Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Amazing Tips for Proofreading and Copy Editing

You know it’s important to send in a clean, error-free manuscript if you want to make a good impression on an editor. If you decide to self-publish, perfection becomes even more important – and challenging. Despite the number of traditionally published authors now exploring “indie publishing,” self-publishing still has a bad reputation, due to the large number of poor quality books. In some of those, the story is pretty good, but readers get frustrated by typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies. Some readers seem to delight in giving books bad reviews on Amazon based on these problems, rather than the quality of the story.

 Even those of us who are “good with English” or easily catch typos may not be qualified as professional proofreaders. Then there’s copy editing, which is something different... well, I’ll let my guest explain. Here’s professional proofreader Karen Elliott to explore the world of proofreading and copy editing. Welcome, Karen!

Karen Elliott:

With self-publishing comes great responsibility. Whether you self-publish or go the way of an agent/publisher, you want to be sure your manuscript makes it to readers as clean as possible and makes sense from Chapter 1 through to The End.  

I cannot define proofreading and copy editing in finite terms – neither, it seems, can anyone else. I’ll stick my neck out and say “proofreading” is your garden variety punctuation, typos, and spelling.

“Copy editing” can range from consistency, subject-verb agreement, verb tenses, and word choice or denotation; more in-depth editing might include substantive paragraph and chapter re-writes through developmental rewriting (overhaul).   

Consistency throughout a manuscript is a bit of a problem for some writers. It’s not the story’s structure – it’s keeping it all cohesive with consistent language, proper names, and characters’ personalities.

Proofreading and copy editing are a challenge – it’s more than just having a dictionary handy. It’s more than what you think you know.

Here’s a handy DIY for proofreading and copy editing –   

Doing Your Own Proofreading –

Adjust your mind set from “writer” to “proofreader.” Forget that you are looking at your baby, your pet, your sweat-stained manuscript. Once you are ready to proofread and copy edit, it’s a whole ‘nother animal. It’s a project. You are looking for things that are wrong.

Spell check – Do not – DO NOT – depend on your computer’s spell checker.

Read out loud – Read the piece out loud. This will help you hear where there are stops and starts, what’s awkward. Take it a step further – read your MS or short story into a tape recorder, and then listen to it while looking at a printed copy.  

Print it – Sounds silly, but it makes a difference. You’ve been looking at the project on the screen for a year or two – you need a new perspective – you need to see it on paper. Red pen at the ready!

Dictionary and Style Guides – Use the dictionary and style guides like The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style, and desk references for grammar and punctuation – like Diane Hacker’s Rules for Writers.
First Reader – Do ask someone to look at your MS with a critical eye. My first reader Joanne Ingram  (a Master’s student at ASU School of Journalism) is brutal – she slices and dices like a Samurai.

Mom or BFF – Don’t ask mom or the BFF to proofread – unless mom was a H.S. English teacher or a proofreader for Merriam-Webster (my mom was!). Your peeps will probably tell you, “It’s wonderful!” or “Fabulous!” Not that you shouldn’t trust them, but you shouldn’t trust them with proofreading your manuscript.

Sounds like – Look at words like there and their, you’re and your, and its and it’s. If you know you have trouble with a certain word(s), search for that word throughout your MS. Labor-intensive – yes. But it works.   
Take a break – Put the MS aside for a few weeks or a month or two. Then go back to it with fresh eyes.

Copy Editing –

Consistency – Check for inconsistencies in where your characters live, where they work, their likes and dislikes, their phobias (don’t say your character is afraid of snakes and then have her holding a python in Chapter 10), favorite foods/allergies (someone is allergic to shellfish and later eats a lobster), and so on.

Names, Proper Nouns – Did you call your main character’s boyfriend Allan in the first chapter and Alan in all the other chapters?

Electronic Age – The jury seems to be in a dead-lock over new language and emerging language terms that describe the electronic age and new gadgets. Whether you agree with the AP Stylebook or not, if you are going to use words like e-mail or email, web-site or website, on-line or online – each of these words needs to be consistent throughout your manuscript.

Who’s talking? – If your English Teacher character is talking prim and proper English in Chapter 3, make sure she’s talking the same way in Chapter 49.

Know your props – If you have your police officer with a Glock in Chapter 4, he should still have a Glock in the final chapter.   

Where are you? – I have often drawn my own maps on a large sheet of paper to maintain perspective. Or use Google maps. If you write Route 83 and Burdick Expressway intersect in Minot, ND, they’d better intersect. If the Sandia Mountains are east of downtown Albuquerque in Chapter 4, don’t put them west in Chapter 18.

Excessive or Lack of Punctuation – If a sentence has more than a few commas, it’s difficult to read. Same goes for lack of punctuation. Review long sentences or sentences containing commas, colons, semi-colons, or dashes.

CE: Whew, I’m exhausted just reading about all the things you need to do! If it seems like too much, you might consider hiring a professional. Tomorrow Karen will give advice on how to hire a professional proofreader or copy editor, and on Friday she’ll offer tips on what to do if you can’t afford to hire someone.

About Karen: “I am a voracious, nit-picky proofreading shark! I was raised by two women – a mother who worked for Merriam-Webster as a proofreader and an aunt who could do the New York Times crossword in a day, in pen. Please see testimonials, commitment statement, and other information at my blog.”


  1. I have a really hard time finding a critical reader. Sigh. I teach English, and I still make mistakes in my own work that I don't see. Another pair of eyes is so important!

    This list is great.

  2. Fantastic tips... thanks for sharing them. With self-publishing growing by the day, the need for careful editing by the author becomes a very real need. Hopefully more than a few authors will apply these tips to their work.

  3. One other tip. Do a search for often repeated words. We all have our favorites.
    I ended up cutting 30 assorted "just" and "even" of those form one mid mid grade novel.

  4. "Just" is one of mine, too! Often these stick out more to other people. To us, they sound right.