Proofreading Explained

There exists a common misconception that if your manuscript isn’t in great condition, it needs a structural edit; if it is in reasonable condition, it needs a copy-edit; and if it’s in pretty good condition, a proofread is all that is required. Well, I have some bad news. The truth is rather different, and it goes something like this: every manuscript needs all three, because each of the three contributes something distinct and valuable to the project. OK, Ian McEwan or John Banville will get away with skipping the structural edit, but there are very few manuscripts that wouldn’t benefit from one.

Copy-editing and proofreading, on the other hand, are both essential if you want your book to reach the minimum industry standard. I think that bears repeating – the minimum! In previous posts we’ve looked at structural editing and copy-editing; now we’re going to take a closer look at proofreading and its place in the publishing process.

The clue is in the name, really: the original function of the proofreader was to read the typeset manuscript (proof) and check it against the copy-edited one. They made sure that the copy-editor had marked up the manuscript correctly and that the typesetter had interpreted those marks as intended. Essentially, they were the quality controllers, ensuring that the editor and the typesetter had done what they were supposed to and correcting any errors that remained.

Today, this quality-control function continues to be central to the role but the manuscript is generally read ‘blind’ (i.e. without reference to the copy-edit). Checking the typeset manuscript independently speeds up the process and also, in my opinion, takes greater advantage of the proofreader’s skills: less time checking one script against another means more time spent finding errors and inconsistencies.

In addition to correcting any typesetting errors and any errors that have slipped through at copy-edit stage, proofreaders are responsible for making sure that the layout and design, pagination, cross-referencing, images and captions, front and back matter (acknowledgements, imprint page, contents page, bibliography, index, etc.), headings and basically everything that goes into making a book are present, consistent and correct. That’s quite a long list, and it’s not even an exhaustive one. It’s also a list that clearly distinguishes the proofreader from the copy-editor, who is more concerned with the correctness and effectiveness of the author’s writing. Much of what the proofreader is responsible for checking didn’t even exist at the copy-editing stage, and it’s not uncommon for the copy-editor to never even see the typeset manuscript before publication.

You can see where I’m going with this: these are different jobs, so don’t expect your proofreader to copy-edit your book. Proofreading is not a lesser function, it’s a different one, carried out at the end of the publishing process.

Your manuscript should already be both complete and very clean by the time it reaches the proofreader (i.e. it should be edited). There are several reasons for this. First, it is expensive to make changes to a typeset manuscript (typesetters don’t work for free), so the proofreader is generally instructed to stick to correcting errors and to make only the changes that are absolutely necessary. This means that it is not the time to rename characters, to introduce a new plot element or to rewrite the introduction. All that should have been put to bed before the copy-editing stage.

Also, any substantial changes or rewriting need to be carefully checked, not just to make sure that they are correct but also to establish that they fit within the context of the paragraph, the chapter and the book. I have worked with authors who have made last-minute changes that introduced a glaring contradiction because they forgot to make a corresponding change in a later chapter. Essentially, such changes create the need for a new copy-edit, but because nobody is prepared to pay for that, things get missed.

The greater the number of errors that remain in your manuscript the more likely it is that some won’t be corrected. If you didn’t have your work copy-edited, and the proofreader is faced with, for example, page after page of incorrectly punctuated dialogue, that is likely to become their focus – to the detriment of other issues.

So it’s important to think of proofreading as a final check, not as an opportunity to make your manuscript better – that’s the purpose of editing. By hiring a proofreader you are accepting that you have moved beyond this point and are ready to publish. And it’s important that you proofread your own manuscript too. Although you are likely to have a degree of copy-blindness by the time it gets to this stage, you should never publish without having parsed the final version yourself. To that end (and to show that this slightly ranty post has a practical purpose!), here’s a list of things you should look out for:

Spelling

  • Be particularly aware of homonyms. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’; ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’; ‘their’, ‘there’, and ‘they’re’, etc. These slip through easily.

Punctuation

  • Check that full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, etc., are used correctly.
  • Quotation marks and apostrophes are sometimes reversed. Check them carefully.
  • Check for double spaces, particularly after full stops.

Typesetting

  • Check that the font is consistent throughout the text.
  • Check that the leading (space between lines) and kerning (space between characters) are consistent. Because the text is justified, the tracking (space between words) will vary, but it should be neither too loose nor too tight.
  • Ensure the paragraph after a section break is not indented.
  • Paragraph indents ought to be consistent throughout.
  • Mark any orphans and widows (a single line at the bottom of a page or part of a line at the top of a page).
  • Running heads need to be consistent and have the proper information, e.g., book title, chapter title or author name. It’s easy to make a mistake with these, so check them thoroughly.
  • Chapter openers should also be consistent. Does each chapter start in the same place on the page and contain the same elements in the same order?
  • Check that subhead spacing and alignment are uniform. Also, check that chapter numbers are in sequence and word ‘Chapter’ is used (or not) consistently.
  • Check that page numbers are present and in sequence. Odd-numbered pages should be on the right. Check that numbering is consecutive.
  • Blank pages should have nothing on them – including no folios or running heads.
  • Check page references. If you refer to something as being in Chapter 3 or on page 98, is that still correct in the final version?
  • Check that all necessary information on the imprint page is present and correct, including ISBNs.
  • Check that the page numbers on the Table of Contents correspond to the chapter openings. Check the vertical alignment of the page numbers.

Cover

  • Check that the title, subtitle and author name are correct on the cover and the spine. Check the direction of the text on the spine.
  • Check that there are no typos or inconsistencies in the blurb.
  • Check that the ISBN is correct.

Authors have come to expect an awful lot from proofreaders, and proofreaders sometimes go far and beyond their remit. The rise of self-publishing has broadened the scope of the function, pushing the proofreader into areas traditionally occupied by the editor. I’m not sure this is a good thing. It’s worth remembering that proofreading developed as a specific editorial function for a reason, and that it should be carried out as an individual task because it’s an essential part of the publishing process that consolidates the work of the author and the editor.

This article was originally published on Catherine, Caffeinated, a fantastic resource for anyone thinking of self-publishing.

One thought on “Proofreading Explained

  1. Pingback: Proofreading - The Editing Edge

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s