Lately I’ve been writing about what tasks authors might need or prefer to do themselves. While proofreading is a good task to outsource because it’s so hard to see errors in your own work, it remains a skill every writer needs, which is why I'm sharing proofreading tips below.
Even if you send your novel to a proofreader, it's important to proofread your novel yourself at least once. Doing so will help you to ensure all errors are caught and to spot quirks in your writing, such as overuse of certain words. (For a while, I added the word “up” all over the place—stand up, start up, fix up—and never noticed how distracting it was.)
So here are my seven tips:
Take Time Off
After you call your novel finished—truly finished as in ready to hit publish or submit to an agent or publisher—set it aside for a week. If that’s not possible, take at least a day to do anything but write. Take a vacation day, focus on your other job or profession, binge watch a series on Netflix.
Whatever it takes, clear your mind. After that, it’ll be easier to spot errors.
Read Three Words At A Time
Grouping words in three is one of the best ways to spot grammar errors, misused homonyms, and spelling. (Homonyms, which are words that sound the same but are spelled differently, such as “where” and “wear,” are the main reason you can’t rely on your word processor’s spell checker alone for proofreading.)
As you read, pause after each third word and at the end of each line. With this technique, the first sentence of this article would read like this:
Lately I’ve been writing about what tasks authors might
need or prefer to do themselves.
Alter How The Manuscript Looks
If you normally rewrite on screen, change the format. Making the words look different makes it less likely you’ll read through errors.
A few ways to achieve that:
- Print your manuscript and review it on paper
- If you’re in Microsoft Word, use the Print Preview or View function to make it look more like a page in a book
- Enlarge or shrink the page
- Change the font or font size
- If you’re proofreading a Vellum file, switch from iBook to the Kindle view and back every few pages
It takes a long time to read a novel out loud, so while it’s ideal, it’s unrealistic. But you can shift from reading to yourself to reading aloud every few pages. It’ll help you get a fresh look and spot mistakes.
If you’ve made changes or updates, read out loud the paragraph where you made the edit and the ones before and after it. That will ensure you spot any errors you accidentally introduced.
Use A Ruler
If you proofread on paper, place a ruler under each line as you read. This will help you focus on each line on its own and will make it less likely you’ll get lost in the story. You can also run your fingers under the line as you read, but that’s not quite as effective.
If you’re proofing on screen, you can get a similar effect by proofing each line at the bottom of the page as you scroll up.
Rather than starting on page one of your novel, start with the last page. Read it top to bottom, then read the second-to-last page, then the third-to-last page.
This requires a bit of double reading when you reach the end of a page, as you’ll need to glance at the following one to be sure the transition makes sense. But overall it doesn't take much longer than reading through from beginning to end, and it will keep you from getting lost in the story and missing errors.
Aim For Perfection
Make it your goal to publish or submit a novel that’s free from all errors. Is that realistic? Maybe not, especially if your manuscript is 70,000 or 80,000 words or more.
But if you aim for perfection, the odds are, at worst, you will catch most typos. If you mentally shrug your shoulders and decide that typing “where” instead of “wear” or “therefore” instead of “therefor” really doesn’t matter, it’s likely you’ll produce work with many errors.
I hope that’s helpful. If there are typos in the above, I’ll be really embarrassed.
P.S. If you'd like a second set of eyes, the proofreader I use for my novels is great at spotting typos, missing words, and unintentional grammar errors (yes, there are intentional ones in my fiction, which she understands!). You can find more information at SMR Proofreading & Editing.