Ten tips from a proofreader

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By Em Dash

In The Value of a Good Proofreader, we looked at the role the proofreader plays in making a novel the best it can be by picking up and correcting those final errors that may have slipped through the net. Here, we get 10 tips from a proofreader that will help you to be aware of the things to watch out for in your own writing and to make you a more conscientious writer. But ultimately it’s the proofreader’s job to tidy up the novel, so don’t let the minutiae get in the way of the actual story. Don’t get bogged down in the detail. ♥

  1. Choosing Names – There’s a lot in a name and settling on the right names for your characters can be a difficult science, after all names are often the first introduction we have of a character and a recurring feature throughout. Finding a name that you like and that suits your character is imperative. But it may be that whilst you settled on one name in earlier drafts of the novel, you have a change of heart and decide that Jane is no longer right for your heroine, she’s more of a Susan. Whilst it’s certainly the author’s prerogative to change names as they see fit, beware of ending up with a story in which the character’s name suddenly changes, or worse still, flits back and forth. It may seem an unlikely or basic error to make but when you’ve been working on a novel for several months, or even years, and the characters have gone through various incarnations both in your head and on paper, it is a very real mistake to make. If you have changed characters’ names, it may be worth just running a search for the original name in the manuscript to check there are no leftover names. The last thing you want is a character with multiple personalities!
  2. Similar Names – With a whole cast of characters to name it’s not always easy to come up with a roll call of distinct and memorable names, but beware of giving characters names that are too similar. This is not just a case of avoiding names that are almost indistinguishable Sylvie/Sylvia, Mary/Maria, Mike/Mick which has obvious issues, but more broadly having several characters whose names begin with the same letter. Jessie, Jo, Jules and Jenna, although each clearly different can become easily confused in the course of the narrative and also make it more difficult to spot any obvious uses of the wrong name when editing. Unless your characters need similar names for the purposes of the plot, try to keep them clear and distinct. It may be worth buying a book of baby names to give you a wide selection from which to choose … but it’s probably best not to leave it around for any unsuspecting eyes.
  3. Exotic names – As celebrities rush to name their children after places, superheroes, or God forbid, even fruit, the days of solid, old-fashioned names seems to be something of the past. Authors too have made the most of this newfound freedom when it comes to names – although luckily generally within the realms of the ordinary – and it can be really refreshing. However, whilst modern and exotic names certainly help to distinguish characters, and also books, they can pose some problems that authors should be aware of. Firstly, some of the names, particularly those that are most obscure and unknown, are not always clearly gender-specific and whilst this is usually cleared up within an introduction to the character, it can initially be confusing, and also sometimes harder to remember throughout. There’s also the issue of spelling. Whether or not you’ve made the name up completely or come across it somewhere, it’s unlikely that it will feature in any spellcheck. And as you tap away furiously to get the story down, it’s easy to mistype, so you end up with variants of your character’s name that are not always easy to spot when the name is original and different. If you’re using or inventing an unusual name, it may be an idea to add it to your word processor’s dictionary to avoid any confusion. And it’s not only unusual names that can catch you out, beware of alternative spellings of names (Sara/Sarah, John/Jon, Marc/Mark). Every name these days seems to have an alternative spelling, so perhaps naming your characters after fruit may be the way forward, after all there’s only one way to spell strawberry.
  4. Accents – You may think accents are something that you left behind at school with your French lessons and have no relevance to your writing today. Unfortunately, as nice as it would be to ignore the little blighters, in some cases they’re essential and are necessary to avoid a confusing and embarrassing faux pas (no accent needed!). Consider the difference for instance in the following: it was an expose on the news industry/ it was an exposé on the news industry. Expose and exposé are completely different words, the first a verb, the second a noun, as such although it’s possible to work out the meaning in the first example, the sentence is actually grammatically incorrect. The accent in the second sentence removes any sense of ambiguity and immediately delivers the correct meaning. Similar problems can be encountered with pate (meaning head) and pâté (indicating a food paste); resume (meaning to restart) and résumé (meaning a summary). Accents in other words are more flexible, cafe, facade for example tend not to be written in their accented forms anymore, as there’s no alternative meaning. Do check your publisher’s house style, however, as some may specify exactly how to use accents or particular spelling preferences. But there’s no need to fork out on any French refresher courses.
  5. Italics – Italics have various functions in novels, including delineating titles, conveying thought and establishing emphasis. Whilst the first two functions don’t always employ italics (again down to the publisher’s house style), a common and accepted use for italics is to provide emphasis and it can be crucial in bringing a sentence alive. Like accents, italics can make or break meaning and are a hugely effective way of drawing out the nuances in a sentence, of separating different possibilities. For instance What do you want from me? is a fairly straightforward construction. However, consider the effects of these various italicisations: What do you want from me? What do you want from me? What do you want from me? What do you want from me? A subtle change in italicisation can create a monumental shift in meaning.
