The Proof is in the Proofreading

quinnproofMy biggest gripe with ebooks is a lack of proofreading. (Trad pubs are the worst offenders–isn’t anybody at least giving the ebooks a quick scan before putting them up for sale? Judging by the multiple dumb errors and piss-poor formatting, I’d say the answer is no.)

When I produce an ebook I have two hard and fast rules, Number One: squeaky clean text going into production. Number Two: the ebook must be proofread post-production. I charge people to proofread their ebooks for them, and a lot of clients take me up on it, but I’m more than happy for the writer to do it him/herself or hire a third party. I even make it easy for them by providing a markup document and instructions (since they can’t make changes in the ebook itself).

Even though proofreading is essential, some would like to argue that they can skip it. They’ve already polished the manuscript to a high gloss, even had a professional editor have a crack at it, and, in some cases I’m sure, they are sick to death of that particular project and want to get on to something else. I get that. Been there. Even so, it’s part of being a publisher and it must be done.

Before I continue, let me explain what proofreading is NOT:

  • It’s not copy-editing
  • It’s not line-editing
  • It’s not editing at all

What proofreading IS:

  • Format checking
  • Typo searching
  • Error seeking

When I produce an ebook, I expect that the writer has edited, polished, tweaked and fine-tuned. They’ve made the text as clean as they are capable. They made their grammatical choices and established a style. When I proofread I’m just looking for goofs. I don’t change text unless it’s a patently obvious error. Double words (…he spelled the the word misspelled incorrectly…) or a mixed up homonym (…happy is the bear-foot boy…) or a missing word (…nothing finer than (a) sunny spring day…) and misspellings or incorrect contractions. For anything beyond that, I will make a note to the writer and they can decide how to fix it, or not. My main concerns are my own goofs in formatting, and little gremlins such as missing punctuation or words that aren’t fully italicized or spacing issues.

There is nothing particularly difficult about ebook proofing. That said, I recommend that writers NOT proofread their own work, but instead hire out the job or find a writer friend willing to barter or trade the chore. The reason is copy blindness. When you write something down, you know exactly what you MEAN to say. Your brain is more likely to “see” what you meant rather than what is actually on the page. It’s a very real phenomenon and it trips up the best.

What if it’s not in your budget to hire a proofreader? What if all your friends are busy? What if you HAVE to do it yourself? What if you WANT to do it yourself?

There is hope.

The Tools

  • An ereading device: Kindle, Nook, iPad, your computer, etc.
  • A style sheet
  • A style manual
  • A dictionary

The Device: Even though MOBI and EPUB are different platforms, the ebooks should look pretty much the same no matter what device the reader uses. So it doesn’t matter which version you proofread. If you do not have a dedicated ereader, then you need to use an online viewer. I recommend the Kindle Previewer, Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. All three are free downloads. All three render well enough for proofreading purposes. All three allow you to double-check your ebook’s navigation.

A Style Sheet: This is basically a log of your preferred spellings, stylings and usages. I keep Notepad open when I proofread and jot down character names, unusual spellings, etc. to give me a quick reference. Consistency is the key to a good reading experience. The style sheet will keep you consistent. I also log product names and trademarked names, then double check to make sure they are spelled correctly and to see if there is any restriction on their use.

A Style Manual: Every publishing house and periodical publisher has an in-house style. Often it is based on a particular style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Every indie publisher should do the same thing. Pick a style and stick with it. For fiction, a far simpler style reference will suffice. I recommend Strunk & White Elements of Style. Short, easy and friendly. Buy a copy (then buy extras for when your kids run off with them).

A Dictionary: Depending on spell check can lead to embarrassment. If you’re like me, you have dozens of dictionaries and thesauri on your bookshelves. Pick your main reference(s) and stick to it/them for consistency’s sake. Language changes and evolves, but it shouldn’t do so within one story. If you’d rather use an online source try the Merriam-Webster site or the Oxford Dictionaries site.

