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.

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