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. 🙂

 

 

 

5 Ways to Help your Beta Readers

Once written, words live forever…or do they?

I’m an Indie mystery series writer.

I find my Beta readers get very cranky when I ask them to read for content and development, and they spend most of their time catching typos and missing words.

So I’ve developed the following protocol, which helps me help them:

I am aware of the quirks of the programs I’m using:

Scrivener is a dynamite writing tool for a modest price. In fact they have a free month’s demo. But the default (for PCs) is that old-fashioned Courier font, which means dumb quotes and em dashes written as “- -“. Both can easily be changed using a global replace in Word, which is where my manuscript usually resides, once I’ve done the initial organizational work in Scrivener. 

BUT, Word is not perfect, either. It has the annoying habit of auto-fill and auto-correcting the wrong words. It will subscript fractions, which leads to some interesting results. I’ve got to be alert to all of these and more as I read through the manuscript.

I recognize my OWN quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Mine include the following:

My brain gets lazy and echoes the same words and phrases…on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence, even.

Worse, I find myself using the same trope I’ve used in a previous novel. The poor heroine gets trapped on the same elevator, on the same floor…or the hero in two subsequent novels shrugs that same left shoulder…or the chase car squeals around the corner into that dark alley…

And there are those slightly unusual words that my subconscious likes to use again, and again, and again.

I foil my right-side brain by sticking all of these idiosyncrasies on a 5 x 8 card that I keep close by as I eagle-eye the manuscript.

Speed Reading

In addition to fingertip goofs, such as “think” for “thing” and “fine” for “find,” I find that the speed reading I do every day on the Internet allows me to blank on missed words in my writing, too.

If I proofread on-screen, I zip right over skipped words, seeing “in hospital,” rather than “in the hospital” as perfectly okay, even though I’m not from Yorkshire, England. Of particular distress are pronouns and prepositions: I can blindly ignore all sorts of two letter words: In, of, by, and on’s get lost by the hundreds!

“A” and “an” provide a particular field day. If you are like me, in the process of revision, I’ll often substitute one word–a much better word, of course–for the one in my original draft. If the second word starts with a vowel versus the first word choice starting with a consonant, I’m in a heap of trouble.

Names

I wish I could use “placeholder” names, but all of my characters begin their life in my novels with a carefully chosen first and last name.

This works, until one of the ensemble characters arrives on the scene with a similar moniker. I can’t change their name, which has been graved into the stone of Amazon’s Kindle system. So “John,” my series character stays, and “Johnny,” the new person, has to leave.

And if I change that name, it may mean changing yet another character’s as well. It’s a cascading effect that I try to minimize through the use of a naming data base.

But when a change must occur, I then have to go through the entire manuscript with Word’s find-and-replace to do just that. And a global replace with a space before and after doesn’t always work either. That procedure will not catch names followed by a period or a hyphen or in the possessive.

Punctuation

I’m pretty good with capitalizing sentences and making sure series are separated by commas and periods occur at the end of sentences.

But problems will crop up in the revision stage, when my computer curser will move to a weird spot and I’ll end up with an extraneous word like “and” in the middle of a word: strandaight.

Or I’ll move bits of a sentence around, and then there’s an orphan period at the beginning of a paragraph, or worse, a sentence that is missing one.

Having written a half a million words now, give or take a few hundred, I know all of the above will happen, on a regular basis, in each and every manuscript that I write.

I could hire a line editor for this phase, but I’d rather save their good efforts for my final draft after I get the rough back from my beta readers and follow their great suggestions for revision.

So here is my protocol for minimizing errors:

  1. I run my pre-Beta copy through Grammerly. They have a pro version, which costs $, but also a free version that incorporates right into the Word task bar. Very handy!
  2. I next put this Grammerly revised copy through an editing program that checks for echoes and repeats, since that is a standard bug-a-boo for me. The one I favor is a new one on the market, Editomatic which has some other handy editing features as well. They also have a demo version.
  3. At this point, I print off a hard copy, using a different font. If my original manuscript is a serif font such as Times New Roman, I’ll do a control-A and change the font to a sans serif such as Arial. And before I print the copy, I’ll change the line spacing to something different, for example, double space if I’ve been using line-and-a-half.
  4. I read this hard copy line by line, using a ruler, and silently mouthing the words. I  revise my online manuscript with the changes I make.
  5. Finally, I use that text-to-voice feature of Word to re-read the entire manuscript, dictated in a very nice male voice, as I follow along, my finger to the hard-copy page. You’d be surprised what he and I catch on this final read-through!

I’ve found that if I follow this protocol, my Beta readers are willing to give me another shot on my next book, and I am able to produce a clean copy for my line editor to fine-tune.

What works for you?
What errors are your nemesis?
How do you catch them?