The Process

  1. You must open the ebook on something. You cannot properly proofread the ebook by going back to the manuscript.
  2. Have a markup document ready. I use a Word doc in which I’ve created a navigation guide, but no other formatting. Here is where Track Changes* comes in handy. Do all your mark up and changes on this document (which you will then transfer to your actual ebook file after you are done).
  3. Work backward through the ebook. Truly, this is the number one best way to defeat copy blindness. It will help keep your mind out of the story and on task.
  4. If you get sleepy or hungry, take a break. Sleepiness makes you dull and inattentive; hunger makes you impatient.
  5. Periodically change the font, font size and line spacing. Just making the ebook look different goes a long way toward making you more efficient.
  6. Get in the habit of questioning everything. Homonyms can be the bane of many writers. It’s so darned easy to mix up words that sound alike. Here’s a fun reference: Alan Cooper’s Homonym list. Product names are another danger area. Google is a wonderful resource. BUT, sometimes it is not enough to just get the spelling right. Companies can be very aggressive about protecting their trademarks. If you are using a trademarked product name, double check proper usage here.
  7. Use Find/Replace wisely. I rarely use Replace All when proofreading–it can lead to strange occurrences. It is human nature to repeat errors, so if you find an oddball spelling, do a quick search to see if you’ve done it elsewhere.
  8. If a passage seems off to you, read it aloud. Read it aloud to someone else. This is an excellent way to figure out if you’ve misplaced a comma or skipped a word.

And a final word of wisdom: Don’t rewrite your book. Seriously. You’re proofing the final product, the final step before releasing it. If you cannot stop rewriting, tweaking, doing “just a little bit more”–procrastinating!–then find someone else to proofread for you.

If anybody has any other handy-dandy tips to make proofreading easier or more efficient, feel free to fill up the comments.

* Never, ever use Track Changes in a Word doc that you intend to convert into an ebook. Turn it off, keep it off, protect your ebook from the nastiness that Track Changes inserts.


49 thoughts on “The Proof is in the Proofreading

  1. Thanks, Jean. One caveat I should add. Don’t try to proofread in Palatino. All the quote marks and apostrophes face the same direction and it’s difficult to tell if one is turned the wrong way.

  2. To expand on your #5 a bit, I find it helpful to change the font size (and/or use devices with different screen sizes) and rapidly page through the book a few times as a separate pass from the normal proofreading. It’s helpful for finding extraneous line breaks and rogue hyphenation, particularly if you’re working from a preexisting source that may have hard line breaks and hyphenation in it.

    Hyphenated words stuck in the middle of a line are by far the most common problem I notice in Big 5 ebooks (I don’t know if that’s actually the most common problem or whether I just notice that one more readily).

    • That’s what happens when you don’t use a source file, but instead format a file for print, then use the same file to generate an ebook. Word processors (and especially MS Word) are very grabby about hyphenation–and if the book designer manually inserted dashes or hyphens to smooth a line, then turning off hyphenation will not get rid of those. One way to get rid of most hyphenation is to transfer the text to a text editor and look for the hyphenation symbol (a dash with a little hook on it) and then delete those. It rarely gets them all, so you have to look for them in the proofread.

      • …Hi Jaye- team Aizic finally obtained documents from Odessa archives about last emperor visiting Odessa.!

        And other important documents to be included in the second edition/rewrite of my first book “The Circles of Life: My Ukrainian Family….”.

        Jaye- team Aizic is in very delicate position as of last week: it was approached by a Hollywood producer for…..Movie option and/or TV series.

        Team Aizic delegated me to ask you for an advise:-) Team Aizic hope you may join this team once again( writing script, advising, consulting….or networking)
        Many thanks J.

  3. I use a find and replace all for quotation marks. ( find all “, replace with “) And I look at the number of replacements made. If it’s an odd number, chances are, I’ve missed an open/close quotation somewhere in the document. The fun part is trying to find where the mark is supposed to be.

    I also keep a list of homonyms like you suggested, and to that I add my fall-back words, the words I tend to overuse. When I come across those words, I ask myself how many times I’ve used them within the scope of the paragraph, the chapter. Then I look at the opportunity of choosing a better word for the scene. Anytime a beta-reader points out an overused word for it goes on the watch-list. I also keep this list handy while I’m writing the story, in the hopes that I’ll catch most of it before I get to the proofing stage. The list itself has challenged me to be a better writer.

  4. Hi Shelton, good tips. The best way I’ve found to root out missing or misplaced punctuation is to proofread on an eink reader. Why those errors (which have eluded countless eyes in a word processor or on paper) seem to leap off my Kindle screen, I don’t know, but they do and it’s a blessing. One thing I do pre-production is run some searches for wrong-way quotes and apostrophes since under certain circumstances Word will turn them around.

