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.


19 thoughts on “It’s All About Style: Proofreading

  1. Hey – something I actually already knew! I took a copyedit class a couple of years ago and got taught all about style sheets. Since I haven’t gotten to that point on any of my WiPs, I haven’t really given it much thought. But I do have a sheet with all my correct spellings for names. If I ever do get to the point of hiring a proof-reader, I’ll be ready.

    One thing my teacher pointed out was how to do numbers. She spent some time on it, but I suppose for fiction it is not that big of a deal.

    • There are some proofreading jobs I will not touch. Technical papers, scientific papers, anything to do with engineering. The style demands are very particular and you end up with your nose glued to a style manual. Fiction is a piece of cake in comparison.

      In my own work, I’m figuring out how to use Scrivener (the writing program) to (almost) automatically generate style sheets so I can finally break the habit of using Post-it notes and other scraps of paper and countless notebooks filled with barely legible scribbles

  2. Good point. Hardest to catch are the innocuous little details like eye color or handedness. I’ve had characters drift from left handed to right handed back to left handed again, all without me noticing until someone else pointed it out.

  3. I always keep a character list because I can forget not only the spelling, but their *names*. Go figure. A cheat sheet — okay, style sheet, for the rest is a darned good idea. so I’m going to wait and see what Scrivener and you do when you get together. Should I confess that I’ve been using Scrivener pretty much forever and still haven’t looked into style sheets?

    • It’s those cool notecards and document notes you can put in the sidebar. I’ve been filling them up with tons of notes to myself, plus pictures and links. Plus, I’ve been making folders under Research that don’t end up in the compilations, so I can just click the folder open and there are all my character names in a nice, neat list and if I need more info, I can just open the file. I ran out of Post-its a few weeks ago and don’t even notice! Yay.

      • Bye bye, paper. I have a pile of unused notebooks I never use any more. Scrivener just opens its mouth and lets you pour everything in.

  4. The irony is, Catana, I was struggling with Scrivener when I first got it. It seemed overly complicated and had all those features with names that made no sense. I even went through the tutorial a few times and I rarely use tutorials. Then it hit me. This thing THINKS like I do. Holy cow. It’s got the same bits and pieces, lists and stacks style of organization I use AND it lets me arrange the screen so that I can see all my scraps of brilliance (ahem). The names of the features were throwing me and it took a while to get past that. Nope, don’t miss my Post-its at all or the whiteboard or the notebooks or the butcher paper …

    • You could be right about the names and trying to learn the program in the normal way. I started with an earlier version and never bothered to read the instructions because it was a simpler program then, and not as intimidating. But it’s still mainly so intuitive that I only bother to look at the newer features now and then to see if there’s something i could be using. The scrapbook wasn’t terribly well developed, originally, so I quit using it and just recently rediscovered it. I completely ignored targets until I was working on a short story and decided it might be a good idea to set myself a daily word count. It’s taken forever to make the transition to preparing an ebook instead of finishing up in Open Office, but I recently did that. I think people get hung up on the tutorials and manual because they don’t realize how much of Scrivener is accessible right off the bat.

  5. Last year when I completed my editing subject as part of my Professional Writing and Editing course, one of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave me was “consistency”, like you said above. There’s no point being grammatically correct if you use all types of spelling a word. It will confuse readers. Consistency is more important than getting it right (if you had a gun to your head and had to pick one or the other). Also, sorry about that last crap line.

    • The thing is, readers do notice. Not just the nitpicky fuss budgets like myself either. Maybe it gives them a little stutter, a micro-stutter, an instant where they remember they are reading instead of being lost in the story. Enough instances of that and the reader could stop reading altogether.

  6. I’m really glad you’re (as opposed to your) back from vacation and oh shit… you’re (as opposed to your) talking about me!

  7. Dang. There goes my habit of alternating “grey” and “gray” throughout a manuscript. You’re spoiling my fun 😉

    Honestly, this is really important information. I’m glad you decided to write about style sheets now, when I’m about to start another novel in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll actually remember to make one.

    • I did a few series back in the 90s. The style sheets proved invaluable. I just slipped my handwritten notes and charts into poly sleeves and stuck them in a binder for easy reference.

  8. Good points about consistency (especially the gray/grey. Now I have to go check). The time frame was interesting, as well. In “The Imaginings,” I had two characters in different parts of the country who, over a series of swapping POV chapters, had to come together at the same place. It was like planning a vacation. I had each day labeled and where each character should be at that time (as well as how long it would reasonably take them to travel from place to place). That was tricky.

    As to the “unusual style and grammar usages,” I stick with the old adage about having to know the rules before you break them. I think it’s obvious which writers follow this idea and are pioneers (Cormac McCarthy comes to mind) as opposed to writers who don’t actually know the difference between a sentence fragment and a run-on.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog.

    • I think part of the problem, Paul, is that writers get bored with standard constructions and usages, so assume readers get bored, too. Except readers aren’t spending months or years with a story. They are spending hours and they reading much faster than the writer can write.

      You are exactly right that writers need to get the craft down pat before they start playing with common usage. Ought to know how to throw a knife before standing a girl up against the target.

      I also hear a lot the excuse, “Well, so and so Famous Author does that.” Yeah, and Famous Author gets away with it because he’s bringing a lot of other good stuff to the table and people are willing to ignore or forgive the nonsense because the good stuff is really, really good.

      • What I really wanted when I started was a step by step guide, but I couldn’t find it. Most told me to download X for Smashwords; X for POD-Lightning Source, and there was a mishmosh for kindle.

        I’m slowly digging my way through ALL the input and trying to put it together. You inspire me that if I keep at it, I can create a nice looking product. Thanks.

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