The value of a good proofreader

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By Em Dash

What makes a well-written book? Obviously you need an exceptional author, with a fastidious editor. But there’s one other crucial ingredient: an eagle-eyed proofreader. Often an anonymous, even invisible figure, the proofreader’s impact can nonetheless be defining. But what exactly do they do and are they really necessary? ♥

The Role of the Proofreader

One of the final stages in the production process, the proofreader is essentially responsible for spotting any errors that haven’t been picked up along the way to ensure that the book is the best, most accurate and flaw-free that it can be. By the time the manuscript reaches the proofreader, it’s hoped that many of the main, more technical issues of narration, voice, style, tone have been resolved and that only a minimal number of errors, generally typographical or grammatical, will have slipped through the net.

In actuality, even at this stage in the process, errors often add up, after all, the manuscript will have gone through several incarnations. The proofreader’s role is therefore vital. Indeed, although it may largely only be the minutiae of the text that the proofreader deals with, matters of spelling, grammar and punctuation are often those that readers pick up on and get irritated by. When a text is strewn with errors, it obviously impacts negatively on the book’s reception and reputation, and consequently on that of the publisher, and ultimately the author. Such errors are not often caused by bad writing or poor authorship, rather they are simply a failure to get any critical distance from, and an over-familiarity with, the manuscript. Yet poor grammar, spelling and punctuation are seen as cardinal errors, hugely unprofessional and amateurish. So the role of the proofreader in checking and amending the proofs before they go to press is vital in allowing the book to be judged on the merits of the story rather than being critiqued on the failure of the editing.

One of the basic tasks of the proofreader is to correct any misspelling and typographical errors as these can be amongst the most glaring and frustrating for readers. However, it’s not just a simple case of spotting a misspelt word, after all, many of these can be eradicated by spellcheck. The challenges for the proofreader are often more nuanced, highlighting why a human being continues to be vital to the role. Indeed, whilst spellcheck can pick up on misspellings, it fails to identify words that may be spelt correctly but are used incorrectly. For instance, I’ve seen brassiere used instead of brasserie. Both perfectly legitimate words, yet an embarrassing faux pas when jumbled up. It is often these subtle cases of similar words that require the eagle eye of a conscientious proofreader. An excellent grasp of English language, not simply the ability to use a dictionary, marks out a proficient proofreader.

Amending punctuation is another of the foremost tasks of the proofreader. There are obvious rules in using punctuation that the proofreader will ensure have been observed. However, much more so than spelling, matters of punctuation can come down to personal preference and house style, for example with the use of the Oxford comma, as well as cultural preferences, for example the different uses of the em dash in English and American. The proofreader therefore has to be intimately familiar with the house style of the publisher, and perhaps several different publishers if the proofreader works freelance, and ensure that their guidelines are met and that consistency is maintained throughout. As well as identifying any matters with regards to punctuation (dashes, quotation marks), a style sheet from the publishing house may also outline matters of italicisation, the use of numbers, preferences over spellings etc. all of which the proofreader will apply when correcting the proofs.

The purpose of the proofreader is to eliminate these errors as much as possible, and at least to ensure that they don’t distract the reader. A good proofreader should be like a make-up artist, ensuring that the star looks her best before greeting her adoring fans.

One of the less well-known tasks of the proofreader is fact-checking and accuracy. Place names, particularly foreign places, can easily be misspelt. As for writers, Google is a key resource for proofreaders. Not only do proofreaders check the accuracy of facts, but also of narrative. They need to be attuned to any slight inconsistency in narrative, sometimes these can be glaring like an accidental change of name, but other times less so. Perhaps the author writes that the character is wearing a red coat, then a couple of pages later it’s blue, or that a character sits down and then a bit further on we see the same character taking a seat. Again the emphasis is on ensuring that the text is the most accurate and flaw-free it can be.

The proofreader also needs to be attuned to the style and needs of the novel. It may be that the proofreader comes across a malapropism or a misquote that automatically sets off alarm bells. However, it can be that these ‘errors’ are deliberate, the author showing up the foibles of a particular character or mocking a situation. To correct said ‘errors’ would thus compromise the author’s intention and the narrative. A proofreader therefore needs a good sense of judgment, as well as respect for the craft of the author.

Although the proofreader is largely looking out for technical matters, theirs is also the final chance to pick up or point out any potential queries to raise with the editor or author. As has been outlined, many of the main issues in the narrative will have been ironed out before the manuscript reaches the proofreader, but still a conscientious proofreader will be quick to notice any issues and identify these for checking. If a proofreader feels that a particular turn of phrase seems awkward or that a meaning is especially ambiguous, it’s likely that readers will too. The proofreader is vital for making the book customer-ready.

Many of these quibbles may seem minor or pedantic, but it’s simply a matter of professionalism. And if you fail to address these points or simply choose to ignore them, errors add up, which can result in an awkward or frustrating reading experience and consequently negative feedback and reputation. This is not to say that using a proofreader guarantees a 100 per cent accurate and error-free book, after all they too are only human and can just as easily miss inverted letters as the next person. In a novel of 80,000-100,000 words, you can forgive a couple of errors, but if the errors become so obvious or numerous that they disrupt the reading experience then there’s a problem. The purpose of the proofreader is to eliminate these errors as much as possible, and at least to ensure that they don’t distract the reader. A good proofreader should be like a make-up artist, ensuring that the star looks her best before greeting her adoring fans.

Is a Proofreader Necessary?

Given all that’s been written above, it’s obvious that the proofreader provides a vital role in the delivery of a successful book. That the majority of traditional publishing houses continue to employ the services of proofreaders attests to their value and integrity to the process. But is a proofreader really necessary, especially for self-published authors who need to keep costs down?

If you’re particularly adept at grammar, spelling and punctuation, or have an eagle-eyed family member or friend who you can ask to look over a manuscript, you may decide that proofreading is one of the costs that you’ll cut. And, at a very basic level, there are obviously things you can brush up on and watch out for if you decide not to use a proofreader. If you’re not comfortable with apostrophes for example, this is something that you can learn, similarly if you’re always confusing effect and affect.

Readers can be put off by a manuscript littered with texts, however good the story is. There’s nothing more frustrating than having laboured over your novel for months only to have readers dismiss it on the basis of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

But often errors are subtle, a misplaced comma, a missing quotation mark, a homophone, and proofreaders are specifically skilled and trained to spot these errors. In addition, don’t underestimate the value of a fresh pair of eyes. Authors will have spent months, perhaps even years, with their manuscripts, at points tired and frustrated, and will come to know the story inside out. It’s therefore hard to distance themselves from the text, often reading the words they think are there rather than the ones that actually are. The proofreader often sees the manuscript just once and therefore doesn’t have this same familiarity.

Writers may also have quirks that they don’t realise, a tendency to overuse a particular phrase, a certain malapropism or a slapdash approach to hyphens that only an outsider will be able to highlight for them. Many critiques of self-published authors often pick up on matters of editing and proofreading which lead to negative reviews which could easily be avoided. Don’t disregard the value of a well-edited manuscript.

Readers can be put off by a manuscript littered with texts, however good the story is. There’s nothing more frustrating than having laboured over your novel for months only to have readers dismiss it on the basis of spelling, punctuation and grammar. You want your book to stand out from the crowd for the right reasons, and although The Little French Brassiere may attract attention, it may not be the right kind of attention if your story is about a quaint Gallic cafe.


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  1. Pingback: Ten tips from a proofreader – We Heart Writing

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