You’ve drafted and re-drafted your fiction manuscript and all that’s left is the final proofread. No problem! Except, of course, that it’s extremely difficult to proofread one’s own work. As the writer, you’re intimately familiar with the story you’ve created, and so the challenge when proofreading is to read the manuscript as the reader would. Here are some professional proofreading techniques to help you do this.
- Wait. Once you’ve completed the editing stage, it’s vital to put your manuscript away for a few weeks so as to distance yourself from it. (In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends a minimum of six weeks). Do not be tempted to go near the manuscript before then. Trust me: in terms of the ‘fresh eyes’ concept, the longer you leave it, the more mistakes you’ll discover.
- Print the manuscript. We read a printed document differently than we do an electronic one. You’ll be used to seeing your work on screen, so proofreading a printed version will give you a new perspective. You can make the corrections on screen in the original file, but make sure it’s the printed form that you proofread. Set the line spacing to at least ‘1.5 lines’ and the font size to 12 pt or larger – this will make the text easier to proofread.
- Choose the right time. Concentration is essential for proofreading, so choose your proofreading location and schedule wisely. Find a quiet, comfortable space, free of distractions and pick a time of day when you’re at your most alert. Intense concentration is tiring, so take short breaks to give your eyes a rest. Aim for three to four hours’ proofreading a day: any longer will have limited effectiveness.
- Use a proofreading checklist. There are many things to check during the proofreading stage, so it’s wise to compile a checklist: punctuation; spelling and grammar; clichés; wordiness; inconsistencies; format and styling, etc. My advice is to do a few passes, each covering a different issue. So during one pass you might check spelling, grammar and clichés. In another, you could concentrate on the format of the manuscript.
- Read aloud. Reading your manuscript aloud is a very useful proofreading technique: your brain receives the words in a different way and you notice things you might not have when reading silently. Furthermore, don’t just read it aloud: read. each. in.di.vid.ual. word and syllable. It’s a sure-fire technique to pick up mistakes such as missing words or incorrect word order. Be careful not to let your eyes skim through sentences reading what you think you see: read what is actually on the page.
- Identify repetition. When proofreading, check for unnecessary repetition in your manuscript. Are you partial to the use of a particular word or phrase? If you spot it twice on the same page, for example, run a Find and Replace search on it and don’t be surprised to discover you’ve used it numerous times throughout the manuscript. And it’s not only the repetition of words you should check for and correct, but also the unnecessary repetition of imagery, ideas or actions. It’s alright for one character to have a tic (fiddling with their hair, for example), but have you unknowingly given the same tic to numerous characters?
- Check the facts. You can argue that your manuscript is a work of fiction, but that doesn’t excuse inaccuracy, which your readers won’t thank you for. So if you didn’t check certain facts during the drafting stage, then do so now. Perhaps you already fact checked, but having set aside the manuscript for a few weeks you notice something you hadn’t checked. Ensure facts relating to distances, geography, landmarks, place names, dates, seasons, etc. are all correct.
- Check for misused homophones. A homophone is ‘each of two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling.’* You will be aware of many and know to look out for any misused ones: your/you’re, there/their/they’re, etc., but the problem lies with the ones you’re not familiar with. Look up any words you’re not completely sure of. The Oxford English Dictionary’s commonly confused words list is an excellent resource, and well worth bookmarking.
- Use tracker tools. It’s hard to keep track of all your manuscript’s plot lines, descriptions and character details in your head. Many errors in a draft fiction manuscript relate to inconsistencies in timeline, plot and character. As you proofread, keep a record of these items as they appear on the page. Note the time, date, setting and key plot points of each chapter. Do the same for your characters: note their physical description, personality traits, etc. Any chronological timeline errors or plot and character inconsistencies will soon make themselves known. I explain these tracker tools in more detail in my blog post Manuscript Management Tools for Fiction Authors. You can also download for free my Timeline and Plot Tracker and Character Tracker templates to use when proofreading your manuscript.
- Seek help from the experts. Because you’re so familiar with the manuscript, you’re unlikely to spot every mistake – no matter how many rounds of editing and proofreading you do. So if you intend to self-publish your work, to enter it in a competition or to submit it to an agent or publisher, then it’s probably wise to engage the services of an editorial professional. You should still edit and proofread your work as carefully as possible first, because the cleaner the manuscript the less it will cost you to have it professionally edited or proofread.
If you would like to learn more about how to edit and proofread your fiction manuscript, I will be teaching a weekend self-editing course at the end of February 2016, as part of the Claire Keegan Fiction Clinic series. Details of the course and its contents are available on my website.
*Oxford English Dictionary
(c) Mary McCauley