7 Tips for Proofreading Your Book

by | Aug 26, 2015

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Do you proofread your book after it’s been laid out for print or formatted for e-reading? You should. Proofreading is the last stage of the editorial process and its goal is to catch any errors that the writer, editor, and book designer or formatter have missed.

Why Your Book Needs Proofreading

By this point in the publishing process, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. What errors? There shouldn’t be any errors. I hired a copyeditor to take care of those!” While a copyeditor will catch most errors, they won’t catch them all. Most editors agree that 95 percent is the industry standard. What’s more, it’s not possible for a copyeditor to correct errors that haven’t yet been made.

Every time someone opens your book file—you, your copyeditor, the formatter or book designer, or your keyboard-curious cat—an error can potentially be introduced!

Have you ever inadvertently leaned on your space bar while reaching for your latte and inserted extra spaces between words? Copied and pasted a section of text and discovered you missed copying the last sentence? You know what we’re talking about, then. Because these things can happen to a book’s designers and formatters, and because they will receive your book after a copyeditor works his or her magic, any errors that occur in the design process will never be seen by your copyeditor.

All of this points to the importance of having a last look at your book, in its final environment, after it has been designed for print or formatted for e-reading devices. You need to be your book’s first reader.

Print or Ebook?

There are lots of ways to proofread a book. How you proofread it will depend on the publishing format you choose. If your book is headed for print, you’ll need to proofread the PDF that will be sent to the printer or print-on-demand service you’ve chosen. If your book will be an ebook, it makes sense to proofread it on an e-reader.

How to Proofread a Print Book
In the past, professional proofreaders proofread books on paper. Now, most proofreaders will proofread a book with software that allows them to mark errors on a PDF. Self-publishing authors can do the same, using these two free software options:

  • PDF XChange Editor
  • Adobe Reader XI

Both pieces of software have drawing tools and text tools that will allow you to circle errors, insert missing words, and make notes in the margins without disrupting the book designer’s layout. You can even mark errors with proofreading stamps, which is entirely too much fun.

7TipsForPR Image

Wiley Publishing’s proofreading stamps in PDF XChange Editor.
It’s also possible to proofread your book on a tablet with a stylus using iAnnotate. To learn more about proofreading tools for print books, read 8 Proofreading Tools for Beta Readers.

How to Proofread an Ebook
Proofreading an ebook requires a different strategy. You can’t mark up the text as you would in a print book. The text is not static, but flowable, so you need another method for keeping track of errors.

If your ebook has been formatted as an epub (for Apple, Nook, and Kobo), it’s best to proofread it using Adobe Digital Editions 3.0 (free). The ebook formatting and design company 52 Novels has created a proofreading procedure that works well for epubs.

If your ebook is in mobi format (Amazon), you have a couple of options. You can proofread your ebook using

After you’ve identified errors in your print book or ebook, you’ll need to have your book designer or formatter make corrections in your formatted or designed file.

Managing the Proofreading Process

There’s a lot to keep in mind while proofreading a book. The following proofreading management tips can help you organize the details.

  1. Decide what you’ll look for.
    While proofreading, you’ll need to look for language errors and formatting errors. It helps to have a checklist to guide you. These two lists will give you a good idea of what look for:

    • How to Proofread Like a Pro, Part 1 (Language Errors)
    • How to Proofread Like a Pro, Part 2 (Formatting Errors)

    A Note About Word Breaks
    If you’re proofreading a print book, standard proofreading procedure involves checking that words at the end of lines are breaking in the right places. There are many do’s and don’ts surrounding word breaks—far too many to discuss here. The gist is that you want words to break in a way that won’t distract the reader or interrupt the flow of reading. Looking up words in a dictionary will help you to break them correctly.

    Having said that, controlling for word breaks in ebooks is time-consuming, so many formatters and traditional publishers don’t do it. Do readers notice? We’ll leave it to you to decide! If you’d like to know more about controlling word breaks and similar ebook formatting decisions you’ll need to make, see The Ebook Style Guide: Creating Ebooks That Work for Readers.

  2. Develop a plan.
    There are many steps to proofreading a document. Decide the order in which you’ll do things. For example, we tend to run a book through a consistency checker like PerfectIt Pro* before we begin an initial read-through so we can preview any inconsistencies in the book. We then do a focused, beginning-to-end, word-by-word read-through, marking up errors as we go. We might do a separate pass, using the search function to look for recurring errors, and then we’ll do a “page-through” to ensure that we’ve addressed widows and orphans and word breaks (print books only). We then run PerfectIt Pro again, to catch any inconsistencies we may have missed or introduced.

    Every markup that we make or correction that we suggest is informed by the copyeditor’s style sheet, a list of decisions the copyeditor made to make the book as a consistent as possible. If your book has been copyedited, ask your copyeditor for the style sheet so you can use it to guide you while proofreading. By the way, it’s never a good idea to proofread a book before it has been copyedited, so always make sure your book is copyedited before it’s proofread.

    Every proofreader will handle the proofreading process differently. Your process will be different if you’re proofreading a print book or an ebook. Keep track of your process with each book, so you can find ways to make proofreading more efficient.

