Everyone makes mistakes when they write, and the only way to prune out the errors is to proofread carefully.
Publishing houses employ professional proofreaders to check books and many authors do so too. But that doesn’t mean an author can get away with never proofreading their writing. Hopefully, you proofread your manuscript before submitting it to a copy editor (in cleaning up the manuscript yourself, you ease the editor’s workload and reduce the cost of the edit). And ideally, you also proofread the book one last time before publication; certainly, a publisher will expect you to do so.
Proofreading your own book is difficult, because you tend to read what you meant to write rather than what you actually wrote. Your brain helpfully fills in the missing word in a sentence, fails to flag a homonym mix-up (like your and you’re) and tells you that ‘a viscous circle’ and ‘prime minster’ make perfect sense.
Here are some tips that will help you get past your blind spots so that you can proofread more effectively.
Take a breather
If possible, allow some time between completing your text and proofreading it – ideally at least a day. That way you’ll be fresher when you proofread and more likely to spot mistakes.
Read when you’re most alert
Late in the evening may be the most convenient time to proofread, but how sharp is your mind then? You need to be eagle-eyed, not bleary-eyed, so proofread earlier in the day.
Set the scene
Proofreading in a café with easy access to coffee and cake is tempting, but all that noise isn’t going to help you focus. Read the text in a quiet space – ideally not the same place you wrote the text; a change of scene helps you see the writing from a different perspective.
Change the font
Whatever font you’ve been writing with, change it. Make the text less comfortable and conventional to read so that you have to focus more.
Change the layout
Widen the margins of the document so that the text re-flows. Now sentences look different to the eye.
Change the page colour
Wherever possible, avoid proofreading black text on a white background. The contrast is dazzling. Change the page colour to whatever takes your fancy; I use a light grey.
Print it out
If it’s feasible, print the text. It’s much easier to see mistakes on paper. Don’t be stingy on ink/paper – set generous margins and line spacing.
Break the proofreading down
Do the overarching checks at the start – elements like headings, page numbers and paragraph indents – before you dive into reading the text line by line.
Changing direction makes the text less familiar. Start with the last paragraph on the page and work your way up. You can read a paragraph backwards in the same way.
You’ll notice typos, double words (the the), missing words (at the end the day) and punctuation issues. You can also have your computer read the text to you; just read up on text-to-speech features.
Repeat, and move on
Read through the text in this way twice, and that’s it – proofread done. Is the text perfect? Possibly. Possibly not. But there’s only so much you can spot yourself, and you’ve done your best.