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How to get fresh eyes on your work and when to ask for help from a professional proofreader

Isobel Kent, an editor and proofreader of books for children, provides some tips for proofreading your own work and how to prepare your book for professional proofreading.

Even proofreaders need proofreaders

If you’re an experienced writer, possibly with high-level qualifications, engaging a proofreader may feel superfluous. It might be hard to see how a proofreader could help and you may feel that you do not have the time or budget available.

But even proofreaders need proofreaders. The brain is a wily beast and, although there are ways to trick it so that you have fresh eyes on your work, these are no substitute for a trained proofreader who has not been privy to – and thus encumbered by – your creative process.

What does a proofreader do?

Proofreading is literally ‘the reading of the proofs’. In other words, your book should be finished. Editing is complete and you are on the cusp of publishing.

Proofreaders usually work in Adobe, on hard-copy proofs or in MS Word and are looking at the fine detail to ensure a smooth reading experience for your reader.

They check for:

Accuracy including spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Consistency including voice, spelling, typeface, formatting and capitalisation.

Sense to make sure that your plot, arguments and logic ring true and to avoid unintentional ambiguity.

Sensitivity to make sure that your writing uses appropriate language to reflect equality, diversity and inclusion.

Proofreaders change as little as possible, to avoid the knock-on impact on design, layout and budget.

What can I do myself?

Quite a lot.

No doubt you run spelling and grammar checks as a matter of course, curse at them both and then re-read your book. (Remember that the proofreader trumps the spellchecker – things will slip through the net.)

Writers are, of course, used to leaving work well alone for a few weeks between drafts to get perspective – but what else can you do?

1. Create a style sheet. This is a record of your style choices and conventions. It makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and gives you a reference. It also saves a proofreader time as they don't need to create one. (Drop me a line if you need a free template to get you started.)

2. Utilise the available software. As well as in-built spelling and grammar checkers, don’t forget ‘Find and Replace’ in MS Word, which is handy for spotting spelling variations and double spacing. If you have access to correction software such as PerfectIt, this is the time to set it up with the preferences from your style sheet. Explore other software providers and macros to find the one best suited to your style and budget.

3. Read it aloud. You will soon discover whether it flows and whether you have used appropriate punctuation and performance cues. Expect to spot other mistakes.

4. Listen to the audio version. Either record it then listen to it back or listen using your software’s narration function (Review\Read Aloud in MS Word).

5. Change the font. This is great for tricking the brain into thinking that it is reading something new. If it’s a hard-to-read font (you choose – you know what makes you concentrate more), you will try harder to read it and might pick up the occasional slip. Alternatively, try the publication font if you haven't used it yet.

6. Print it out and read it through with a pen in your hand. We process hard copy differently to on-screen text. If it’s a large document, print a sample and see if you are picking up enough to justify printing the lot. (Avoid red pen if it stresses you out.)

7. Take notes if you are feeling uneasy about the line of argument or flow. Do this as if you are studying. Do the notes make sense? Are they logical and well structured? This should highlight flaws in the sense or argument.

8. Ask a trusted professional to read it through and give you feedback but beware of misconceptions that they may bring to your work and check that they understand your voice and the industry standards. (Some people have strong opinions about split infinitives and the singular ‘they’, for example, which might override your voice and progressive conventions.)

When do I need a proofreader?

There is no getting past the fact that you are immersed in your story from its inception. A proofreader comes to it with a fresh perspective and none of the baggage that you have accumulated during your research and writing journey. There is therefore no substitute for fresh eyes.

If you’ve done all the above work (assuming that you’ve already been through the editing process), then your book is probably ready to be proofread professionally. You should’ve saved yourself some money, too, as the proofreader’s job will be easier.

That is not to say that any proofreader will do – if you can find a specialist in your field, you will get significantly greater value for money and they should be more efficient.

It’s a big deal to put your work in someone else’s hands. Remember: they are not ‘marking’ it – they are looking for accuracy, consistency, sense and sensitivity to polish your copy. If you are still hesitant, ask them if they will proofread a sample for you so that you can see how they work. Many proofreaders offer this freely. (I do.)

It is notoriously difficult to proofread your own work, and you won’t always need a professional proofreader. However, after all the hard work, time and money that you have spent to get you to this last hurdle, it may be a case of giving your tired eyes a rest and investing in that final polish before you release your book into the world.

Isobel Kent is an Oxfordshire-based editor and proofreader, specialising in children's literature. She also uses her extensive knowledge of children's books and her experience as a school librarian to help published authors prepare for school visits. She trained with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and the Publishing Training Centre and holds a BA (Hons) in Music from the University of York.

Previously, she was a school librarian, a governors' clerk, a paralegal and a personal assistant to directors in a blue-chip company, a pub company and a global DC-power company. She also studied with renowned violinist and co-founder of the Purcell School, Rosemary Rapaport.

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