At long last, we arrive at the polishing point in our editing process. You will have picked up many, many copy-type errors in the previous rounds of editing. Still it is important to take this final step, the once-over, just for typos and such scouring. Sadly, an over-looked spelling error will leap off the page and display itself in bright bold print to the first reader, planting doubt about your professionalism and, perhaps, your scholarship.
Now my first suggestion is also a confession. My very best tip for proofreading is my husband. My husband is not a writer, his knowledge of English grammar is negligible, and he is unfamiliar with most of the subjects I’ve written about. BUT – he is an eagle-eyed reader, picking up everything from the extra comma to the awkward phrase to the misspelled county. As an added advantage, he cares about my success, and he’s available at odd hours of the evening when I’m likely to be needing a proofreader. Unfortunately for you, he’s not taking new clients. But I would recommend finding a personal proofreader (PPR), if you can. And I would recommend NOT using that person to read interim drafts of your work. Part of what makes my husband’s review effective is that he is coming to the material completely raw. He has no previous phrases in his head which might gloss over the actual text on the page. And he’ll notice an awkward or confusing statement that I’ve missed, precisely because he doesn’t know what the piece is about.
Even before you pass off your manuscript to the PPR, or in those inevitable crisis moments when the PPR is in Tanzania when you’re on deadline, there are some other proofreading tips and tricks you can manage on your own.
Give your manuscript the gifts of Time, Paper, Space and Sound. Each will help hone the final copy.
- Time: Never try to do a final proofread on a manuscript you’ve been working on for hours. You need fresh eyes. It’s best to wait at least a day; at minimum, take a walk or a coffee break.
- Paper: Working on the computer gives us a wonderful freedom in the editing process, but ultimately your work is going to be read on paper. Read it on paper at least once before you send it off.
- Space: Take the paper copy and read it in different place than you wrote it. This heightens your attention to detail.
- Sound: I’ve recommended reading aloud before. Several proofreading tricks are much more effective when you are listening as well as looking at your words. And turn off the background noises when you’re proofreading. You need to concentrate!
First of all, check for your personal demons. We all have them – the words we’ve been spelling incorrectly since the third grade. Do a “find all” for your most-common misspellings. (I almost never recommend doing a global find-and-replace. Most word-processors will replace the target sequence wherever it appears, including in the middle of other words. So if you change your character’s dress color from “red” to “blue” and do a global find-and-replace, you’ll find that a number of unexpected substitutions have occurblue. (In fact, if you have done a global F&R on the manuscript, you should add those kinds of mistakes to your proof-reading checklist.)
The one global F&R I would recommend is for the double-space-after-a-period. If you learned to type back when we called it typing, you were taught to double space after the end of a sentence, and your fingers probably still do that. This is no longer standard. Since punctuation marks are not typically part of standard spelling, you can safely run “replace all” for the double space after a period, a question mark and an exclamation point.
Other things to look for with the “find” function:
- Any detail that you changed from one version of the piece to another (nicknames, for example).
- Auto-correct errors, especially names and acronyms changed to common words
- Homonyms: Spell-checkers will not flag you for using the wrong version of there/their/they’re or to/too/two. And while you’re at it, pay particular attention to its/it’s. (Remember, if you could substitute “his” for “its,” it does NOT need an apostrophe.)
- Stylistic choices: Some words are always compound words, some are always hyphenated, but in many cases these are style choices. You want to be sure you have followed your publisher’s guidelines, if you have them. If not, default to the AP Stylebook. But check! Even if both proofread and proof-read are acceptable, using them interchangeably within your manuscript is not.
Turn on the “show/hide” option and look for random carriage returns and any other unexpected formatting marks.
Now – print out the manuscript! It is difficult if not impossible to do a really effective proofreading job on a screen. For some reason, errors “pop” on paper.
Now is when you can try this often-suggested trick: Read the manuscript backwards, which forces you to think about each word individually.
Things to look for:
- Random capital letters.
- Doubled letters (which can easily become tripled). Also – is it REALLY a double letter? (Hopefully your spell-check will have picked those up, but watch for them anyway.)
- Transposed letters, especially if the scrambled version is also a correctly-spelled word. (Most of us have one or two words we frequently transpose: add them to your list of things you search for with the “find” function.)
- Commonly confused words: Accept/except, effect/affect, lay/lie. Backward and backwards do not mean the same thing. Neither do beside and besides. Toward and towards, however, are interchangeable.
- Consistency with hyphens, compound words, serial commas, line spacing and indentations. Again, follow publisher’s guidelines or the AP Stylebook. Double-check the spelling of every name. If you find an error in a word you’ve used more than once, make a note to do a “find” for the incorrect form when you go back to the computer to make sure you’ve caught them all.
- British/American spelling: if you read a lot of material published in the UK or Canada, you may find yourself using perfectly good spellings that your editor will consider wrong! If there are words you use frequently for which this is an issue (judgement/judgment), add them to your F&R list.
Finally, double-check every number: dates, prices, addresses. Numbers are so easy to type incorrectly, and no mechanical checker will find your errors! Also check any instance of million/billion/trillion.
Go back to the computer, fix the errors you found on paper, and you’re ready to SEND!
Some helpful websites:
General proofreading tips:
There are a number of lists of commonly confused words on the internet. Here’s one good one: http://homepage.smc.edu/reading_lab/words_commonly_confused.htm
British/American spelling comparison:
I highly recommend owning the AP Stylebook (and getting an updated version every few years) but in the meanwhile, the ever-helpful Purdue Writing Lab has a quick-check online: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/735/02/