How to proofread a book: where proofreading fits in the editing process and useful techniques

Proofreading is a good place to start if you’re first getting your feet wet as an editor. But there are many misconceptions on proofreading and how it works. Let’s break apart these misconceptions, and in doing so, unearth the process and skills required.

Proofreading is not done in a Word document.

Think of proofreading as quality inspection of a product that’s ready to launch. When you proofread a book, it should no longer be in Word format at all. The author (or publisher) delivers a book in the format it’s ready to be published in, either as an ebook or a printed book called a galley (the more global term for this is an ARC, which stands for Advanced Review Copy since it’s sent out to reviewers in this form before publication).

As you read through, you will note any errors in a separate place. This is often called an erratum sheet or erratum list. If you’re reading in ebook format on an iPhone for example, you can start this list in the Notes app and flip back and forth with a double-tap between iBooks and Notes whenever you have to mark an error.

My erratum list is simple, and I recommend you do likewise:

Write down four words in succession where you find the typo. If it’s an obvious typo you don’t need to write anything else (you’ll see why a few paragraphs down). If it’s not obvious, make a quick note in brackets. The idea is to make it quick so that you don’t lose the momentum of reading the book at reader speed.

You can keep this list by hand if you prefer, or at your computer, but do not — do not — proofread the book’s Word document file! The moment you do this you’re copyediting, not proofreading.

When you’re all done reading the ARC and compiling your erratum list, then you open the Word document and, using your words as a search key, go through it and mark the corrections in the document, then send that back to the author so they can approve them all then proceed to publication.

This might sound like a roundabout process but the point is you want to experience the book as the final product it’s going to be published as, and the book is not going to be published as a Word document.

Proofreading is not fixing word choice and improving sentences.

While there might be some errors in wording or incomplete sentences that were missed by the previous editors, a proofreader is not editing a Word document of a manuscript for the very reason that they are not editing the book. Therefore, when you’re making your erratum list, if you find yourself marking down four words in succession, then making long notes about how a sentence seems off to you and you’re providing alternatives, then you’ve wandered off the track.

Many aspiring editors who start out proofreading will go in and start rewording sentences and asking for revisions, not realizing they are actually not doing the author a favor, since proofreading should be happening after all that critical editing has happened.

Proofreading is supposed to be fixing errors, and the moment you start asking for rewriting, you’re asking for more errors, and the necessity for yet another proofread. (If you’ve ever watched a dog chase its tail, this process of proofreading-gone-wrong looks a little like that.)

A good guideline is 6000-7500 words / hour. If you’re taking longer then either you’re being too subjective in what you’re considering “errors” or the book needs to go back to the previous editors because you’re doing someone else’s job.

 

Proofreading is not just fixing typos.

Proofreaders must exercise restraint and assume all editing is done, but this doesn’t mean all they fix are typos.

As the proofreader, you are reading the ARC as if you’re reading a book that’s just been purchased by a reader (I’ll get into this process below), and you are looking for anything that would stand out to you as a mistake. Typos are the usual suspect, but that said, a proofreader must have a sharp skill set that extends to copyediting and developmental editing. For instance, you might notice that a character’s eye color changed, or there is a major plot hole you can’t ignore, or the opening of a scene is flat and totally off the rails and you’re wondering if the developmental editor forgot to drink coffee the morning they edited that particular section. As the proofreader, you would note all these things on an erratum sheet and pass it back to the original editors and author to address these problems.

Should such larger errors occur, rewrites will be done on spot and the proofreader might be asked to review the specific rewrites to ensure they are free of errors.

Proofreading is not just fixing the author’s mistakes.

Aside from being a quality inspector, another good way to think of a proofreader is as a safety net. Developmental editing and copyediting, the two stages of editing that precede proofreading, are high stakes tightrope acts. There’s lots of rewriting, changes of tense, cutting clauses and moving them elsewhere, changing characters or plots. Rewriting sentences. Rewriting sentences. Rewriting sentences. It’s a real mess, and you better bet there will be lots of outstanding errors that have come out from the process of rewriting.

So, the mistakes you’ll be catching, especially the typos, will actually be a result of the editing process and will have little to do with the manuscript the author originally delivered to the first editor.

As a proofreader, you will think of typos with special names (I’ll get to that below), since you’ll understand exactly how these sorts of typos come into being and will proudly flag them knowing it’s part of your role so that developmental editing and copyediting can get messy and creativity can go as deep as it needs to for the novel to get in shape. I have done several proofreading jobs (it’s actually my area of specialty) and I absolutely love catching these typos because I can appreciate the twirling acts that went into creating them.

(I’ll get into the flip side of this in my caveat on typos that are the result of no editing below.)

Proofreading is not something just anyone can do.

Some authors hire friends to proofread their book. I have, in the past, advised clients on a tight budget who want to forego proofreading to get a team of beta readers to read their edited book to compensate, but with that comes the caveat that the “proofread” will only be as good as the editing knowledge of the beta readers (the reason I advise this, of course, is because thorough beta readers, no matter how trained they are in editing, will at least spot obvious typos which would otherwise detract readers from the hard work that’s gone into revisions from the editing process).

