12 Easy Ways to Become a Skillful Proofreader

proofreadingWe have become a nation of skimmers.

We buzz through emails: delete, delete, save, delete.

We flip through social media: scroll, like, heart, share.

What does that do to proofreader skills? It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Three minutes after your eBook goes live on Kindle you spot the first typo in the “Look Inside” feature. Ten minutes later you’ve gotten a one-star review: “Doesn’t this Bozo have a copy editor?”

To which your response may be, “Yes, but she’s out to lunch with Oprah’s chef and Jillian Michaels, the personal trainer.”

Welcome to the real world of self-editing.

But there are some ways you can train yourself to be a better proofreader.

First, recognize that we all make typing mistakes. There is a reason why the backspace, according to Microsoft, is the third most used key on the keyboard.

We make mistakes for a multitude of reasons: First, remember that in the course of writing several drafts of a full-length novel, you may put hundreds of thousands of words on the page. Some of these will be the wrong words.

Then there are brain-finger coordination problems: If you type-when-tired or worse, type-without-a-break, you’ll find “stutters” such as duplicate letters or duplicate words appearing.

And consider the mechanical issues such as sticky keys and cursors with a mind of their own, inserting your cut-and-paste in the middle of the wrong paragraph.

So when it comes to proofreading your work, don’t be insulted if there are a lot of errors. Accept that you’ll need to put out some effort to catch typos.

STRATEGIES THAT WORK

Luckily I’m a mystery writer, so I’ve got a lot of experience developing strategies to help me solve this particular “crime.”

Let me share a few strategies that I use.

1. Look for patterns of frequent typing errors

In order to change bad typing habits before they kick in, keep a small notebook at hand, and note when you backspace to correct an error. Look for patterns of errors: the kinds you are prone to make.

Or, turn off spell check for several pages, then recheck spelling with it on. What errors do you find? Those are the ones to be watchful for as you revise your drafts.

2. Trick your brain

One reason why mistakes jump out of a manuscript to a reader is that they are looking at them for the first time. Whereas to you, those sentences are old friends. You’ve seen them dozens of times!

So change what you are looking at. Use a different font, use double spacing of lines rather than single space. Transfer the manuscript to your Kindle reader and read it there. Print out a hard copy and proof it that way. It will be much easier on your eyes!

Try changing the music you’re listening to. I have one playlist for rough drafts, another for revisions, yet a third (a slow, Baroque one) for proofreading.

Change locations: if you always write at your desk with a favorite cup of tea, do your proofreading in a quiet library reading room.

3. Spell check is not always your friend

Let me give you two examples: first, the hyphen in a compound adjective such as “ten-cent price” may not be caught by spell check, as “ten” and “cent” are perfectly good words, correctly spelled.

Second, watch out for flagged duplicates such as “the the.” It’s nice that Word catches these for you, but if you really meant to type “in the,” deleting the first “the” without adding the “in” introduces an entirely new error.

4. Be aware of your reading speed

Surfing the internet? Warp speed! We typically spend about 59 seconds deciding whether a site is worthwhile, before making the decision to stay or leave.

Proofreading on the other hand is agonizingly slow. We aren’t worried about seeing the forest for the trees, we are down to the twigs on the branches. We are searching for the bug on the twig, the eyelash on the bug.

One way to slow down is to read backwards. Start at the end of your manuscript and read forward, one sentence at a time. I keep a favorite blue plastic ruler, just for this purpose. You’ll be surprised what you’ll catch.

5. Keep your keyboard clean

If you have pets, break out the vacuum occasionally to siphon the cat hair, dog slobber, and mouse lint out of your computer. Cleaner keyboards will cut down on sticky keys and stutters.

6. Watch your posture

I like to compose sitting in my easy chair with said cat under my elbow and my laptop at a rakish tilt. Guess what that does to wrist-on-pressure-pad inadvertent cursor jumps. I pay for my comfort when it comes to error counts!

7. Do macro-corrections

The key here is to look for mistakes, not the right words. For example, do a find-and-replace for double spaces after sentences, for quotation marks before a period or before a comma. Double commas or double periods are not uncommon when your revision takes out a word or switches the order of phrases within a sentence. The Word find-and-replace can spot these quickly for you.

If a character has the name Sandy, the first time you spell it “Sandi” mark the mistaken spelling down to do a quick find-and-replace on the mistaken spelling when you edit your manuscript.

8. Little words can be tricky

It’s not that we don’t know how to speak English. We do! The problem arises in multiple drafts when we change tense and don’t add that final “d,” or change nouns and miss transforming the “a” to an “an” or vice-versa.

Be especially vigilant for prepositions: they are so tiny that the brain sometimes skips right over them. For example, keep an eagle eye out for missing prepositions such as  “to,” “of,’” or “in.”

Spell check can’t catch those missing words—that’s your job!

9. Set the timer

You do have a timer, right? Either Pomodoro on your computer or a hand model set way across the room so you have to get up to shut the darn thing off to give yourself a break when you are proofreading.

And once up, walk outside for five minutes, climb a flight of stairs, breathe deeply, or do a few toe-touches. The brain needs oxygen to focus.