    As for your list of “problem” words, I do something similar with my own writing. There are a few words that I CANNOT spell correctly even though I use them all the time and I have to look them up all the time and my only defense is that they look wrong to me no matter what. I also have a tendency to fall in love with a certain word or phrase then use it to death. A count shows me the error of my ways. If, when proofing for someone else, I run across things like that, I’ll make a note [WORD CHOICE?] or do a count of the occurrences then let the writer figure out if a change needs to be made.

  5. Jaye, What a great post! I am going to link to this post tomorrow from my blog. I fall into the rewriting category!! Also I had no idea about not using track changes in Word. Editors and proofreaders I have worked with all used it. So when I was doing some minor revisions I used it so I could look back and recheck myself. 😦

    • Track Changes by itself can be a useful tool–but it can wreak havoc in ebooks. I do everything in my power to prevent that. It’s a bit of overkill what I do, but it actually takes longer to describe than it does to do. The numbers in parentheses are the versions of the text I use.

      (1) Original File > (2) Make Copy
      (2) Clean the text and tag it > (3) Copy into a text editor
      (3) Finish text cleaning > (4) Copy into Word to make a markup document (this is the only version where Track Changes is allowed)
      (3) Style for ebook
      (4) Markup during proofreading; Transfer changes manually into (3)
      If a client needs a Word doc styled for Smashwords then I copy the text from (3) into a fresh (5) Word doc

      On occasion I will receive an original document where Track Changes has been used. What I’ve learned (the hard way, of course) is to go through and highlight potential problem areas so that when I make a copy and paste it into the text editor I can do a side by side to make sure no “extras” made the trip, nothing essential was dropped and that oddball characters haven’t been inserted.

      I’d recommend that when a manuscript is ready for production that writers tag their special formatting, then copy/paste the document into a text editor to strip out extraneous formatting (what Mark Coker calls the “nuclear method”) and go into production (ebook or print) with clean text.

  6. I don’t know if I’m allowed to comment on this blog as I read my books the old fashioned way, covers and dust jackets and turning pages. But I do have a question that is pertinent to your topic. I finished reading book Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (well worth reading, Charlie Resnick’s last case) and book is published by Pegasus Crime which is an imprint of Pegasus Publishing. In the book, the style is British: single quote marks, spellings with the requisite U’s (favour instead of favor). However, the word aluminum is used twice In the book, once spelled as “aluminum” and secondly, as “aluminium.” It kind of jumped off the page at me. What type of proof error is this, please? I won’t even mention the place where Charlie is the passenger in the car and watching the passing scenery and sees the “coppice of beach.”

    • Welcome Pia (psst, we’re all either active or reformed–or trying to reform–print book hoarders here)

      Well, one is the American spelling and the other is Brit (aluminium–what a mouthful!). It’s the type of error I can only attribute to a lapse in attention. Having worked on restoring Brit editions for American audiences, it’s no easy task translating from one to the other. Even so, it’s just a run of the mill error that should have been caught. (As for a coppice of beach, the mental gymnastics needed to envision that is beyond even my most twisted imaginings–I can’t even imagine what word they were going for!)

      I have to tell you, I am singularly unimpressed with the line-editing and proofreading coming from the largest publishers. I have been for years. It’s the height of disrespect for the writing, the writers and the readers to put out such a shoddy product. It seems like the bigger, more “respected” the house, the less respect they have for their products and consumers. If I were considering a deal with a publisher these days, to hell with advances and b&m distribution, I’d take a good, hard look at their production values. Money gets spent, but typo-filled print lasts forever.

      • I actually use the British and American spelling deliberately – to differentiate and tag an Irish character – in his own thoughts, and in how he renders other people’s dialogue – he has a few words which get the British spelling. That, word choice, and word order, are as far as I will go in marking him, but I have had compliments on the result (some people liked it), and others didn’t notice it even when asked, which is exactly the effect I was going for.

        There will be a final book pass or two in editing to make sure I’ve been consistent on that.

        As I say, you can do anything you want, as long as you are consistent, and do it deliberately. If it hadn’t worked, I would have dumped it.

    • Yes, I knew that and you know that but proofreader at the publisher didn’t know that. Homonyms – what are you going to do?

      • Since I knew what it was from my lifetime of avid reading, you’d think that people who read for a living would have picked it up, too, but apparently not. I wonder if it’s a matter of pride, and publishers’ proofreaders are too highfalutin to stoop to use a dictionary, when faced with an odd-looking term.

