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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Proofreading Tips

I'm at the stage in my next novel where the editing is done. The plot is cast in stone. The characters are as developed as they're going to become. And the formatting is determined.

Even though I have had help from friends reviewing the manuscript, and they have all done some proofreading for me, I still need to proof read the manuscript one final time. Ugghh!

Do you ever get to the point in writing, re-writing, re-re-writing, etcetera where you begin to wish you had never begun the cursed manuscript in the first place? If you're writing for Random House, by the time your book gets to the proofreading stage, you are probably out of the loop. Someone else has taken on the task. A professional. And probably someone who hasn't already read your book 'til they're sick to death of it.

But if you are a self-publisher, your work isn't done until that manuscript is as close to perfect as you can possibly make it. So you need to proofread it yourself, one final time (or possibly several "final" times).

I find proofreading one's own book to be an extremely challenging task. How do you keep your brain from reading the beginning of a sentence and then completing it based on your memory of how the sentence is supposed to read -- with no useful input from those proofreading eyes? Your brain already knows how the sentence ends. If you have left a "the" or an "it" out in this draft, your brain will probably fill in the blank and your eyes will miss the error -- at least this will happen too often for my liking.

So, short of hiring a very good proofreader, what can you do to improve the quality of your finished product, minimizing those unmatched quotation marks, misplaced apostrophe's and pesky homonyms? I have four suggestions that help me a lot.

First of all, when I am proofreading, I set the document "view" to "margin width." This makes the words and punctuation marks huge. It's much easier to see when you've subbed a comma for a period, or vice versa. And the words present a more imposing presence in a 25 point font. It's like that extra brake light they added in the middle of your back car window a while back. It's something new. Your brain pays more attention to it.

Second, your word processing software (Word, or WordPerfect or OpenOffice) has a spell checker. Use it. This may not catch many of the errors; but it will eliminate some of them, and it's super-quick and easy.

Third, your word processing software also has a grammar checker. Use it as well.

If you write fiction, this process may be labor intensive. The grammar checker will find all sorts of incomplete sentences, "unusual" word usages, and word selections that "may be offensive" to business readers. So you'll have to look at each instance where the grammar checker stops you to manually decide if a change should be made.

Many (maybe most) times, no changes are needed. But SOME times, the grammar checker will locate that omitted word, or that word you typed twice in succession, or the sentence where you changed verb tense and left a straggling extra verb fragment. In my experience, it is definitely worth doing this check -- even though it may take several hours. This tool WILL CATCH errors your eyes alone would have missed.

Fourth, and this is a new technique for me, I recommend having your computer read your manuscript to you out-loud. I can do this in my version of Adobe Acrobat. I'm sure many other programs offer a text-to-speech feature as well.

Okay. Your book sounds like Stephen Hawking is reading it. And some of the contractions are pronounced pretty weird. But as your eyes read along with the voice, you will also notice some errors that your eyes alone would have missed.

On top of using two senses instead of one to proof your book, it is strangely relaxing to hear that odd voice reading your book to you. You even get used to "very" being pronounced "wary." And "I'll" be pronounced "ill." In fact, sometimes the computer pronunciations are quite humorous.

Bottom line though . . . you want the most polished book you can present for printing. Since your staff is sitting in your chair with you -- wearing your pants -- you need all the help you can get. Might as well use the free tools at hand.

Maybe you have some favorite proofreading techniques you'd like to share? Please feel free to comment with other suggestions.

That's it for today. Thanks for checking in.



  1. Great tips, John! When I've proofread books (or even blog posts) my eyes definitely miss things on the tenth (or hundredth) pass that leave be banging my head later. Letting the computer read out loud is a great idea -- I'll have to share that one! -Toni

  2. Thanks, Toni. I just went back and corrected a couple typos in my post. Should have had Stephen Hawking read it to me. Best! John

  3. I start at last page and proof read back to front when editing. I like the idea of getting the computer to read your work aloud and will try it.

  4. Back to front would definitely be a good way to keep your brain from getting ahead of you. Thanks for that suggestion, peatmore. I'll give that a shot as well.

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