Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Value of a Good Proofreader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Indie Authors Series

As creative folk, we writers prefer to write or edit more than proofread. Proofreading is hard work and no fun, but it's critical for self-published authors. A manuscript filled with errors looks unprofessional, and it doesn't take long to make a bad first impression with a sloppy novel.

When my first writing book went through the proofreading stage, I hired a fantastic gal who came highly recommended, fully expecting little to no changes because (and here I shake my head in foolish shame) the manuscript felt "clean." It had been read by multiple people multiple times and I thought most of the errors had been caught.

I was wrong.

So very wrong.

I'm no stranger to typos (I speak it fluently), so I'd read through the manuscript with what I'd thought was a fine-toothed comb. I'd checked and double-checked everything, and it still wasn't enough, because there were things I just didn't know. "Writing" uses a different skill set than "proofreading."

I'd proofed for content and even tried to catch the mistaken "the" vs. "then" and missing words and whatnot, but a good proofreader catches so much more than we writers ever can. They also catch things such as:
  • Commas, hyphenation, and other punctuation
  • Consistency of word usage
  • Consistency of tense usage
  • Misplaced or missing modifiers
  • Proper capitalization
  • Ambiguous pronoun usage
  • And plain, old-fashioned typos
If you're preparing a manuscript to self publish, trust me, you don't want to skip this step. Hire a good proofreader and give them the time needed to fully go through your manuscript. (Mine turned the 80,000-word manuscript around in about three weeks.)

They're also not as expensive as you might think. Proofreaders charge by the words, page, or hour, so you'll be able to find someone who fits your budget. (I paid $2.00 per page, and it was worth every penny.)

If you prefer to do it yourself, here are some suggestions to make the most of your proofreading session:

Proof the manuscript backward: One reason proofreading is so difficult is because we tend to get caught up in what we're reading and don't actually look at the text. Try starting on the last page and read paragraph by paragraph up from the bottom. You'll see the text more than the story and have a better chance at catching mistakes.

Have style and grammar books handy: If you're unsure of proper grammar or punctuation, look it up. This also helps to keep things consistent, as there are personal preferences here. Some folks like serial commas, while others detest them. (And if you don't know what a serial comma is, that's a good hint that you need help to get this right.)

Create a master consistency sheet:
If you have terms you use often, write down how you want them to appear. Do you prefer % or percent? Seven thirty or 7:30? Is it a houseguard or a house guard? Do a search for these kinds of words to ensure they're consistent throughout the novel.

Embrace find and replace:
If you know what errors you're prone to making, search for them one at a time. Do you frequently use "just" or "only" in the wrong position? Or regularly use the adverb form of a word that should be an adjective? We all have pet errors, so check them individually if you know what often shows up in your work.

Take it slow (or is that slowly?): The brain can only catch so much at one sitting. Try proofing a chunk of your manuscript each session and giving yourself breaks in between.

It's easy to think we can proofread our own work, but it's hard to be effective when we know what a page is supposed to say. A good proofreader is a solid investment for a self-published novel.

If you self published, did you hire a proofreader? Why or why not?

*The urge to typo the headline on purpose was almost overwhelming.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. A good, affordable proofreader is worth her weight in gold! (Cliched but true!) As a freelance editor, I'm always educating self-publishing clients on the need for one, even after I finish with their work.

    Many authors don't understand the different types of editing or the difference between content/copy/line editing and proofreading. They want it all done in one go...

    1. So very true, and those are two different skill sets. You probably don't want your developmental editor being your proofreader and vice versa. Hire the editor with the skills for the job.

  2. I am not self-published, but I am a proofreader and I highly approve of this post. (Psst, I do think proofreading can be fun.)

    1. Which is why you're probably a good proofreader :) I guess I should have said "most writers" don't find it fun.

  3. I'm so bad at proofreading I leave the spell check off on Word to prevent a fire.

    1. LOL. Without those red squiggly lines I'd be a mess.

  4. Excellent post. I so easily find errors in others' works, but am sometimes blind to my own.

    1. It's so hard to proof our own work. Outside eyes are so helpful, even if we just swap novels with a friend.

  5. 'The value of a good poofreader' would have been hilarious - except that it probably messes with your SEO results.

    By the time you've been through your own manuscript 50 times for various things, I can see that catching typos that have escaped that many revisions might be almost impossible - except for 'new eyes.'


    1. Love it. I was going to go proofraeder, but I like yours better.

      I'm always shocked at what slips through even after multiple people have read the same manuscript. And the better the story the harder is it to catch stuff I bet. Too bust reading!

  6. good post; will save and share with my writing students. Thanks.

  7. This post made me smile.

  8. Janice, you mentioned "slow" vs "slowly." Supposedly "slow" is allowed in this case because it's what's known as a "flat" adverb. And I'm beginning to see adjectives used as flat adverbs more and more these days in manuscripts. What do publishers, agents, and editors feel about the use of flat adverbs?

    1. Interesting. I don't know, but I'd suspect if they worked it wouldn't matter, and if they felt like bad writing it would, same as any normal adverb. It's all in the execution.

  9. Ooh, I'll have to remember this! My crit group is good at catching tense mistakes, and I'm a grammar nut, so I tend to think my story will be perfect. Of course it's perfect. It's my baby.

    ...or, y'know, I'm another fallible human being who sometimes types too quickly...

    1. And remember, this is for those intending to self publish. If you're querying an agent, you don't need to hire a proofreader. Good crit partners are usually enough to catch the big stuff.

  10. Why can't a writer proof read his own work? My Proof reader helped me to understand. When I write or anyone for that matter, we mentally already know what we wanted to say and that is what we see regardless of what we read and is on the page. So if we mentally saw a scene one way and we wrote it another or dropped an 'ly' or 'ing' our mental vision of the novel fills in the missing information and the writer will be unlikely to see the drops and typos. A proof reader has a greater chance of picking those errors up.

  11. Thanks for the throwback, Ms. Hardy. Very timely and helpful to authors, especially the self-published ones. I always thought authors can do their own proofreading but after reading this, I'm having second thoughts. I think there are different types of editing that not all authors are aware of thus the need for a good proofreader. Thanks again for sharing!

    ChatEbooks recently posted

  12. Wonderful advice! As a fiction proofreader, I also agree that a professional will always catch errors that authors don't.