Proofreading

By Glen C. Strathy

Proofreading is the final phase of revising a story. It should be done after you have completed the Substantive and Line Editing phases and are satisfied both the story and the words you have used to express it are as good as you can make them.

In the proofreading phase, you will refrain from making any significant changes to the story or the language itself. Some writers have a hard time with this and will feel an urge to keep rewriting. But you can't do this and have time to write all the other stories you haven't started on. You have to do the best job you can in the earlier phases, but once you have finished them, you must trust that the story is now as solid as it can be.

When proofreading, you focus only on correcting minor mistakes you may have made in the areas of...

  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Format

So let me give you some tips on how to do this.

Proofreading with Spellcheck

The first and most obvious step in proofreading a story is to use your word processor to run a spellcheck on the document. Most word processors will also check for certain common grammar or punctuation errors at the same time.

Just beware that spellcheck is just a tool. It doesn't know your intent, nor does it understand the actual meanings of words, so it will not spot every error, and it may flag things as errors that are not errors. Spell check can’t tell what’s wrong with…

  • “Let’s eat Grandma!” (Should be, “Let’s eat, Grandma!”)
  • “Its you’re decision.” (Should be, “It’s your decision.”)
  • “John saw the sign and turns around.” (Which tense did you mean to use?)

Spellcheck won’t catch when you type “everyday” when you meant “every day” or "pubic" when you meant "public."

More importantly, spellcheck won't know if you are deliberately breaking a rule because it suits the characters, your narrative voice, or the world of your story.

So you must use your own judgement when deciding whether to accept spellcheck's recommendations, ignore them, or come up with a better solution to anything it flags.

Nonetheless, it's an easy place to begin and will catch many errors.

Getting Distance

Assuming you have done a spellcheck, the next step will require a close reading of the text. Ironically, you will be a better close reader if you start by gaining a little distance from your story.

The types of errors you will be correcting in the proofreading process are often the most difficult to spot. As I've mentioned before, your brain has a tendency to see what it expects to see in your manuscript, and it expects to see what you meant to write, not what you actually wrote. When your eyes pass over a typo, it may not register. You will read what should be there, not what is. Here are a few tips on overcoming this problem...

1. Set your manuscript aside for a few days or longer before you do any proofreading. You want to give your brain a chance to forget what you think you wrote so you can look at the story with fresh eyes.

2. Edit backwards. Start at the end of the story and work your way forward one paragraph or one chapter at a time. This is a weird distancing technique that is less effective for substantive editing, but works quite well for proofreading. Editing backwards disrupts the narrative flow of the story in your mind, forcing you to pay closer attention to the text.

3. Get someone else to proofread your story, especially someone who is good at spotting typos. They don't know what you intended to write, so they are more likely to see what's actually on the page. Don't let them make changes to the manuscript, however, especially in an electronic document. Because your proofreader won't know your intentions, they may change things in ways that introduce new errors.

Just give your proofreader a hard copy and have them mark the places where they think there's an error, and what kind of error it looks like to them (e.g. spelling, grammar). You must make the corrections, where needed, yourself. If you give them a word processor document to proofread, make sure the "track changes" function is turned on so you have a record of any change they make and can review it.

Grammar

As I say, a spellcheck will not catch many grammar errors, or cases where you've typed the wrong word. You or your proofreader have to spot these issues yourself.

Most writers start out with a tendency toward certain types of grammar problems, which English teachers see all the time. Here are a few of the more common ones...

1. Changing perspectives and tenses. You need to keep straight who is telling the story and whether they are talking about events that, for them, have already happened, will happen, or are happening now. For example...

Dave said, "I will go home now."

"Stay where you are," his friend replied.

From the perspective of the narrator, this story has already happened, so the narrator uses the past tense verbs "said" and "replied." However, Dave is speaking about something he hasn't done yet, so he uses the future tense verb "will go." Meanwhile, his friend is telling Dave what to do in the present, so he uses present tense verbs: "stay" and "are."

These different perspectives may seem complex to explain, but they are quite easy to follow when reading. However, when writing you may occasionally forget whose perspective you are writing from and get things mixed up, resulting in passages like...

Dave said, "I will go home now."

"Stay where you are," his friend replies.

This is confusing, because the narrator has changed perspective by using the present tense verb, "replies." Don't let your narrator do this. Keep the perspectives straight.

