The Perils of Proofreading

Or should that be proof-reading? You'll see both, and sometimes also 'proof reading' as two words. My 1984 Oxford dictionary favours the hyphen, though most people these days seem to use 'proofreading' as a single word (I suspect it has become a single word in later editions of many dictionaries). So why does it matter? You all know what it means, right? Or maybe what it used to mean.

My dictionary defines proof-reader as "person employed in reading and correcting proofs". (Proofs being the printer's proofs ready for publication, exactly as the reader will see them - the word comes from a bygone age when printers had to set type before printing.) A better explanation in our digital age might be this from "Proofreading means carefully checking for errors in a text before it is published or shared. It is the very last stage of the writing process, when you fix minor spelling and punctuation mistakes, typos, formatting issues and inconsistencies." In other words, proofreading is the final stage after editing, and it matters if you want your readers to trust your writing, whether you are writing a quick blog post like this one, or working on a paperback novel for your millions of fans.

As a reader, I tend to forgive a few proofreading errors (sometimes called typos) if reading online. My own blog posts no doubt contain a few, and let she who is without sin cast the first stone... I will also forgive the occasional error in a Kindle or other ebook, since these are also read on a screen, although I like to think I am a bit more careful when publishing an ebook myself. But for some reason, these errors annoy me like crazy if I spot them halfway through a paperback, especially if I am enjoying the story and they thrust me out of it. I have even been known to grab my red pen and correct them in the book as I go, in case I want to read it again - so if you acquire a secondhand book with little corrections in the margins, it's probably one I've read!

Lately, I have been adding to my Ampersand Tales: themed book-length collections of my previously-published short stories, along with some unpublished stories I never finished or placed in magazines at the time. Not surprisingly, the stories that had been previously published were fairly error free, but the unpublished ones needed a bit more proofing. This is how I go about it.

My tried-and-tested method in our digital age is to send my manuscript to my Kindle Keyboard and read through it on that, adding notes on my Kindle as I go. I find reading my own work on my Kindle helps me see it through a reader's eyes, since the font and layout is different from seeing it in manuscript form on my computer screen. I can also turn on the 'text to speech' option and listen for any errors, since the Kindle will read exactly what is there, not what my eye thinks it sees. For my latest collection Heroic & Historical, this process caught 269 glitches... including some places where I felt the newer stories needed a bit more editing to read smoothly, so this was in effect both a copy-edit and a proofread rolled into one.

Paperbacks, however, are a whole different game. Not only do you need a 'perfectly' edited and proofread manuscript, but you also need to lay out your text and any images so that the resulting file looks good as a paperback book when it is printed. For this stage, I returned to my edited Word file, removed any hyperlinks I'd added for the Kindle version, and started my formatting confident that at least the book no longer contained hundreds of typos! When my paperback went live, the first thing I did was purchase a copy myself. This is not vanity. Well, it is sort of, since I always keep at least one paper copy of each of my published books on my shelf, because having the ebook on a virtual shelf on my Kindle doesn't feel real enough. But the main reason I purchased my own paperback was to carry out a final thorough proofread, because no matter how many errors you pick up in the digital version of your book, I guarantee you'll find at least ten percent more in the paper version... in pre-digital days, my publishers would always send their proofs by post as a wad of paper, and I much prefer working that way.

Sure enough, as I read my way slowly through my glossy new paperback, I did indeed discover a few things I had missed in the Kindle version. Small things, such as an apostrophe that had not been formatted in the right font... an inconsistency where I had edited a name... the layout of a 'scroll' within a story that had looked ok on the Kindle but not so lovely in the paperback... a few misplaced commas... and one rather unfortunate misuse of a word, which I'd missed several times in the original edits. (There is a big difference between 'selfishly' and 'selflessly'! If you downloaded one of the Kindle freebies on first publication, did you spot this one? Muse clue: it's in the final story in the book, and it took me about ten pokes through the text with my glittery horn to find it.) In total, I made another 27 edits - ten percent, see? Some of these had to be corrected in the Kindle version too, but that's an easy enough process when everything is digital. Of course, as I said before, nothing's perfect so if you spot any further howlers, please let the unicorn know!

The new, improved paperback version of Heroic & Historical is now available to purchase from Amazon.