Anyone can find a typo here and there, but if someone is paying you money to proofread their book, you must have an edge that goes above and beyond guesswork. Are you the kind of person who will stop and do a Google search of “lean-to vs lean to” just to verify your instinct to choose the latter? This is the kind of instinct you must have if you’re getting into proofreading. Leave no stone unturned. If not knowing how to spell camaraderie makes you get up and grab a dictionary (or open a Chrome tab like I often do), then this instinct is going to carry you far as a proofreader. (For the record, yes you can rely on Google searches to resolve spelling, hyphenation, or word/phrase/dialect usage curiosities. The internet is so saturated with free resources and forums where writers or editors have queried the very issue you are curious about. Just make sure you consult multiple sources to verify, through corroboration, that your conclusion is correct, and cite this for the author.)

All that aside, though, if you’re serious about becoming an editor, you should have a more senior editor inspecting your work so that you can learn from them. I train apprentice editors through my company and we always start with proofreading, for the same reason you don’t teach someone how to juggle ten balls until you can inspect how well they juggle two. If you’re just wanting to proofread and make a bit of money on the side, what with how hot the self-publishing author market is right now, then you don’t need to do this, but in my opinion, if you want to do this professionally, you should. You don’t necessarily have to affiliate yourself with an editing company or publisher — you can offer a small percentage of the fee you’re charging for a proofreading job to a more senior editor for the purpose of inspecting your work and teaching you as you go, as a per project basis.

Whether you choose to hire / affiliate with a more senior editor or not, you should complement your practice with education. I don’t mean getting an MFA or going to a college to take editing courses (though that’s definitely not going to hurt). I mean read, a lot. Specifically, read books on grammar and writing. There’s really no magic formula for what exactly you should read, so instead I recommend you keep your ears open and eyes peeled for titles that come up often in writer/editor circles.

To get you started, here’s my recommended reading list, and if you read all these books you’ll have a pretty good foundation:

  • The Little, Brown Handbook (The latest is the 13th edition, but I read the 5th. This is a great resource for grammar, punctuation, and formatting rules if you want a compact tour de force on the matter.)
  • The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk Jr. (This book is very short and will teach you a lot about common mistakes of word usage and style. It will also give you deeper knowledge of effective writing techniques if you want to level up to try copyediting and developmental editing.)
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (If you want to double down on making sure you’re not a victim of the punctuation misunderstandings that prevail, even in professionally published fiction, this book is great.)
  • The Art of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman (I can’t go on enough about how important punctuation is, hence why this book is so important because it makes you think outside of the box, where voice and style often dictate punctuation choices that deviate from what the rules would tell you to do. I even want to say 70% of proofreading is fixing punctuation, and of that, probably 70-80% is fixing misuses of the almighty comma.)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (If there’s any book you should buy a physical copy of and keep in your office, it’s this one. Almost all the time, authors or editors, and publishers, will cite the conventions of this manual for formatting or rules of grammar or punctuation, and this is one place your Google searches likely will not help you since they have it all locked down online. You don’t have to read it all, though if you’re like me you probably will because the thought of reading an editing book is as exciting as childhood memories of time on the Tilt-A-Whirl.)

Proofreading will not make a book 100% perfect.

To type is human, and to typo, divine. Big publishers like Harper Collins and Penguin sometimes pass the final ARC of a book they are putting lots of muscle behind to 30 staff in house. These staff will read it before it’s published and provide erratum notes. Even then, there might still be a missing period on page 346.

Why does this happen?

If you weed your garden and there’s years’ worth of weeds layered in deep, you’ll probably find after several rounds of weeding you’ve got almost everything, but you could go over the soil again and find a few tiny things you missed while you were busy tugging out those giant dandelions. Likewise, you’ll probably notice, after you’ve purged the soil of every pest — lo and behold: a dandelion cowering next to your lilacs and trying to blend in, somehow missed, what with the angle of the sun and how you were weeding every other inch of the soil.

The process is the same for editing a book. Three editors — one who handles developmental, one who handles copyediting, one who does proofreading — is not a magic number that equates to the abolition of all typos for all time. It’s just a good business measure. Big publishers use this as a baseline minimum, and to authors who are self-publishing it’s also a good idea, but it’s important to never ever give the impression to an author you are proofreading for that you will catch every single error. (You’ll certainly try, and indeed should you catch every one then it’s mission accomplished, but heck, if a team of 30 can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up.)

That said, if an author is taking the care to invest in developmental, copyediting, and proofreading, you should find that your role as the safety net will result in a final book that is near perfect, and a far cry from the commonly encountered situation in unedited or minimally edited ebooks (usually a typo every 1-3 pages on average).

Typos broken down: splice-os, word-os, and surgical mishaps

Most typos you’ll encounter as a proofreader come as a result of how the rewriting process works when an author starts working with an editor. I’ve seen some of these patterns so often I’ve come up with fun names for them.

