

Now go sharpen those red pencils and hit the pages. Find your annoying little punctuation quirks and squash them like bugs.