  7. Holy smokes you have a lot of comments! Valuable interesting comments! I was just going to contact you to tell you I’d found some errors in an older book. Yikes. Must fix. We’ll chat later– when my world calms.

  8. Before I self-published my second novel I spent four weeks proofreading it. I printed out the pages, had a slip of paper to hide all the text except the line I was reading, and read each word separately, pointing at them with the pen. And still errors slipped through! (The common ones being your/you’re, and its/it’s being mixed up.)

    At some point in the not too distant future, when I republish the books, I’ll be using a professional proofreader because it’s just too hard to do it myself.

    • Copy blindness. I bet if you look at someone else’s work, those types of mix ups jump off the page and grab you by the ear.

      One trick is to get in the habit of sounding contractions out. This does a pretty good job of training the brain, too, so you stop making the error while composing. It does have the side effect of making it impossible to “hear” contractions while reading for pleasure.

      • As part of the process, I’m going to change all occurrences of you’re to YOU ARE in bold and red – ditto it’s.

        It still won’t catch ‘you’ for ‘your’ which seems to be my fingers’ latest choice for tripping me up.

        AutoCrit does homonyms well – it will underline ALL of them. Painful, but better than having readers have to bear with us. Right? Image of bare dancing bears.

        Still chuckle at ‘baited breath.’

  9. Pingback: The Proof is in the Proofreading | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  10. Very helpful information. I’m curious about your “navigation guide” described in #2 of The Process. Could you elaborate, please? What does that mean, exactly?

    • If you apply heading styles in Word to chapter and section starts it will automatically generate a navigation guide. In later versions of Word, the guide shows up as a sidebar display. So if you are working in the manuscript, you’ll know where you are and not have to scroll up or down to figure out which chapter or section you are in. If you have a complicated work, you can use different heading styles to generate a nested guide.

  11. I have only recently discovered proofreading in Kindle for PC – and was startled by the results.It wasn’t just the odd typo that jumped out, but also several bits of awkward phrasing. Something about reading the text in a reader-focused format made them leap out at me!

    I’m very lucky in that my husband is willing to read early drafts, and because reading large blocks of text is hard for him, he goes slowly and notices things my eyes have passed over a dozen times. The most annoying errors are those that sneak in during re-writes and editing – I find those hard to catch because my brain has already decided that part of the text is “done”.

    Thanks for the post – it’s helped to cheer me up as I plod through the process. Glad that you defined the versions of editing, too – a couple of times I’ve seen what is actually proofreading referred to as copy-editing, or worse, as the entire and only process of “editing” needed before a book is launched into the world, Yikes.

    • Yikes is right, Piper.

      Here is a caution for every indie writer: If you have never worked with a traditional publisher, hence have never worked with a house editor, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage going in. It’s not that you’re stupid or ignorant or a poor writer. Not even close. What you do have to learn, on your own and without a testy editor giving you no choice in the matter, is that there are standards and practices that readers EXPECT. Defying or ignoring or being unaware of those standards and practices affects readers, often in a negative way.

      Once you are done with the artistic part of the job–the storytelling–it is time to put on the publisher hat. Part of that is educating yourself about standards and practices. Get a good style manual–Strunk & White can be your best buddies; take a refresher course in English composition; hire a good copy editor then STUDY and UNDERSTAND the edits and comments. (If your nerves can take it, find the grouchiest, most pedantic, sternest editor available–one who is truly OFFENDED by crimes against grammar and the English language–and invite him/her to have a go at 50 pages. Once you get over the shock of seeing your pages bleed from a thousand cuts, then STUDY what the editor has done and learn from it. It’s the best education a writer can buy.)

      Writers can learn to copy edit themselves. Eventually, with experience and knowledge, they start turning out such clean, readable copy that no copy editing is required–a light-handed line edit is all they need.

  12. All of the things you mention JW, I take care of when I’ve converted the Word doc to a .Mobi, using Calibre. At that point, technically it is an eBook. Perhaps you should have qualified – “since they can’t make changes in the ebook itself”, by adding, once it has been published. But even then, if someone picks up a problem, its a simple matter of fixing it and re-submitting it. My proof readers are my dedicated team of Beta readers. 🙂

    • You’re right, should have clarified, Jack. (Need to smack the editor for that!)

      The ebook on the reading device is not editable (though one can bookmark passages and make notes). That’s why I use a markup doc. Read the ebook, markup the document, then go back to the ebook file and update it, then convert it again.