1a. Head hopping. A similar problem occurs if you switch from one point-of-view character to another within a scene. Remember, you can only tell the reader what the POV character perceives. If you suddenly start describing the perceptions or feelings of another character, you've broken the rules and confused your reader.

2. Subject verb agreement. The subject and verb of a sentence must agree in number -- either both are singular, or both are plural. Sometimes writers get confused about whether a subject is singular or plural, leading to mistakes. For example, the following sentence is correct...

Each of the cars was equipped with fog lights.

The verb is singular because "Each" is singular and is the subject of the sentence. Don't be fooled into thinking "cars" is the subject and writing "Each of the cars were equipped with fog lights." In this sentence, "cars" is the object of the preposition "of" and the phrase "of the cars" is just there to modify the pronoun "Each."

3. Noun-pronoun agreement. Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns they refer to. Hence, these sentences mean very different things:

The girl took her place in line.

The girls took their place in line.

The girls took her place in line.

4. Confusing homonyms. It's very easy to mix up words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things. Make sure you haven't confused "they're," "their," and "there," or mixed up "it's" and "its" or "your" and "you're."

5. Sentence fragments. Okay, this rule has exceptions, and you will find some fiction writers use sentence fragments for effect, especially if they fit the voice of a character or their narrator. However, when you don't have such an excuse, write in complete sentences.

There are many other common grammar errors, and you may already have had English teachers tell you which ones you tend to make, so take special care to watch for them.

Format

I have covered the topic of proper manuscript format elsewhere. Most formatting issues can be prevented by setting your word processor's formatting options before you even start writing. However, accidental formatting errors can occur, so you will keep an eye out for them in the proofreading phase.

When you proofread for format, it is important to be consistent. You will need to decide issues like...

Which proper nouns should always be capitalized in your story?

When/if do you use contractions?

Do you write a number as "ninety-five" or "95"?

How is each character's name spelled (especially with names that have common variations)?

Which name should your narrator always use when referring to a character (e.g. Bob vs. Robert, first name vs. surname)?

Do you write "9 AM" or "9:00 a.m."?

Do you use the Oxford comma?

There are different style guides you can refer to when making deciding issues like these, but the most important thing is not which style guide you follow but that you stick to one set of rules within your story.

Creative Exceptions

Because fiction writing is a creative endeavour, there are exceptions to most rules. The purpose of proofreading is not take away your creative choices but to make sure your writing reflects your intentions. To take an extreme example, consider this passage from the science fiction novel, Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later.' The other spears gone in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, 'Offert!'

Because the novel takes place in a future where literacy has gone backwards, the author deliberately chose to give the main character his own rules about spelling, grammar, and format that take some getting used to. Riddley uses non-standard spelling and run-on sentences. He writes "12" rather than "twelve" and "1ce" rather than "once." However, because the author follows the rules consistently, readers are able to figure them out after a few pages and adjust to the narrator's unique voice.

As you can imagine, the task of proofreading a book like Riddley Walker would be more challenging than average, because the novel has a different set of rules for spelling, grammar, and format. But making such a book fit conventional rules would take away much of its unique charm.

The point is... with some stories you may have a reason to break the rules, and that is fine as long as you do so purposefully and consistently.

Beware the Ghosts of Past Drafts

Is your story haunted by the ghosts of past drafts?

One issue you may encounter when proofreading is one I like to call the "ghosts of past drafts."

Sometimes, in the substantive or even line editing phase of revising a story, you may cut or alter a section of a story in a way that affects other parts of the story. You must then make sure to revise all the affected parts so that everything aligns and the story has continuity. If you fail to do this, you can create "ghosts" -- references to things that are no longer in the story or are no longer relevant.

For examples, let's say you decide to change a character's name. Naturally, you will then search for all the instances of the old name and replace it in each case with the new one. But what if you accidentally misspelled the name in one or two places? The search function of your word processor won't find the misspellings, and they may be retained as "ghosts" of a character who is no longer there.

The same is true if you change other details about the setting, the plot, a character's physical traits, etc. Every time you change one part of your story, you have to consider what other parts of the story will be affected. How might a small plot change affect what characters do or can do later on? Where else in your story did you refer to the thing that was just changed? Do those parts need to be changed too?

Sometimes, if you change one part of a story, another section may become superfluous or redundant. Or a minor character may become unnecessary.

Anything in your story that made sense in an earlier draft, but now contradicts or is no longer needed in current draft, is a ghost that must be exorcised.

Once you have finished the proofreading process, congratulations! You are finished your story and can begin the process of finding a publisher while you work on another story.


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