Proofreading is not about whether your content, ideas, or flow is right, smart, effective, or interesting. Instead, proofreading is about whether it is readable. When proofing, you are looking at grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure.
Some of the mistakes I see when editing a manuscript are:
- Misused Homophones (insure/ensure, right/write, etc.). These happen all the time in writing, plain and simple. Simply going two the dictionary will help you avoid this.
- Redundancies. Sometimes, authors can repeat themselves without even realizing it; especially if they’re rearranging their book and/or moving large blocks of text around.
- Lack of Transitions. Make sure that you have proper breaks in your text, and/or that you give the reader enough information that you’re moving on to the next scene or topic. Otherwise confusion can occur.
- Subject/Verb Agreement. The last thing your sentence needs to deal with is an argument over which tense is correct. Double check your writing to be sure you maintain the same tense throughout, and that you conjugated the verb properly according to the singular/plural noun it refers to.
- Punctuation. Don’t get lazy with your punctuation and tell yourself that “it’s the editor’s job.” If you feel uncomfortable with commas, take some time to review how they should be used. Not having the right punctuation can cause problems with clarity that not even an editor can fix without your clarification! Punctuation can completely change the meaning of your sentence. My favorite example: “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” as opposed to “Let’s eat Grandpa!” Punctuation saves lives.
Having a technically correct text can be powerful; it creates a smoother, smarter, and more enjoyable reading experience. A comma in the wrong place, a verb used incorrectly, or an oddly order phrase will pull the reader out of the text, and potentially, undermine the author’s goal and purpose. The mechanics of writing may seem minor in the overall context of your ideas, but without this foundation, your ideas and content can crumble. Here are some techniques you can use when editing to avoid the mistakes above and become a proofreading pro:
- Step away: You have finished the chapter, section, or book! Now put it away. Leave it for a day or two (even a week if the book is long). Go do something completely different to get your mind off your content, ideas, and the act of writing. If you dive straight back into the text, your mind will still be focused on the large, overarching ideas and mentally fix “busness” into “business” without ever letting you know. A break will give your mind time to let go, so it can return refreshed and unburdened.
- Read it aloud: Even giving yourself time does not mean your mind will be kind to you. We generally understand how language is supposed to function verbally; the problems usually come when trying to write it down. To further combat the secret mental fixes, read the text aloud. Reading aloud can help force you to consider both readability and content. It will be hard for your mind to both tell you to say “busness” and comprehend it as “business.” Furthermore, reading aloud means you will actually pause with each comma and notice how odd it sounds, or you will be reading and insert a pause naturally because a comma is needed that you forgot.
- Read Backwards: This does not mean reading in some kind of demonic sounding terror with each letter said in reverse (etalocohc). Instead, go to your last sentence of the last paragraph, start there and work your way to the first. In other words, read sentence ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and then one. Starting at the back will once again force your mind to stop thinking about the overall ideas. Sentence ten may be narratively dependent on sentence nine to make sense, but the mechanics of sentence ten are not. The Oxford comma always comes before the last item in a list, business is always spelled with an i, and there never needs to be two spaces following a period.
- Print it Out: With the use of digital technology, it has become easy to only ever work on a computer or tablet. It can be helpful, though, to print out the document, grab a colored pen, and go in by hand. Your eyes work differently when looking at a computer and when looking at paper. There are different light levels, textures, movements, and sizes with each medium. Changing the way you engage with your text changes the way you think and notice things. Once again, it is all about forcing your mind to work differently.
- And Repeat: Read it again . . . and again . . . and again. Once you finish all the above steps (or your own techniques), start over. This could take days, even weeks, but to create something that people will care about and invest in is hard and needs that much time and effort. A professor gave me a great piece of advice: if you have less than three drafts of an essay, you’re doing it wrong. As a writer, you have to be willing to dig into your work, rip it to shreds, and piece it back together. You have to be your harshest critic, because your book is more than just your work, it is YOU. Doing one read through will never be enough, even if you do not tear it apart, always go back and triple check that this text is the text you want and deserve.
As with most things in life, the more you practice the better you will become. Every mistake you find means you are less likely to repeat it in the future. Think of proofreading as a system for developing your writing muscles. The more you train, the stronger you become. It will probably hurt—you will get tired, sore, and frustrated sometimes—but slowly, your proofreading skills will become muscle memory, they will become engrained in how you write and think. You will always miss things, it is inevitable, but with each read, you will develop and grow.
Just because you have proofread or given it to someone else to proofread, does not mean you can skip having a professional editor. No matter how good you are, you need someone trained and experienced in the field of editing to go through your text. If you want to publish a book, a professional editor is essential. Qualified editors will know the standards and expectations of the publishing world, so that your text does not stand out in a bad way. For some helpful tips on what an editor does and what to look for, check out the article What to Expect From Your Book Editor.