While you are breaking, give your eyes a mini-rest as well. Focus into the distance, close them for a few moments, or dab in some eye drops.

10. Pay attention to headings and subheadings

Words look different when they are in all caps. A friend of mine got her book all the way to the proof stage at Amazon before she caught a spelling error on the book spine!

11. Use the text-to-speech feature of Word

You can find this feature by going to the help menu of Word for specific directions. I keep it handy on my tool bar where I can select about a page of the manuscript, click the icon, and this wonderful, calm, nonjudgmental male voice (I’ve christened mine “Bruce”) reads through my writing, word by word as I follow along, pen in hand.

12. Build in a reward

Proofreading is hard work. When you are done for the day, pamper yourself. Try a hot bath, a finger massage on your wrists, or soft music with a cold cloth over your eyes.

You’re darn well worth it, and your readers will thank you, too!

PS—Using the above techniques, when I proofread this post I spotted an extra word that didn’t belong, a missing Oxford comma, and six phrases that I wanted to change. Bruce caught a missing end-of-word “n” that I could have sworn I typed. 🙂

 

 

 

Finding peace in a frantic world

West Fork Trail, Oak Creek, Sedona, Arizona

West Fork Vista, Oak Creek, Sedona, Arizona

“I want to be able to live without a crowded calendar. I want to be able to read a book without feeling guilty, or go to a concert when I like.”
Golda Meir

Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel for ten years and active in public service all of her life was described as strong-willed, straight-talking, gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people.

She used to say it was a blessing to be born plain; that the pretty girl had a handicap to overcome, because people saw the beauty first, not the person. She also mentioned the lament of all working mothers: when you are at work, you feel guilty about your children at home; when you are home, you feel guilty about the work left behind.

Time, then, is precious. But time to do what? For Golda, it was time to read a book whenever she wanted, or to attend a concert. I like to think a walk in nature may be the very best use of time ever, but reading a good book comes in a close second!

When we are doing what we want to do, whether it is spending time with our children or pursuing a hobby with passion, time slows down to accommodate us. It obligingly stretches and conforms to the task at hand, giving our creativity not only time, but space as well, so that true joy can be expressed.

How would YOU spend your time, if you had enough to do exactly
what you wanted?

 

 

Letting go

pianoWhen I was a little girl, my family had an old upright piano, black. We lived in a small house, so the only place available for it was in the baby’s room. That meant whenever he was taking a nap I couldn’t practice.

My mother engaged a piano teacher who came promptly on Wednesday afternoons to give me a lesson. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was impressed upon me that learning was important.  My mother, when she had a moment, would also sit down at the piano and play the old wartime songs from the 40s. I still have her tattered songbook.

I’d like to say I became an accomplished pianist, but instead I flunked. I think I was the only kid of nine–at least I felt like it–to get fired by a piano teacher.

Fast forward to my early 30s. My mother-in-law had a spinet, maple finish. A traditional housewife, she’d sit down to it in the afternoons, after the wash was done, the house cleaned, before it was time to start dinner, and she’d play old country hymns. I loved to hear her play.

When the opportunity arose, we bought a piano, a concert grand this time, because money was flowing. My daughter took lessons, and became amazingly good. Soon she was playing Beethoven Sonatas with gusto. I loved to hear her play. Sometimes I’d take lessons, too. But a heavy career prevented the good practice needed to advance and I never did.

When my daughter left for school, the piano was sold and the proceeds used to start a new company. A good investment, surely, in our future. But I cried when it left our house.

Fast forward to now. Living n a house separated from neighbors by a wide margin. No way I’d interrupt anyone’s conversation, even if I played loudly and badly. Semi-retired so time to play. I took the plunge and bought a new piano, a studio upright this time, walnut finish.

I moved the piano five times! I heard other people play it. But I never played it much myself. I had an abortive attempt at lessons and quit when the teacher  shook her head and said, “Well it is nice that you know how to read music.” At least she didn’t rap my knuckles.

It was time to let go. But more than letting go of the piano, in a way it was letting go of a part of my mother, and of my mother-in-law, and of my daughter playing so brilliantly as a little girl. Letting go of the dream of someday, some way, playing casually, fearlessly, enjoying the music. I had to acknowledge it wasn’t going to happen, at least not in this lifetime.

I put an ad in Craigslist, and after a few abortive responses, a gentleman came to visit it. He brought his young son. And the two of them, each in his own way, sat down and played the piano. It came to life! I heard what the keyboard had been hungry for all these years.

guitarI took the proceeds from the sale and bought a good classical guitar.  The guitar is Canadian, with a cedar top and rosewood sides and back. It is hand-made with nylon strings,  a very personal instrument. I cradle it and it hums.

I signed up for online lessons, and am learning to take short, frequent practice times while the fingers toughen up and develop the needed callouses.  I know if I play with a pick the sound is more bright, but I like the softer, more visceral sensation of playing it with my own fingers.

I am learning to be patient with myself. In the first week I learned three chords! That was enough. I have the rest of my life to welcome this new companion into my life.

It was hard letting go. And yet, since I have been willing to do so, the music I always knew was within my soul rises to the surface each morning as I sit down to play. And I am content.