Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne
This post explains what proof-reading entails for the fiction writer, shows some advantages of proof-reading your own work and offers some ideas on developing proof-reading skills.
What is Proof-reading for the writer of fiction?
Proof-reading is the skill that checks for errors involving spelling and punctuation, grammar, meaning and consistency. Proof-reading comes after copy and line editing and is the final stage of working on the novel. After this stage, the only thing left to do with the text is formatting.
Spelling, punctuation and grammar speak for themselves, but meaning and consistency may need a little explanation. For example, meaning does not amount to replacing a weaker word with a stronger one. This should have been dealt with in line editing. But if you now discover a word that you thought meant one thing actually means something else then it will be your role as proof-reader to change the word. Think of proof-reading as searching for mistakes in the writing itself as opposed to looking for weaknesses in the craftsmanship.
Again, when we are talking about consistency, we mean in the writing. For example, if a character driving a blue car in a scene is suddenly driving a red car and you offer no explanation for the change, then this is an inconsistency in the narrative, and not in the writing itself. Inconsistencies in the narrative are dealt with in line editing. A simple example of a proof-reading inconsistency would be the abbreviated title Mr written both with and without a dot throughout the story. Neither way is wrong, but you should strive for consistency throughout the text.
Let’s look at the big advantage of using a professional proof-reader but also some advantages of proof-reading your own work
Main advantage of using a proof-reader
A professional proof-reader will always be able to proof-read better than you (obviously a very important point to consider) and will do so to the industry standard.
Some advantages of proof-reading your own work
It’s a skill that can be learned and developed like any other skill.
The more you practise the better you will get.
You will greatly improve your grasp of grammar, punctuation, spelling, meaning and consistency, and therefore will end up with fewer mistakes to rectify in the proof-reading stage.
A professional proof-reader will always be better than you in general, but that does not mean you cannot be good enough when proof-reading your own work to pick up most, if not all, of your errors.
You save money.
Not everyone offering a professional proof-reading service is a professional.
Like anyone else in life, proof-readers miss things.
Here are some things you may wish to consider in order to help you develop as a proof-reader
Firstly, read some proof-reading guides.
Then proof-read your novel.
The professional proof-reader as teacher
Once you have proof-read your novel as well as you can, send it to a professional proof-reader. This is worth doing at least once. It will give you an invaluable insight into your level of competence as a proof-reader. You will now be able to see all those errors that you failed to spot when you worked on the text. Take note of consistent errors. These are your main proof-reading weaknesses, at least for this manuscript. Never throw this feedback away. Get your money’s worth by writing out lists of your common errors into different categories, such as spelling, grammar, etc., so that you can easily reference them the next time you proof-read a manuscript.
Even though you have had your manuscript professionally proof-read, do it again yourself. Have you picked up any other errors? Remember, proof-readers are only human.
This pattern of using a professional to help you develop as a proof-reader can be done as many times as you like until you feel competent enough to tackle a new manuscript completely on your own. Look on the professional proof-reader as your teacher! No matter how bad you are to begin with, remember that awareness and practice will make you better. As a matter of fact, this is not a whole lot different to how you have developed your craftsmanship by using a professional editor to critique your work. You have done that, haven’t you?
Use print-on-demand to help you discover proof-reading errors
If you have used a professional editor and also rechecked the manuscript yourself, you may not want to bother with the following. But if you have reached the point where you are doing your own proof-reading, this can turn out to be a very useful part of the process.
If you are going to use print-on-demand publishing, once you have proof-read your novel, format it for the print-on-demand company and upload your work to them. Then get a physical proof copy sent to you. This stage of publishing allows you to check for further problems in the book format without worrying about a member of the public seeing it. The book format you now have in your hands will help you see your text with new eyes and so spot errors that previously had been ‘hiding’ from you.
Once you find these errors, add them to the lists you have been making since you began to study proof-reading. Don’t mark the book in any way! Next time these errors will not hide from you for so long because your proof-reader’s eye is sharpening its focus all the time.
Let others help
Choose three or four people to read your book who will enjoy your genre. Ask them to check for spelling, punctuation, grammar and inconsistency errors in the writing. Okay, many people won’t be paying any attention to these things even if they know how to find them. So try and pick people who you think may have a sharp eye for general proof-reading. The best type of person to ask is one who is nitpicky and usually drives you nuts because of it. But here, for once, you may be able to use their particular ‘skill’ to your advantage. You may also want these readers to spot other errors or weaknesses in your book outside of proof-reading ones. Just be careful that they understand what you are asking of them, and that you understand what they are prepared to give. The easiest proof-reading error to spot is the spelling error. Perhaps you could emphasise that it is these in particular you want to cull from your work. Spelling errors are those errors your paying readers will pick out first and foremost and if you have lots of them, you may well be heavily criticised for it.
Be sure to change all your errors on your electronic file before resubmitting your book to the print-on-demand company.
Stuff to bear in mind
If you find yourself doing quite a bit of line editing when you are supposed to be proof-reading, then you need to stop proof-reading and go through the manuscript again as a line editor.
The self-publisher will more likely publish just one edition for the English speaking world book market. If you publish via Amazon this will be the case. The one publication means that the spelling of some words will appear wrong to people from a country with a different spelling system. There is not a lot to be done about this, but you can cut down on the differences a little. For example, in British English we often have a choice between an s and a z in words such as realise. The Americans use a z only. In such a case, British writers could choose the z spelling. Look out for these examples.
Try not to mix British and American spelling in the same manuscript.
Another problem lies with words that are unfamiliar in another dialect. One big one seems to be the word sidewalk in American English which equates to pavement in British English. You would hope that an intelligent reader would understand that not all dialects of English share exactly the same vocabulary. This is why they are called dialects. There really isn’t much you can do about this, except if any reader complains about it, suggest they try googling the word for an explanation of its meaning.
The Internet is changing and developing the English language at an unprecedented rate. For example, old spellings are giving ways to several new forms. One example is the word proof-reader which I have spelt here as two words connected with a hyphen, as my dictionary shows it. But some spelling sites on the web are suggesting this word may also be spelt as two separate words, proof reader, or as a single word, proofreader.
Above, I said try not to mix British and American spelling in the same manuscript. But I think the liberalism of language championed by the development of the internet is going to increasingly mix the two forms in the coming years, if it is not already doing so, especially on the web. It is already happening with turns of phrase. So be aware what you reference to help you make your choice of spelling. Then once a choice is made, stick to it. Be consistent!
Above, I used the word googling, which has emerged as a verb from the noun Google, the name of the world’s biggest search engine. These days, most internet users understand the meaning of the word and no doubt use it themselves. But Google is only fifteen years old. Would people have understood the meaning of the verb twelve years ago, ten years or even eight years ago? Was the word that common then? Be careful with language adapted from the internet! Unless you are writing sci-fi, do not go too far ahead of the game in your use of language!
A final, satisfying point
You will know when you are developing a proof-reader’s eye in your own work which, of course, will make you feel some satisfaction. But you will be surprised how many proof-reading errors you will soon discover in mainstream publishing, too, and this may well give you even greater satisfaction.
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