Finished writing your book? Ready to get on with the tricky job of proofreading it? Great! But let me cut to the chase straight away. I would not recommend that you proofread your manuscript yourself. You see, you’re just too close to the content. You know what you wrote (or at least, what you think you wrote) so you read what you’re expecting to see – and it’s really easy to overlook even the most obvious mistakes, never mind the more subtle errors. As a professional proofreader, I would always suggest you find someone else to proofread your manuscript for you – preferably a paid professional, but even handing it over to a grammar-tastic friend can be a worthwhile exercise. But if you’re adamant that you’re capable of doing the job yourself (and let’s face it, the quality of so many self-published books on Amazon proves that plenty of people are under the mistaken illusion they are!) then here are a few things to look out for when proofreading your manuscript.
Okay, so this is the obvious one. Yuo dont wnat too publich a boook thet’s ful off speling mishtakes, doo yoo? But it’s far too easy to overlook spelling mistakes – like I said, you see what you’re expecting to see, not what is actually on the page. And if spelling isn’t your thing – or even if it is, but there’s the odd word you get wrong – errors are going to escape your eagle eyes and find their way out into the big bad world. Don’t think you can rely on the spell checker either … for example, I just typed the following sentence in Word:
I kneaded sum breed and milk so decide to cycle the shop too by some. As I peddled my bike done the road, I past a friend whose won of my neighbours.
It’s littered with errors – either spelling mistakes or missing words – yet Word thinks it’s perfectly acceptable. Never trust a spell checker!!
As with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors are really tricky to pick up on unless (a) you have a really good understanding of grammar anyway, and (b) you’ve put some distance between yourself and the content. If you really have to proofread your own manuscript, make sure you give yourself at least a few days between completing it and reading it through again, so the content isn’t so fresh in your mind.
I find the biggest issue with spotting punctuation errors in your own manuscript is that often, you simply don’t realise they are mistakes. Some of the most common errors I find myself correcting are commas used instead of semi colons, or semi colons used in the place of colons. Incorrect punctuation of speech is common too: just where DO you put that question mark – inside or outside the quotation marks? If you’re not sure, have a look at a site like Grammarly. Their blog has hundreds of articles on how to use punctuation (and grammar!).
English is a funny old language – there are so many words that can be spelled more than one way, and that means it is important that you are consistent in your manuscript. Look out for works like spelled / spelt, learned / learnt, sympathise / sympathize (indeed, any words ending with ise / ize). Neither spelling is wrong, but you really want to choose one and stick to it throughout. Also bear in mind UK and US spelling differences. If your book is aimed at a UK audience you need to use UK spellings like colour, behaviour, storeys (when referring to tall buildings), analogue. For a US audience those words would be color, behavior, stories, analog.
Likewise, look out for words that use hyphens, or can be written as a single or two separate words. Choose your preferred version and stick with it throughout.
Numbers are another area where it’s important to maintain some consistency. Generally numbers from 0-9 are written in word form and then as numbers from 10 upwards – unless the number is at the beginning of a sentence. So you’d write “The shop had 19 customers”, or “Nineteen customers were in the shop”. Round numbers – 20,000, 1,000,000 – are normally written in word form: twenty thousand, one million.
However, if you have two numbers in a sentence and convention is going to put one in numbers and the other in words, it’s best to use the same format for both. So “I saw three cats and thirteen mice” or “I saw 3 cats and 13 mice” – not a mix of the two.
Whichever spelling of a word you prefer, or however you choose to write your numbers, just make sure you stick to that format throughout the manuscript. It can help to write a crib sheet as you’re going along.
This is where it gets fun – and again, it’s an area that isn’t always easy to spot errors when you wrote the content.
A good proofreader will be mostly focused on the actual words , but they’ll also have one eye on the content, to make sure that everything makes sense. Make sure that things people do are logistically possible (you can’t shake hands if you’re holding a tea tray without putting it down first!), people are in the right place to be doing what they’re doing (people generally can’t be in two places at once), years work chronologically (if someone left school in 1986 they are very unlikely to have got married in 1982) and events happen in a logical order (we generally put our socks on before our shoes, for example!). If you find yourself thinking “Hmm, how did that get there / how did that happen?”, chances are something’s not quite right and your manuscript needs some clarification.
I was once proofreading a novel where one of the minor characters was called Martin. Nothing unusual about that …. but then I came across the word “Martinet” and it completely threw me. Turned out the character had originally been called Mark but the author decided to change his name partway through, and had used Word’s “find and replace” feature. So Mark became Martin ….. and the weekly French Market became the French Martinet!!
If you’ve changed a character’s name, make sure you’ve changed it in every instance. If you miss even one occurrence of the name, you risk confusing your reader when they stumble across the one and only mention of someone. And make sure spelling of names is consistent – if your character is called Tracy she needs to be Tracy all the time – not Tracey or Traci or Tracie!
Repetition is a frequent issue in book manuscripts, especially if you wrote your book over a long period of time, or have done a lot of editing. It is especially common in non-fiction books, where anecdotes are used to illustrate a point. There are only so many times you can use the same anecdote before it becomes annoying – twice is probably once too much, but you can get away with it – just – but any more than that really should be avoided. Keep an eye out for repetition and also for overused language – this can really affect how well something reads, and there’s usually another word or phrase you can use to give your writing some variety.
As you can see, there are so many things to look out for when proofreading your manuscript – and we haven’t even got on to formatting! I hope this guide will give you some tips on what to look out for – but if you’d rather hand the job over to a professional proofreader, you know where you can find me!