    *To improve accuracy and efficiency, some proofreaders will strip the text from the designer’s PDF and paste the text into Word. This allows them to use the Word add-in PerfectIt Pro to efficiently check for inconsistencies. Any inconsistencies are marked up on the designer’s PDF.

  3. Attend to details.
    It’s easy to allow details to slip past you as you read your book. Try not to get sucked into your story! Proofreading is a different kind of reading. You’ll need to read every letter, every punctuation mark, and every space. For example, proofreaders will slow down enough to notice when a period should be italicized, or set in roman type! Proofreaders learn to search for inconsistencies, and to see the smallest details when they read.
  1. Read “aloud.”
    In her handout Proofreading Secrets, proofreader Elizabeth Macfie explains that while reading, your brain will behave like the “autocorrect” function in a word processing program, meaning that it will tell you what should be on the page, instead of what is actually there. To bypass this tendency, read aloud or use a text-to-speech tool that can read the text aloud to you. (If you’re using Adobe Reader XI for PC, it has a text-speech function built in). Hearing the words will help to you to hear the errors that your eyes are not seeing.

    Tip: If you “whisper read” you’ll save your vocal cords from getting too tired.

  2. Read slowly.
    Read at a steady “thinking” pace—not too slow and not too fast. Reading aloud or using a text-to-speech tool can help you to go more slowly than you normally would if you were reading silently. Some text-to-speech tools will even allow you to adjust your reading speed.

    Set a timer and keep track of your reading rate (number of pages per hour). You’ll be able to use that information to decide if this is how you want to spend your time for future book projects, or if hiring a proofreader is a more palatable option. Keep in mind that some kinds of books, such as dense and technical nonfiction books, will take you longer to proofread than others.

  3. Take frequent breaks.
    Proofreading requires intense focus, and it can be difficult to sustain focus for long periods of time. Drink lots of water while proofreading to force yourself to take frequent breaks! Set goals to stay motivated. Decide how many pages or chapters you’ll proof before you’ll get up for a stretch.
  1. Be kind to yourself.
    If you’re proofreading on a tablet or a Kindle, find a comfortable armchair to sit in. It’s nice to take a break from an office chair. Save your eyes from strain by positioning yourself near a window, so you have lots of natural light.

 

Summing it Up

There are many things to consider while proofreading. A plan, a few tricks from the pros, a handful of tools, and a little self-care will help to make the process easier and more enjoyable. If, in the end, you decide that DIY proofreading is not for you, that’s okay. I know at least two proofreaders who’d be happy to help you out!

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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18 Comments

  1. Grace Peirce

    Thanks for this article. I find through personal experience that proofreading on a screen is not an effective way to proofread. Many more errors are found after the book is laid out in pages, and printed out so it can be handwritten on. It takes a little more time to do it this way, and corrections to the digital document need to be checked twice, but I find that proofreading on paper when the book is in pages, seems to be the most effective way for my process.

    Reply
  2. Rob Siders

    Thanks for the link, Carla, Corina and Joel. It’s always nice to have new visitors. And, great write up about this critical—and often overlooked—step in the process.

    I should point out the review and correx reporting process we developed is tailored to our production work flow. It may or may not be right for DIYers or other production houses. If you’re a DIYer, find something that works for you. If you’ve hired out to a production shop, follow their process … in all likelihood it’s that way for a reason.

    Lastly, the thrust this piece cannot be stated enough: don’t assume the first iteration from production is final and publishable. It could be … it might. But a lot of that depends on editorial rigor in pre-production or how aggressive the pursuit of perfection is.

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Great points, Rob.

      Every production process can be different, so it’s important to be flexible. Your correx process is the one we follow for epubs because we haven’t found a better way to proofread an epub (kudos to you). We follow a different process for Kindle ebooks.

      And I can’t agree with you more: it’s always better when most of editorial work happens before production.

      Reply
  3. Michael W. Perry

    I’d second what both Ian and Michael point out.

    Use text-to-speech. Errors that your eyes will never see are errors your ear will notice. With a bit of practice, you can even begin to catch punctuation errors where the pause is too long or too short. I do wish there was text-to-speech that was designed to aid proofing, one that would say punctuation such as “new paragraph” and “start double quote.”
    Change your proofing environment as radically as possible. If you been proofing in your layout program on a computer while sitting at a desk, export to epub and view it with a tablet on a sofa or at a standing desk. Changing every viewing context you can will make errors pop out. Your enemy is a familiarity that causes you to see what you think should be there rather than what is there.

    Going to a different location might help, but I prefer to have the original open on my desktop and edit errors as soon as I find them. That not only saves time, if I decide a passage isn’t clear, I can do an extensive rewrite more quickly than writing myself a note with all the details.

    I’d add one more idea. Proof your proofing. Simply fixing a spelling error is unlikely to introduce another error. But when I correct a badly written or grammatically incorrect sentence, I find that I am highly likely to introduce new errors. So when you fix a problem, take the time to read that new sentence or paragraph very carefully, particularly for misplaced words and subject-verb disagreement.

