Welcome to the final stage in the editorial process.
The proofread is often mistaken for being the only stage needed to make your manuscript ready to publish, but it serves its purpose best only after all editing stages have been completed first.
This is because a proofread doesn’t concern itself with the mechanics of your story, just with the correctness and consistency of spelling, grammar, punctuation, style choices and formatting.
Whilst a Style Sheet is likely to have been drawn up at copy-edit stage, the proofreader will still be double-checking that these styles have been adhered to accurately throughout the book. If you don’t have a Style Sheet already, your proofreader may produce one at this stage.
It’s always possible that errors have gone unnoticed or new errors have been introduced during the editing and/or redrafting stages, so the proofread is your final assurance that as many of these errors as possible* are picked up at this stage.
When the proofread is complete, your book is ready to be published, and therefore no further amendments should be made after this stage.
Whilst issues of narrative have been dealt with in development and copy-editing, proofreading deals more with the technical issues and presentation of your novel. It is by no means the easiest of the three stages but it does require a different approach and skill-set, and as the last stage before publication the pressure is on at this point to capture as many remaining errors as possible.
* You’ll notice here that I didn’t say ALL errors are captured. Editors and proofreaders will always aim for complete accuracy (and cannot abide missing errors), but to guarantee 100% accuracy is an impossibility. Human error and/or author tinkering after each stage prevent such guarantees being realistic. According to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ Standards in Proofreading article, experienced and professional proofreaders ‘should be able to spot and deal appropriately with at least 80% of all errors but at least 90% of typos – other things being equal’.
And in fiction in particular, a proofreader’s loyalty favours the author’s style before strict grammar rules and regulations. In this case, ‘complete accuracy’ may mean consistency above all else.
What a Proofreader is looking at:
Spelling, grammar & punctuation
To be clear here, and reiterate my point above, whilst the job of the proofreader includes picking up on any spelling and grammar errors, this does not necessarily mean they will wield their red pen at every blatant misuse of the English language. If this were the case then books like A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting would never have come into being (or certainly not been as memorable).
Your proofreader will not work in automatic English-teacher mode; they will first familiarise themselves with the style of your narrative, eg. whether you are using slang or dialect or any other variation on language for a specific purpose, to set a particular tone. When this is established, they will then be looking for unintentional errors.
Any unfamiliar terms used purposefully will be added to the Style Sheet (if the copy-editor has not already done so), in order for them to ensure this same spelling style is used throughout the book.
At this late stage in the editorial process, the proofreader will be looking to make minimal changes, correcting only that which is a clear error. Therefore, punctuation and grammar will only be changed if the proofreader feels it has not been appropriately used and may cause confusion to the reader: they will not change anything purely in the interest of style or to change meaning.
Proofreaders will use software to detect some errors such as incorrect or inconsistent spellings, and this is something you could do for yourself if you wanted to. But bear in mind that software can only do so much and is no substitute for the human eye: computer programs are still not able to make decisions based on context.
Layout & Style
Here, I’m referring to paragraph, page and chapter layout, which will need to be consistent and clear throughout. If they are present, chapter headings, page numbers, headers, footers and page numbers will all need to be checked to ensure they follow the same style and positioning on the page.
For example, if the chapter heading consists of a number followed on the next line by a title, all chapters will need to follow this pattern. If the running head on the top of the right-hand page (recto) is the title of the book and the running head on the top of the left-hand page (verso) is the author’s name, you will need to check that this style is followed on every single page.
This also applies to all fonts and font sizes, use of italics/bold/underline, any references, bibliographies, illustrations, captions, front matter, end matter – in other words, every single part of your book from first page to last will need to be checked during the proofread to ensure the layout and style is clear and consistent.
This consistency ensures your book is professionally presented. Readers won’t notice the style of a consistently formatted book, but they will notice an inconsistent one. Whether you are seeking to publish traditionally or self-publishing, a professional layout will make your book look as if it’s just come off the library shelf.
At the proofread stage, you and your proofreader will be paying attention to the formatting of your manuscript to ensure it’s correctly applied for your chosen method of publication.
For instance, if you are publishing an ebook, there are certain guidelines you will need to follow with regards to front pages (such as title page, contents page and chapter links) and end pages, margin size, heading formats, font type and size etc, depending on your chosen ebook publisher.
You or your proofreader will need to double-check your publisher’s guidelines and abide by these so that your manuscript will be ready for a successful and seamless upload. Any links and hyperlinks should also be checked to ensure they are accurate and work as they should.
Likewise, if you are seeking to publish traditionally, there are generally accepted formatting elements which your proofreader will be aware of and thus can ensure your manuscript is presented appropriately to agents and publishers.
Many authors choose to do the formatting themselves, and in this case your proofreader will just double-check that all areas have been covered and nothing missed. If you are not confident in formatting, your proofreader will be happy to do this as part of your manuscript’s final proofread.
In Part 9 of the series I’ll offer some advice on how you can go about starting your self-editing process, including how to begin and when to stop.
Part 1: Understanding the Editorial Stages
Part 2: Developmental Edit (Structure)
Part 3: Developmental Edit (Plot)
Part 4: Developmental Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 5: Copy-Edit (Narrative Voice, Point of View)
Part 6: Copy-Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 7: Copy-Edit (Sentence Structure, Stylistic Choices)
Part 9: Starting Self-Editing
Part 10: Hiring A Professional