      For those who are using Word for direct upload to Smashwords or Amazon, my recommendation is this. Run a conversion through either Mobipocket or Calibre and generate an ebook you can then see live on a device or in Calibre or the Kindle Previewer. Proofread THAT, make any changes/corrections in the Word format. This is so much more efficient than trying to do this in process at SW or Amazon.

  13. Being blind I use Jaws software which converts text into speech and braille allowing me to listen (or read in braille) what is on the screen). I always check, using Jaws for errors, however I then get a sighted friend to look at my manuscript and read it aloud to me. Jaws is great but there is no substitute for the human voice.

  14. Thanks for posting this great wisdom. I’m almost done with my second book and I will use your editing advice.

    Then I am going to go back into my edited and published 1st book that has been re-edited by editor and still needs editing. Does that make sense? Yes I want to be done with my first published book. But I want it to be as good as it can be.

    Any advice on Beta readers. I’m scared!

    • Scared of beta readers? You should be. (Just kidding.) The best beta readers are super fans of the type of story you are writing. They have read tons and tons, know all the tropes and stereotypes and familiar story lines and characters. They know what pleases the crowd. (whether that crowd is large or small makes no nevermind)

      You can find them in forums and on review sites. What you don’t want are your best friends or your mom–neither will be critical enough for this purpose. You also need thick skin and faith in your work. Ask your beta readers specific questions going in and ask them to mark passages for you. You might give them a list:

      Mark any place where you are confused.
      Mark any place where your attention wanders.
      Mark any place that feels incomplete.
      Mark any place that annoys you.

      You aren’t looking for suggestions (unless you have beta readers who are skilled editors in disguise), but rather, reactions. Once you get those reactions, you use them to make your work better. If 2 out of 3 say they were bored by your hero’s diatribe on the state of modern music, then you might ponder cutting it. The real key to getting the most out of beta readers is for YOU to learn how to LISTEN.

  15. It is amazing to me how little tiny errors seem to slip through even the most careful eyes of editors! It’s also imperative that a writer should never, EVER edit his/her own work.

    As an editor who does proofreading, I can certainly spot errors with my “eagle eyes” in others’ works, but when it comes to my own writing, I have to give myself a helping hand by enlisting the help of those who have not read any of my drafts! 😉

    • I’m with you, Lorraine. I both edit and proofread tons and tons and tons. I’ve been around long enough that I feel competent to line edit my own work. But proofreading? Not a chance. In my personal utopia, no piece of writing would ever reach the click-the-publish-button stage until it had had at least FIVE sets of eyes on it. But I’m a realist and writers gotta do whatever they can afford or have access to.

      The thing is, I can pretty much tell when someone is doing their best. I can also tell when someone is being a slob. In my personal reading, I do have different standards for self-publishing and trad publishing. The trad pubs are taking 85-94% of the book’s net–they damn well better have those five sets of eyes hard at work. On the flip side, I expect self-pub stories to be more interesting and less locked-in to genre conventions than trad pub stories. If it’s the same ol’ same ol’, I’m disappointed.

  16. If you wrote using auto format and now can’t get rid of the tracked changes, is there anything that can be done? I’ve tried everything that I’ve been able to find. The highlighted changes are gone from the document but still showing in kindle preview. I just can’t get rid of them. Am I going to need to re-type the entire book in a new document?

    • Hi Kari. Track Changes can be evil. I NEVER EVER use it on text I intend to format for an ebook.

      But, no, you don’t have to retype the entire doc. You will need to strip the excess formatting and html.

      Step One: Open Track Changes and select Accept All Changes. Now turn off TC and the only thing you should see are any comments made in the document.

      Step Two: Tag your special formatting (italics or bolding). Then copy/paste the entire body of text from Word into a text editor (Notepad, for example). Everything “underneath” will be gone, including any artifacts from TC.

      Step Three: Open a new Word doc, set up your styles (I assume you’re trying to make a ebook out of a Word doc), the copy/paste your text into Word.

      Step Four: Restore your special formatting, then style the doc for the ebook.

      • Thanks so, so much. After reading all of the comments here, I realized that I hadn’t tried a text editor. I copied the Word doc into TextEdit and Bam, when I uploaded it to KDP and previewed it, the markings were gone. For 4 days, I’ve been battling this. I wish I’d found this post sooner!

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