Perfect proofing

…and how to get it done yourself.

A crucial stage in the production of the perfect book is proofing, that is, the review and correction of the first or earlier drafts of the manuscript. This is enormously important but should not begin, in my view, until after the first draft has been completed. Proofing as you go is just going to delay and delay the inevitable moment when you have to face the prospect of actually declaring the thing finished, and is often a crutch used to avoid that. But once you have finished the first draft, you then go back to the front and start looking at it all from various perspectives, both micro and macro.

The first and most important question is, is this the right title for the book? If the title is right, you’re 40% of the way there to getting everything right, and by all means come up with a list of potential titles and run them past friends and colleagues to get a sense of the reaction to different ideas. Then you take a look at the Table of Contents and reconsider the overall building-block structure, but don’t spend too long on it because it’s a thought that should rather be in the back of your mind as you do the proofing.

Then dive in to the first page, first line, first word. The core trick is to read it as if you have never seen the words before, to approach it as a stranger, as someone who knows nothing about the author or the background or the story, and try to be as separated as possible from yourself and from the motivations and process of creation. This is a very hard mindset to embrace, but if you can do it, it will make a huge difference to how you approach the manuscript. The big problem with reading words that you have read before is that the eyes and brain just start to skim over parts that they assume were the same as last time, so you miss stuff

To proof properly, you have to force yourself to read every single damn word and think of each one in the context of the words around it.

What are you looking for?

First of all, you’re looking for spelling errors and punctuation problems, and to some extent Microsoft Word and Google Docs are useful in pointing out problems by providing red underlines under letter combinations not in their dictionaries. Pay attention to them, but not slavishly because the spellcheck function is robotic. If you come to rely on it too much, you will start to miss un-underlined words that the function mistakenly decides are correct.

When you spot a problem in terms of either spelling or phraseology or punctuation, my advice would be to put in a marker (I always use XXXX to mark where I’m up to) and do a global search for all instances of that issue throughout the manuscript. Only proceed when you have dealt thoroughly with the problem. Perhaps it is taking “US” and adding in periods to make it “U.S.” or fixing up date configuration from June 5th, 1999 to 5 June, 1999. Whatever it is, make all those changes, globally. I generally want to have less Arabic numerals 1-2-3 and more written-out numbers one-two-three, and globally search for each numeral in turn. Some people like two spaces after every period at the end of a sentence, our house style is only one and of course that is a very easy global change to make, you search for two spaces and replace with one.

Global search brings up another important point — do not, as many authors do, split up the book into one chapter per Word document. Always combine them into one document and then you can make global changes fast and efficiently.

In terms of spelling, the most important rule is that consistency is next to godliness. What set of rules you use is of secondary importance. In terms of style, the American standards are the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. I grew up with the Leslie Sellers’ book Doing It In Style (Sellers was a friend and colleague of my father in the newspaper world of Manchester in the 1960s). and his advice has stuck with me, most particularly the importance of style. For British English, there is Fowler and the Times style guide. I have constructed or assisted in the creation of three style guides over the years, one for Reuters, one for Xinhua Finance and one for SinoMedia. Earnshaw Books doesn’t have a rigorously enforced set of style rules, and the only rule really is that the style should be consistent within any one document. I personally don’t like Oxford commas, but if the author insists, then it’s Oxford commas throughout. Whatever style guide you choose, be pretty rigorous in surrendering to the rules that they set.

One thing to look for and change is long long paragraphs. Generally speaking, cut them up because shorter paragraphs are much easier for people to read.

As you proceed, you’ll be thinking about the phraseology of various sentences, and this is the time to make changes to the phrasing. In general, you’re looking for anything that makes you, I the mindset of the fresh stranger reader, feel uncomfortable. It’s actually as simple as that. One of the things that might make you feel uncomfortable is the close proximity of two instances of the same word, and this is a good time to change one of them to something else. The double-use of “phrase” in the first sentence of this paragraph should have made you uncomfortable, but I left it in as an example.

