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Proof reading tips for new writers

Is there a trick to proof reading? Not really, but you will come across some very strange advice and practices, both for your own proof reading and for an editor’s proof reading.

I often come across so-called ‘proof readers’ and editors that claim to edit a book backwards, line by line. This is complete rubbish, because although that method may pick up spellings and grammar in isolation, the proof reader is not following the story and so how can they comment on the meaning, the style and the tone?

Do you want your book to have the obvious spellings and typos removed, or do you want the serious errors removed? Example: I edited a book where the main character suffered cancer in his testicle, had it removed, and a day later was dancing and having sex as if nothing had happened. If you read the story backwards, you may not spot the obvious problem – in that the man would be in pain for longer than just 24hrs! In other books, a character lost their glasses, yet without finding them (and being away from home) they are suddenly being cleaned and placed back on.

Proof reading and editing is not just about simple typos and spellings, the obvious ‘their’ when you meant ‘they’re’. Reading backwards does not catch the important stuff.

So what’s the problem with reading forwards? The problem is that us humans DO NOT READ WORDS, we read phrases without realizing it, and we recognize phrases. “He sat down.” No, you did not read each word, you recognized the phrase, and by doing so you read quickly and skimmed along the line, and if an editor does that then they may miss some of the typos. But, if the editor does not immerse themselves into the plot, then they will not correct the plot.

To my mind, the plot and the plot errors are just as important, if not more important, than the typos and the spelling. A few typos are something that your reader can live with, but getting the main character’s name wrong a few times and you have lost your reader – because they are pissed off with you.

So what is the answer? Fact is, most writers are terrible at proof reading their own writing, and many are quite lazy. We get repeat business from good writers, published writers, who hate to edit their own work – so we do it for them. There are then those writers that dare us to find anything wrong, and we surprise and disappoint them by finding a great deal wrong, things that they missed.

Cheap proof reading, $400 for 80k words, is an option open to writers who cannot be bothered to check their own work carefully, but also an option to writers that ‘think’ their book is finished. And the fact is, there are no fool-proof techniques, just a variety of opinions.

Some writers and editors look for the common faults, and so do we. We will do a global search for ‘their’ and then ‘they’re’ and check them. We will search for two sets of quotes when there should be one, and we will run the spell checker and grammar checker up and down and check everything highlighted in red or green by Ms Word. By doing so, we often spot things that we missed when we read-through the book.

We will also ‘add’ words to the spell checker dictionary, such as a foreign name, ‘Zathrus’. We may then find several variations of that name highlighted in red, and will fix them. And it is common for writers to change a character’s name after they have finished the story. Problem is, not all variations of the name get changed, and we often have Bill as the main character, yet he is called David in three places. Very confusing. And how would someone reading backwards spot the three instances of David, and would they query it?

Spaces and indents. As we proof read, we often fix the document structure as we go. Many Americans leave two spaces between sentences, most do not. Those outside the States do not use two spaces, and most books have just one space. We will then find that some paragraphs are auto-indented after the last paragraph, and yet some have a tab character, and some even have a bunch of spaces to indent the paragraph. They need to be consistent.

The answer is to edit your own book as best as possible, to look for global errors via a global document search, then to send it to at least one editor to have them look at it. And never forger, that a good editor is a harsh editor, and always be wary of people who tell you how good you book is whilst trying to win your business – and get your money. If your book is crap, we’ll tell you so or turn you away.


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