  6. American/English spelling – At some point or other this often catches a lot of writers out. Indeed, as American culture has crossed over the Atlantic to Britain and British culture has taken the opposite journey, the distinct spelling systems have lost some of their identity. Whilst it’s easy to distinguish your colors from colours, your centers from centres and your catalogs from catalogues, other spelling distinctions, including the American single ‘l’ and British double ‘l’ (travelling/travelling) are less well-known. Similarly whilst the American ‘yze’ spelling and British ‘yse’ are usually clear-cut, the ‘ize’ and ‘ise’ spellings have various nuances. It’s a good idea to check on any house style with regards to particular matters of spelling, but if in doubt always aim for consistency of approach.
  7. Country-specific words and phrases – Whilst you may be writing your book in the suburbs of London, the skyscrapers of New York or the chalets of the Pyrenees, it’s likely that your book will find readers from across the globe and to generate global interest is obviously a major coup. So whilst you want your writing to reflect the settings and contexts of your characters and story, be careful of using slang or idiom that are specific to a particular country, region, subgroup or individual. This is not to say that you want to write in a generic way that jeopardises the authenticity and personality of the character and the novel, but you don’t want to use a phrase that only has meaning in Arizona or a saying that you’ve only ever heard your gran use. This is where test readers can be very useful – especially if they don’t share your geographic or sociocultural roots – in highlighting those words and phrases that perhaps are confusing, ambiguous or don’t translate as well to your average reader.
  8. Repetition – This is one of the main things that crops up when proofreading the final proofs; repetition of a word or phrase in quick succession. Sometimes repetition is a rhetoric strategy and has a genuine function as in ‘he had a big smile, a big heart and a big wallet’. However, change the second ‘big’ here to ‘lovely’ and the repetition loses its rhythm and the first and last ‘big’ become awkward repetitions. Repetition is often more subtle though, repeating words of the same root but in different forms as in ‘he looked at her with a questioning look in her eyes’. Although there’s nothing grammatically wrong here, stylistically it sounds alarm bells, and appears clumsy and amateur. A simple synonym will more often than not save the day: ‘he gazed at her with a questioning look in his eyes’. But do be careful, not all synonyms will give the desired effect. A quick survey of synonyms for looked brings up over thirty suggestions, including: considered, glanced, noticed, peered, saw, stared, studied, beheld, contemplated, eyed, flashed, focused, gaped, gawked, peeped, inspected, marked, noted, observed, ogled, peeped, regarded, spotted, spied, scanned, glowered, admired, scrutinized. Some of these can be substituted in without too much difficulty, whilst others drastically alter the tone or meaning of the sentence (he gawked at her with a questioning look in his eyes’, ‘he ogled her with a questioning look in his eyes’) and some simply do not fit (‘he marked her with a questioning look in his eyes’). Repetition is not always confined to a single sentence, and although this is often the most noticeable example, similar effects can be produced by words used in consecutive or nearby sentences, or even consecutive or nearby paragraphs. The latter is particularly true with regard to phrases or idioms, as these are more memorable than individual words and their repetition sometimes therefore more noticeable. It might be quite easy to miss the repetition of look as it’s such a common word, but even just two uses of smooth operator can stand out. Repetition can become particularly awkward and obtrusive when repeated words stack up i.e. the same word at the beginning of consecutive lines. Try to look out for any obvious examples of repetition such as this, but it’s also important to become more self-aware as an author of any quirks or habits. Test readers and editors can be useful in pointing these out to you in the first instance, and if they do it’s an idea to make a note of these and always check subsequent drafts and manuscripts.
  9. Overused words and phrases – Where repetition is more about using the same word or phrase in fairly close proximity, overuse of words and phrases is more about a constant repetition throughout the entire novel. We all have words or idioms that we unconsciously prioritise or fall back on and often are completely unaware of and these can emerge in our writing. Some of these words are common to us all, and in novels in particular one of the most overused words is often ‘said’. So always be careful when writing dialogue to keep an eye on this. That’s not to say don’t use it, but to have other options and alternatives ready just to break up sections of dialogue so that it doesn’t become repetitious. Having said that, don’t just throw synonyms around willy-nilly simply to avoid using ‘said’, sometimes these can be more awkward and less precise and will make your writing look manufactured. Only ever use synonyms when they fit the circumstance and tone. Individual quirks and habits are often less obvious and it will probably require another reader to point these out to you. Once you’re aware of these, the find option on Word can be a great help in highlighting the issue and allowing you to track your use of a particular word or phrase.
  10. Don’t obsess – If you can brush up on the small stuff, eliminate errors, cut down on repetition, great, but don’t make this the purpose or focus of your writing. As a writer your aim is to deliver a great story, and this is the bigger picture. Spelling mistakes, names and accents all need to be as accurate as possible but without a solid story, strong characters and a good structure the smaller matters aren’t going to get your writing anywhere.

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