As an author, you have some choices for how to prevent errors from making it into your published work: you can either hire a professional proofreader, or you can consider honing your skills and doing the proofreading yourself. Either way, in this article I’ll share with you some of my favorite proofreading tips that will save your life.
Okay, maybe not your life. But credibility isn’t just about your ego, people. If readers don’t find you credible, you can also lose money, opportunities, and more.
Many authors mistakenly assume “readers will know what I meant” or that their primary content matters more than what seems like insignificant little details. However, proofreading is an incredibly important step for preserving your credibility and keeping your reader’s attention. If your book has errors, it doesn’t matter if the content is original and valuable. If your readers (i.e. your audience, prospective publishers, and even your competitors) find an error, they will automatically focus on the mistake and your credibility will slip away.
Sound nitpicky to you? Perhaps. But many studies have shown that readers do care about how you dot your i’s and cross your t’s. One such study revealed that “errors are associated with high mental effort, low retention and low perceived credibility.” Another study by Clemson University found “a text of better quality will elicit greater degrees of perceived author credibility from the readers of the text.”
And if you still don’t believe me, try scrolling through the reviews on self-published books. The worst offenders are often attacked quite coldly by readers who spot errors and are unhappy they’ve paid for a quality book that, it turns out, isn’t of such high quality after all.
Proofreading vs. Other Kinds of Editing
Let’s briefly recap from our article on Professional Proofreading Services:
With books, a proofread is a very specific thing. It’s editing performed on galley proofs or page proofs, not manuscript pages. When you edit for spelling or grammatical mistakes on a manuscript, that is copyediting. Proofreading does look for these same issues to make sure that:
- they were all caught and corrected in the copyediting phase
- nothing new was introduced in the conversion or otherwise
- any last-minute copy added to the manuscript post-copyedit is polished
Proofreading also looks at more issues specific to page proofs, such as:
- the use of fonts (like making sure the right font is used for different headers)
- the flow and placement of page numbers, running heads, and other design elements
- the size of margins and other uses of white space
- the appearance and placement of any illustrations or graphical elements
This is the very last stage before files go to press, so catching typographical errors is an important part of the process.
In addition to reviewing page proofs before your book goes to print, a professional proofreading service can check your articles, letters, or blog posts in order help you to give your documents and posts a polished appearance. Though technically the publication of digital content items won’t involve page proofs, many people still consider the last “microscopic” editorial pass to be proofreading online.
(If you’re still unclear, this list may help further illuminate the gap between copyediting and proofreading.)
Say Goodbye to Errors with these Proofreading Tips
If you want to save money on a proofreading service, or you’re planning to do it yourself entirely, try these 10 proofreading tips to keep your work blemish-free:
1. Brush up. You may consider getting a grammar guide (two totally painless guides I love are ActionGrammar and Woe is I), subscribing to grammar newsletters or blogs, or even enrolling in a proofreading course such as those listed here. You can also learn a ton from consistently applying editing tools like AutoCrit, a powerful piece of software that will guide you step by step through correcting errors, yes, but also, amazingly, will teach you how to strengthen your writing overall.
2. Find your “style.” Professionals use commonly accepted style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. Such guides help make sure all areas of your writing, from proper capitalization to accurate citations, are consistent and correct. You can learn a lot about what’s considered the best approach in grey area cases, and what’s flat-out wrong in black-and-white situations, from these tomes.
3. Take a break. Before you proofread, walk away from the computer. No, really. Turn it off and go for a walk, play with your cat, whatever. And don’t come back for a while. Maybe even a few days. The more familiar you are with a text, the more difficult it is to see what’s actually on the page vs. what your brain knows should be there. To get the freshest eyes possible short of a transplant, you need to give yourself as much time away from the work as you can.
4. Get a fresh perspective. Change the format/environment in which you originally wrote the article to give your brain a jiggle and spot errors you didn’t before. For example, change the font of your document, print out and edit your hard copy, read each page from the bottom-up, or read out loud to help yourself focus on areas you may otherwise skip over.
5. Use a better “spell-check.” Most spell-check options will show spelling (red underline), grammatical (green underline), and formatting (blue underline) errors. That’s helpful, but spell-checkers are not fail-safe, and the one that came with your word processing program (Microsoft Word *cough cough*) is likely underperforming. You don’t even know it because you aren’t seeing all the errors it’s missing! Up your game with a more robust spelling and grammar checker, like Grammarly (the plug-ins are free, and super cool).
6. Find a partner. Your friend or spouse may not be a professional, but their fresh eyes will spot things you won’t. That’s because they have some distance from the work.
7. Make a checklist. Since hopefully the bulk of major errors were caught in the copyediting phase, you can focus your proofreading on more traditional things: placement and progression of page numbers; use of fonts in different text elements (part or chapter titles, headers, body text, footnotes, etc.); placement and treatment of different header levels; line spacing and margin width; treatment of other special elements (epigraphs, illustrations, diagrams, etc.); and numbering of citations and foot/end notes. Use the checklist to work through every page.
8. Punctuation Marks: Take a bird’s eye view of each page. Consider the formatting and punctuation: is there too much punctuation, like excessive em-dashes or extraneous periods, indicating clipped sentences? Or is there too little punctuation, indicating run-on sentences? Are you using a lot of advanced punctuation, like semi-colons, colons, and combinations in one sentence? Are you using them correctly? Also, avoid excessive exclamation points or overdone ellipses and watch out for missing or inappropriately used apostrophes.
9. Error Wall of Shame: Keep a list of common blunders and areas you (or others) have caught before. This might include commonly misused words, many of which are homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) like affect vs. effect, loose vs. lose, its vs. it’s, ensure vs. insure, and they’re vs. their vs. there. Some people will hang their blunders in their writing space as reminders. Others will create a checklist and search for the errors. Actively learning your errors should help prevent them from occurring again.
10. Question Everything: If something sounds or appears odd to you, trust your instincts. Ask for a second opinion or look it up. And after you’ve worked through the above steps, print out your pages and hand ’em over to a partner. Ask him or her to flag anything that stands out. While you may do an excellent job proofreading your own work, there’s a reason that there’s a rule of thumb that every writer, no matter how expert, needs a separate pair of eyes to perform due diligence. You’re only human, and as the author, you can’t avoid being a little too close to your own work.
Once you’ve incorporated these methods into your book writing routine, you will find that your skills will strengthen and the proofreading phase will eventually take less time.
What do you look for when you proofread your work? Let us know your favorite proofreading tips in the Comments below!
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.