Proofing is best done with consistent font throughout the document, and I personally use Times New Roman 12pt. A serif font such as TNR is much better for proofing than a sans-serif font because then letters have legs and arms which makes it easier for the brain to link them up into words and makes the flow of reading large amounts of text much easier. Another useful psycho-trick is to make all the text left-justified, that is ragged-right, as opposed to left-right justified which introduces irregular spacing between words which can slightly interrupt the mental flow.

The traditional format for galleys, the printed documents used for processing manuscripts in pre-computer times, was that they were always printed with double spacing, that is an empty line between each line of text, so that editors could mark, with a pen, changes to the text in the empty lines between. Many of the manuscripts that we receive electronically are in double spacing, and the first thing that I do is change it to single spacing, because it helps the brain to be exposed to as many words as possible on the screen at the same time. This is because a lot of the process of reading is peripheral, with the brain unconsciously picking up information from the blurred territory around the word you’re focusing on. A trick for quickly coming to grips with a manuscript is to choose something that needs changing throughout and then mindlessly do it. For instance, removing empty lines between paragraphs. By doing that, you are not reading the book, but by the end of it, you already know the book because you’ve peripherally absorbed everything about it.

As you proceed with the proofing, this is the time to check spelling and references in Wikipedia or your Grandad’s encyclopedia. 

It is very important to always use track changes when you are proofing.

This is the single best function in Microsoft Word and it is superior to the equivalent function in Google Docs. But make sure that while Track Changes is on, you are viewing the document with changes not visible or simple markup. Some writers, and I’m looking at YOU Jonathan smiley smiley, insist on editing with full markup showing, which can result in a heavily edited page being full of coloured lines, different coloured text, everything underlined or struck-through. Editing in that way, there is an absolute certainty you will insert extra mistakes, an extra space, a missed comma, something.

So while you are going through the document in this detailed way, your brain should be passively thinking about the overall structure, about whether there are bigger changes that should be made, building blocks moved around, large sections which are now, from the perspective of the stranger, boring and should be cut. Or is there a big new section needed to explain what is going on? If it is fiction, this is also the time to think about the internal logic of the story. Does this new development make sense? And if you’re writing fiction, this is also the time to read the direct quotes from the perspective of them actually being spoken. Does it sound natural? Does it give the right feel? Jonathan, mentioned above, and the author of The Eunuch, is brilliant at dialogue because he is an actor and has dealt with any number of movie scripts.  

Some other thoughts. During the process you might want to write notes to yourself, or the next person who will view the document. The Note function in Microsoft Word is okay, pretty clunky, but still effective, and it’s much better, I have finally decided, than leaving notes in the text. Don’t proofread for too long without a break. The brain starts to protest and shift down as a result. So once every hour or so, stand up and walk around. Do something else for a moment. Then you will return fresh to the words. Save the file you are working on reasonably regularly with a new filename — I use “book name v02.docx”, then v03 v04 etc.. This is a great way to back up a document, and Word (particularly in its iPad incarnation where I am usually to be found) can sometimes be unstable and lose changes. If proofing is being done in confiscation with someone else, for instance myself and an author, it is crucially important that it be done on strict pingpong rules. If I am editing it, you don’t touch it and vice-versa.

I should say here that I am not myself the best proofreader in the world. I am pretty good, but I miss more than I should. My two heroes are John Ross, the co-publisher of Camphor Press, who has found an embarrassing number of errors in books we have published, and Mark Woodworth who edited the superb memoir by Jean Perkins, Spring Flower.

One other small tip to end with, and that is to practice writing a summary of your book. There are several useful lengths to try.

One is to confine it to a single printed page which, depending on the font, is about 500 words. Then try summarizing it in 100 words, and after that, a single sentence. Sometimes I ask authors to write a summary of the story and they don’t include the ending … because that’s a secret for the reader to discover! That isn’t useful from the publisher’s perspective. I asked the author of a fantasy novel received recently to give me a “skeletal” summary of the story and he responded with 3,000 words. As my father, who was born and raised in the north of England, once said to me, you can boil any story down to an absolute minimum of three words.

“Take the history of the human race,” he said. “Adam ‘ad ‘em.”

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