How to Be a Better Writer #2: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

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Greetings, authors!

I’m back with another dose of writing wisdom. This time, it’s about what happens after the creative work is done: proofreading.

When I told Geri Clouston, indieBRAG’s founder and president, about the topic for this month’s blog, she hooked me up with Helen Hollick, a British author who’s received a lot of praise for her brilliant manuscripts. Helen’s big on proofreading and editing. It might be one reason three of her books are B.R.A.G. Medallion honorees.

“Keep this in mind,” she tells me. “Anyone can write a book. Not everyone can write a readable book.” It might be a bit hard to admit, but she’s absolutely right. The two of us agree, a thorough proofread (and, if you can swing it, a professional edit) is an excellent way to bump your work into the latter category.

“It is essential to ensure that your final proof, before going to print, is as error free as possible (although I am convinced that the gremlins creep in as soon as the printing press starts running…),” Helen says. “It doesn’t matter how good your plot and characterisation are, if the final printed version is littered with silly errors, the reading experience for [your audience] will be spoilt.”

Next time you’re about ready to put a manuscript to bed, give it the ultimate respect and read it from beginning to end. (Note: No need to plow through it in one sitting. Just be sure to read every single word, as you hope your readers will do when the book’s published.)

Take a few minutes to prepare first. Careful, deliberate proofreading is hard work, and these tips will make things go more smoothly.

  • Take a breather. Give yourself a nice big break between writing your last sentence and diving into proofreading. Your brain needs time to refresh. You want to approach this read as objectively as possible.
  • Do a precursory spell check. As I mentioned in my last post, it certainly won’t catch everything, but each error you can wipe out now is a step on your way to having that readable book.
  • Print the whole draft. “The eye cannot always pick up errors on a screen; you need printed pages to do an efficient read-through,” explains Helen, who’s recently published Discovering the Diamond a book of tips for writers, co-written with editor Jo Field. It’s available in print and digital form in the U.S. and U.K.
  • Gather supplies. A sharp pencil (some like it red) with a good eraser will keep your marks clean, so you won’t stumble over cross-outs later, or wonder what your scribbles meant. Some Post-it’s or a notepad for questions helps put your notes-to-self in order so you can continue reading and address them later. Think you might get hungry? Grab a snack.

Unplug. Turn off distractions, like your laptop, the TV and your phone. And close the door if you’re sharing the space with others. If questions arise while you’re reading, stop yourself from googling answers (hello, Internet rabbit hole) and jot them on that notepad I mentioned earlier.

Now sit back and get reading! Keep an open mind, as if you don’t know what’s about to happen, and be hyper-vigilant about errors — we’re talking spelling, grammar, tense, overused words, subject-verb agreement, punctuation and character and plot consistency. Just as people have different learning styles, certain proofreading methods work better for some than others. Start with one of these tried-and-true approaches.

  • Read it aloud. “I know it can be tedious,” Helen says, “but by doing so, you will not unconsciously skip words or scan the page.” Hearing dialogue can also help you smooth it out and swap in words that make your characters sound more natural.
  • Tackle it in sections. If you’re feeling intimidated by the enormous stack of paper on your desk, break it down into chapters. Make sure each section sticks to the point and has a beginning, middle and end, like a little story in itself.
  • Transcribe it. Rewrite the whole thing, by hand or in another word-processing file, tweaking, polishing and fixing along the way. Then do a read-through of your second draft.
  • Start at the end. Give your manuscript the Jeopardy treatment by reading backward, sentence by sentence. This method helps you make sure that everything you’ve written answers a question — who, what, when, where, why or how. Plus, it will be easier to spot extraneous information that could confuse readers and obscure the plot. (Note: My sister-in-law is someone who swears by this system, and I’ve tried it, too, but for my Type-A peace of mind, I always do a last start-to-finish read.)

That’s really all there is to it. As you do more proofreading, you’ll discover the way that’s most natural for you. And who knows — maybe you’ll even be able to use a pen (I’m still not there, 10 years on). However you get to that clean manuscript, a polish here and a trim there will make your story stronger than ever. Here’s to your next B.R.A.G. Medallion!

What’s your foolproof way to keep your writing clean? Share in the comments below!

I’d love to know what you want to read about in future indieBRAG blog posts. Email me your thoughts or click over to  my website, to learn more about me and my work.

5 responses to “How to Be a Better Writer #2: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!”

  1. Helen Hollick says:

    Thanks for this very helpful article – some good tips here. I personally can’t get on with the ‘read-it-backwards’ method, but then I’m not a very good proof reader (hence I have a professional editor for this) It is also important, when doing your final read-through/s to keep a close eye on continuity. If your characters are in the kitchen in one scene, then suddenly sitting in the car in the next… how/why did they get there! Check character’s names don’t suddenly change, or their eye or hair colour! (oh and keep a record of the small details – like moon phases! I realised in a final read-through for one of my Sea Witch Voyages that the moon skipped from full moon to new moon to last quarter in a period of three nights!)

  2. Geri says:

    I wouldn’t have noticed since I would have assumed that Tiola changed the moon! She can do anything-
    I think proof reading has to be the hardest thing to do. Your eyes just see what they want to see. I have 3 different people reread our blogs and newsletter and we still find embarrassing errors and it is usually on very common and easy words – the easiest to breeze over.

  3. Trevor Stubbs says:

    I have just published my debut novel (The Kicking Tree) and discovered just how important proofreading is. Even after several readings by myself and others (including a professional who had graduated to a red pen!) I was still finding things we had missed. I fear when I read it again I’ll find more! I’m intrigued by the tip about reading backwards. I’ll do it with my new manuscript.

  4. Geri says:

    It sounds like you have taken proof reading and editing seriously- not every author does.
    You may find an error still but I can tell you I just finished reading a best seller from one of the big publishing houses and found a word missing in a sentence! It seems perfection is elusive!

  5. Ellie says:

    Trevor, so happy you liked the post. Geri’s right: Sometimes errors just slip through (hence the gremlins!), no matter who’s writing or publishing. And still, fans can flock! If your story’s solid and 99% error-free, you’ve got a fantastic chance. I’m planning a post about making changes to already-published ebooks…stay tuned!

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