Splice-os

This is the kind of typo that results from a word or sentence being cut then pasted into another part of a sentence. It can also result when an author has rewritten a sentence somewhere in the middle then deleted the parts that no longer fit. For example, when I revise these blog posts I notice lots of splice-os in when I do a revision because I am constantly optimizing sentences as I write.

What you’ll see is a comma left behind, or a missing close quotation in dialogue, or a period at the beginning of a sentence. Cut and paste is not always the most precise method, but it’s the quickest, for it’s these kinds of typos that you’re there as the proofreader to catch.

Word-os

These are the cousins of splice-os. Often, when authors or copyeditors rearrange phrases, words will be left behind that no longer match tense or even fit in place. You might see “had had” or “the the” or such nonsense. The author didn’t maliciously insert that just to make you work harder. Somewhere in the moving of furniture, one of those poor words got orphaned.

Surgical mishaps

Sometimes I can really tell an author has gone to town. This usually is carryover from the developmental edits where rewrites are so hot the page is more red than black. (For those not familiar with Word’s track changes, all new writing shows up in colored font, usually red.) Somewhere, a whole paragraph got inserted in the middle of a scene, or sentences were juggled, mutilated, half-inserted, cannibalized by other, better sentences, etc. I don’t spend my time trying to think of how exactly said war played out on the battlefield of that page, but I certainly am grateful as proofreader to be of assistance as I mark everything down.

Cat walked on the keyboard

This is a serious one and I’ve seen it a few times. Numbers in the middle of words or words that are strangely spaced apart, or a capital letter in the middle of a word. I’ve swiftly fixed these errors and done my best not to think about just what kind of mechanical process went into the making of said typos.

Author empathy: understand the process and be grateful for your role.

It might be surprising how many typos and occasional plot/narration errors show up in an “edited” book. This comes down to understanding the process, and as the proofreading, understanding this is critical to developing author empathy.

The developmental editor usually goes through at least two rounds of revisions with an author, requesting rewrites on a broad level. This can go as far as cutting characters, rewriting entire scenes, or changing the tense or voice. You better bet there’s going to be typos, unless of course the author is an infallible typing machine (such a thing does not exist, to the best of my knowledge). The developmental editor, when going over the revisions, is not concerned with typos. They are concerned with whether or not the author made character X more spunky, or whether plot A now matches the villain’s motives, or whether scene 13 has the tension it was lacking.

The copyeditor, who will look at the manuscript fresh after all rewrites are finished with the developmental editor, will go over it line-by-line and focus on grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity, and effective word choice. Yes there will be lots of correcting typos, but as the copyeditor will often suggest clarifying sentences, this will mean that the author will rewrite or reorder words in a sentence, which can lead to typos. As a general rule, if an author has gone over and types, or if an editor has gone over and moved text around, there’s a chance typos are going to come into being.

So now here you are, the proofreader. As you’re reading the ARC of this book and marking down errors, when you encounter mistakes think back to the analogy above about being tightrope walking. Instead of cursing the author for their clumsy typing, or the editor for missing the change of character A’s eye color, simply make your note and be glad you’re there to catch the error. After all, it’s your role and you can be proud to say you were the one who polished everything up to shiny perfection so that readers can enjoy the story unencumbered.

Danger: what happens when someone asks for “proofreading” but has never had other editing done on their book?

Because many writers new to self-publishing might not be familiar with editing terminology, it’s not uncommon to be asked for proofreading by someone who has written up a first draft and know, if they want to publish it, that someone should read it and check spelling, grammar, and punctuation, etc.

If you are taking on a proofreading job, you should always ask what editing has been done beforehand. The reason this is important: there is a different between the above mentioned categories of typos proofreaders find and the kinds of things you’ll find if you attempt to proofread a manuscript that has never been edited before.

Probably my most frequent client is the author who wants proofreading or proofreading + grammar fixes (as a result of the diverse demands for one-revision editing I’ve developed three services that are extensions of proofreading, based on the amount of issues that need fixing). But the point is if you’re going to go ahead with proofreading and a manuscript has never been edited, be sure your client understands the need for more editing and, if they still insist, absolve yourself of the other mistakes that are going to enter the published book.

If you have any questions about proofreading, feel free to reach out. I’d love to answer more questions, or follow up with more discussion on proofreading at some point in my How to Edit A Book series.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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5 Responses to How to proofread a book: where proofreading fits in the editing process and useful techniques

  1. landofoyr says:

    your advice comes at a critical time for me and is well aimed you gave me tools to fight on!

  2. paula cappa says:

    Very helpful information here! So happy to see you pointed out that proofreading is different from copy editing. Most writers don’t know these are different parts of the editing process. I started out as a proofreader who worked for a copy editor, so I learned the distinctions early on. Love The Art of Punctuation by Lukeman, my favorite.

  3. Pingback: How to edit a book: a writer’s guide to understanding the process | John Robin's Blog

  4. Pingback: The editorial cycle: proofreading, copyediting, and understanding the different kinds of editing steps | John Robin's Blog

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