There are two fundamental keys to proofreading your own work:
1. Do it more than once becaue you’ll miss things every time you do it, and:
2. Find a new method on each readthrough to trick your brain into experiencing it as though for the first time, and thus overcome the built-in tendency to skip over your familiar mistakes.
And here’s how to get going:
Save it. The first thing to do is to save the draft you’ve got, open it as a copy and then save it again with a different name, so you have your work preserved in case you make some kind of horrible mistake.
OPTIONAL: Clear all formatting. Next, you may wish to do one of the things recommended for formatting, a step known as “the nuclear option” in the Smashwords style guide. Simply select the whole text with ctrl-a (or option-a for a mac), then change it all to the “normal” style. Word tends to throw in random styles depending on what it thinks you want it to do, and these can cause problems later on in formatting – and, potentially, for your text. If you’re likely to make any more revisions to the text, then there’s no point in doing this; but if you’re definitely on the final stages before publication, this is a good time to do it.
- This will likely get rid of any italics or bold text that you added, so now you’ll need to go back and put that in. The same goes for any special formatting you might have wanted. You can refer back to the version you saved before you hit the nuclear option in order to do this.
- Having done all this, you can now change the Normal paragraph style and affect the entire document at once, ensuring a consistency throughout the text. At this stage, you don’t need to decide if you want indented first lines or a gap between paragraphs – that comes when you get into formatting for e-readers – but nevertheless, being able to make this change across the whole text means you can change the way the text looks with ease. Doing this helps the brain see the words anew and makes mistakes more obvious. Just remember to make the changes at the level of the Style, and not directly onto the text.
Show the Invisibles. Make sure your word processor is set to show all nonprinting characters such as the end-paragraph symbol ¶. This is helpful for spotting things like double spaces that you might otherwise miss, or tabs that have sneaked into the text invisibly, or other weird things that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Spellcheck. The first pass over the text should be a basic spelling and grammar check using the tool provided in the word processor. There are many, many things this will misinterpret or fail to spot, but nevertheless, it’ll catch a large percentage of the obvious problems.
Find & Replace. Now deal with simple mechanical errors using the word processor’s Find function. You could use Find and Replace as well, but it’s wiser to find each problem and deal with it separately, just in case you need to make an exception for some reason. Some mechanical issues to look at:
- Double spaces. Find them and turn them into single spaces!
- Spaces at the end of paragraphs. Finding these in Word is surprisingly easy using the Find/Replace tool. You’ll need to expand it with the little triangular arrow if that hasn’t already been done, then you’ll see a drop down menu near the bottom of the box that says “Special”. From that, you can select all kinds of unusual characters, even invisible ones like paragraph marks, which will then be added to the “find” line. A paragraph mark will be expressed as ^p (and you can just write that in if you can’t be bothered with the menu).
- Double full stops..
- Pointless tabs. Really, you shouldn’t have any tabs at all in a document that’s going to an e-reader, so get rid of them. Paragraphs should never, ever begin with a tab. Tabs can be found using the Special drop-down menu in the find/replace box, and will be expressed as ^t.
- The Wrong Kind of Dash. Find all your em dashes and en dashes and make sure they’re doing exactly what you’ve chosen as the style for the whole document. If things are really out of hand, you might need to go through all the hyphens, too.
- Common abbreviations, such as ie/IE, eg/EG, etc, AD, BC, and so on. If there’s anything you use commonly, search for all the instances (including the common errors of same) and make sure they’re consistent and correct.
- Instances of ‘i’ that haven’t been capitalised. Also any proper nouns you commonly use that haven’t been capitalised.
- Anything else you can think of, especially any stylistic elements you’ve chosen to use in the document.
Proofreading. And then it’s time to actually start the ‘reading’ part of proofreading. You need to go through the text multiple times, in as many different ways as you can, to make it seem fresh and avoid the cognitive
tricks your brain will play on your behalf. I’d suggest going through it at least three times, in one way or another. Each time you go though, DO NOT make changes directly to the text. Simply mark the sections that have problems, make notes if necessary, then come back to make the corrections later – just in case you decide, on further reflection, that you were wrong.
Here’s some ways of making a readthrough:
- Get someone else to read it to you. The reader will also have their own opinions about what works and what doesn’t, which will be very useful. If you happen to know an actor who can do this for you, that’s even better. If you’re married to an actor and can get them to do this, you’re very, very lucky and I hate you.
- Most of us can’t get actors to stand around reading things for hours on end when they have important auditions to go to. But you can still get someone to read the text, because you almost certainly wrote it on a computer. And you almost certainly have some kind of text-to-speech feature built in. Word has this as standard, and will use whatever voices have been loaded into the system (most operating systems will have default voices included). This will generally sound like a dalek is reading the text, although the voices are improving these days. It’s possible to get better voices if you do a bit of digging online – they usually cost money but some will allow a trial installation which will give you enough time to go through the text (and you can go back later and buy them with all the money you make from the book, right? Right?)
- If you own an e-reader – and if you’re writing for such things, then you really should – it may well have a text-to-speech function of its own. It may even be better than the computer’s one, but don’t use it as a substitute – use it to make a separate pass through the text. If using a Kindle, for example, you can sit with headphones and even use the annotation function to make notes about changes as you go through.
- Read it out loud yourself. Maybe even into a mirror. This, too, will force you to percieve it anew, especially the dialogue. Just make sure you can’t be seen or overheard while doing this, as it can be mistaken for advanced forms of insanity.
- Each time you go through it, change the font and/or the point size. Simply doing this will rearrange the words on the page and force the brain to interpret them anew.
- Get a friend to go through it and mark up any problems with it. This is a bit of a strain on friendship, though, as it can be a tedious, lengthy job.
- Finally, after all these other passes, sit down and read it normally. If you’ve gone through a number of verbal passes, this will suddenly become a new enough experience to be useful.
- And even after you’ve done this, you’ll find yourself having to format the text for various e-versions (usually both mobi for Kindle, and ePub for everything else). Even then, you can be keeping an eye out for problems – and I guarantee that even at that late stage, you’ll find something.
As you’ve probably guessed, doing all this can take a very, very long time (it took me several weeks to do this to a 170,000 word manuscript, although I did have a day job as well). That’s the trade-off between doing it yourself and paying a professional to do it. You can have the money or the time – but you can’t have both.
Unless you’re married to a proofreader. In which case, I hate you.
(if anyone can think of any hideous errors I’ve missed, tell us in the comments!)
That definitely sounds like a length process, but I’m sure the end result makes it well worth it. Just ask any reader.
About Paul Hardy:
Paul R. Hardy started life as a filmmaker. He made eighteen short films, won a BBC Drama Award, co-wrote & co-produced an independent SF film called Triple Hit and also wrote Filming on a Microbudget, a guidebook for making short films. Having been introduced to the concept of spare time following a well-known global financial meltdown, he now writes science fiction novels as well. The Last Man on Earth Club was published in 2011, to be followed by All That I See or Seem in 2012.
Paul can usually be found in his native England (what with the cost of travel these days).