    Oh, and take frequent breaks. Serious proofing takes intense concentration. Get up and walk around every 15 minutes of so.

    Reply
    • A.C. Flory

      ‘Change your proofing environment as radically as possible.’

      Yes! Like you, I have the original open [in StoryBox] while I proof it on my Kindle. If you use Calibre [free], you can convert an epub MS to Kindle format and side-load it onto your Kindle. Essentially, what you see on the Kindle is very close to what you will see once you publish to Amazon. That simple change makes errors, and a lot of awkward sentence structure, pop right out.

      Reply
      • Carla Douglas

        Thanks for your comment, A.C., and for these tech tips! It’s heartening for editors to see how careful authors are in this stage of the publishing process—it always makes for a better book, in my opinion!

        Carla

        Reply
      • C.K. Macleod

        I find that to be true, too, A.C.

        I think it could be the small screen that helps. I find when I have fewer words on a “page” to attend to, I can maintain better focus for proofreading.

        You can adjust your screen size in Calibre’s reader, too, making it possible to read your ebook in epub or Kindle format on your computer.

        And of course, it makes a great deal of sense to read your book as your reader would!

        Thanks for your comments!

        Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment and these terrific observations! It sounds like you have your own process down to a fine art.

      I like your suggestion to “proof your proofing.” You’re right—so many errors are introduced in the late stages of editing and proofreading. This is an important reason to save all your corrected proofs as new files—so that you can go back and check new copy against old.

      It’s a good reason, too, to mark up your errors in some way—either with stamps or on paper with proofreaders symbols—so that you can go back later and be certain you’ve made the corrections. Often these get missed. A proofreader will know they’ve flagged a typo, but the typo appears in the published book. You can’t be too careful, eh?

      Carla

      Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Great advice, Michael.

      Changing your reading environment can only help to spot things you’d otherwise miss.

      I like to use an old Kindle DX e-ink reader for proofreading for three reasons: the screen is smaller, which gives me less to focus on at a time; e-ink is as close to paper as you’ll get (so, little glare); and the DX has a text-to-speech function, so I can listen while I track with my eyes.

      You can even mark up your errors on a Kindle and later export those mark-ups to Evernote.

      Reply
  4. George Beinhorn

    I’ve come to understand by bitter experience that proofreading onscreen is madness. An MIT Media Lab study found that people make 40 percent more proofreading errors onscreen than on hard copy. This was born out after I proofread my book The Joyful Athlete DOZENS of times, nay several hundred times, whereupon the publisher’s proofreader warned me that I’d better dang well print-and-proofread because it was riddled with errors. I felt insulted, huffy, until I began editing on paper. Wow!

    I should have known better. For at least 20 years, I’d made it my routine practice to edit EVERY editing and rewrite job on paper, because I knew with 100-percent certainty that the results would be ominous if I didn’t do so. But I’d gone over the book so many times… Lesson learned. I would NEVER, EVER edit anything destined for publication on paper or on the Web, without printing it first.

    This simple step has given me a tremendous advantage over other editors and writers.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Great advice, George, and a lesson painfully learned!

      Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi George,

      Thanks for your comment. And what a humbling experience! Worth it though, it sounds like. Many professional proofreaders swear by a hard copy proofread as well. Some of the digital editing and proofreading tools are inching us closer to more accurate proofreading onscreen, but if you have the time and inclination, the hard copy proof is a tried and true method.

      Carla

      Reply
    • C.K. Macleod

      George,

      I’d love a link to that study, if you have it at hand. I haven’t been able to find any current research on whether proofreading on paper creates a better final product than proofreading on screen. It is an interesting consideration, though, isn’t it?

      So interesting that I asked my professional proofreading colleagues in a editing forum (in an unscientific poll) how they proofread. More than half of them proofread on some sort of screen (mostly on a computer using software that allows them to mark up PDFs).

      I prefer to proofread digitally because it allows me to use nifty proofreading tools that aren’t available to me when I proofread on paper. I believe that digital proofreading helps me to proofread more accurately. I know that it helps me to proofread more efficiently. If it doesn’t already exist, I think this topic would make an interesting scientific study.

      Having said that, until we know more, how you proofread may be a matter of preference. But, if I were hiring a proofreader who charged by the hour, I would definitely ask if they proofread digitally! ;)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Reply
  5. Ian Anderson

    Thanks ladies! Of course reading aloud is a long established method, but using the text to speech tool that lurks on all computers is genius!

    I can’t wait to give it a try…. and if you fall asleep during the process, then you know you’ve still lots more work to do ;-)

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Ian, and thanks for your comment.

      I love using text-to-speech too, and I’m frequently surprised by what I am unable to see but able to hear. It still requires focus and concentration, but this method really lets you “see” your work with fresh eyes. Good luck!

      Carla

      Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks, Michael.

      You recommend a very thorough approach! I agree—each medium will yield slightly different results. If you use a program like PerfecIt in Word, you can speed the onscreen proofreading process considerably. But however you do it, proofreading is a necessary and time-consuming step. Appreciate your tips on this, too!

      Carla

      Reply

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