What does it take to proofread your manuscript?

This week I am joined each day by an expert from the writing and publishing industry, who I have been lucky enough to work with while producing Conditional Love.

You can read the interview with Debi Alper about self-editing here.

Day two in my ‘What does it take…?’ series of guest posts comes from Jude White who runs a proofreading business. Jude was recommended to me by fellow self-published author Joanne Phillips who will be appearing on my blog later this week.

1. Tell us a bit about you and how you came to be a proofreader

Like many others, my interest in copy-editing and proofreading developed by chance through work. I produced prospectuses for a university in London, as well a range of other course promotional materials. I discovered a love of working with words that has never left me.  

In 1998, back in the UK, I set up my own proofreading business, J White Associates.

An author who taught creative writing for adult education asked me to proofread a manuscript before she sent it to an agent. Her recommendation in turn led to other commissions and since that first manuscript I have read and enjoyed many novels, novellas and short stories, as well as non-fiction memoirs.

It is so rewarding to receive an email from someone telling me that their PhD has been awarded, or to read enthusiastic reviews of books that I have proofread, and to know that I have played a role in that success.

2. In what format can authors submit their work to you and how do you feedback?

Most of my work comes to me in electronic format, as a Word document, and I mark it up on screen using Track Changes. I am also happy to work on hard copy, whether a Word document or a print out of PDFs, using British Standards Institution proofreading marks (I supply a guide to the marks I have used if authors are not familiar with them).

I provide feedback in two ways. I mark corrections and suggested changes on the manuscript, as well as brief queries or comments. If I have more detailed queries, I raise them in a separate report. I also explain the conventions that I have applied when making corrections if it appears that the author is not familiar with them. In theory, the proofreader is the last person to correct the text before publication, but I know from experience that most authors will make changes to their manuscript as a result of my comments. New errors may creep in if the reasons for some of my corrections are not clear.
I am always aware of the trust that an author has placed in me when they send me their manuscript. If they haven’t used an editor or copy-editor, I may be the first person they don’t know who has looked at it in detail and that can be stressful. It can also be stressful if the manuscript is returned with more corrections and comments in it than they expected. That is why it is important that I explain what I have done, and why, particularly as one of the pleasures of writing fiction is that the normal rules of spelling and grammar do not have to apply and authors might wonder why some of my changes are necessary!

3.What are the most common mistakes that you find in manuscripts and is there a particular grammatical rule that people find difficult to grasp?

Common mistakes include using hyphens in text rather than dashes (the en dash), misplaced apostrophes, missing quotation marks, subject–verb agreement, wrong spelling for the verb ‘practise’ and incorrect punctuation in dialogue where it is interrupted by a reference to the speaker. I am surprised how often I find that proper names are misspelled, for example of singers or bands, or of supermarkets or national shop chains.
Some errors are a result of Word’s autocorrect function, and I can tell that they have slipped in unnoticed by the author; for example, an apostrophe used at the beginning of a word to represent a missing letter has been changed to a single opening quotation mark.

Inconsistency is also something that I come across regularly in manuscripts that haven’t been copy-edited first, for example in the use of initial capital or lower case letters for characters’ job titles, or spellings of words such as organise/organize. Sometimes it is deliberate – one character always says ‘whilst’, another always says ‘while’ – but sometimes it isn’t and it does reflect on the professional finish of a manuscript.

A good general knowledge is invaluable. There have been many occasions where I have queried something, even if it is not within my remit as a proofreader to check it – a date, a fact, a piece of dialogue in another language – because I am sure from my own knowledge and experience that it is wrong.

4.What is the difference between editing and proofreading?
I would add a third term here: copy-editing.
In traditional publishing, a book usually goes through three stages. An editor looks at the overall manuscript and assesses it in terms of plot, characterisation, pace, and whether all the elements of the book work together. The author makes the structural or other changes needed and the manuscript is then ready for the copy-editor, who will correct errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and style. They will also look out for things like timing and continuity problems, consistency of detail, minor characterisation or dialogue problems (major ones should have been identified by the editor), repetition, errors of fact, characters having the same or similar names, tenses, and potentially expensive legal issues such as libel and copyright. Once the author has dealt with all these issues, the manuscript is proofread; if the book is to be printed, this will be after design and layout. The proofreader makes the final check, line by line, to ensure that all the errors identified by the copy-editor have been dealt with, and no new errors have crept in. If dealing with pre-print page proofs, the proofreader will also check things like running heads, page numbers, consistency of page layout, and so on.
For many authors, the reality today is very different. Self-publishing has led to big changes in the way these stages are carried out – some are missed out, others are combined. Limited budgets mean that most authors cannot afford all three, and the decisions they make depend in part on what other editorial support they can call on. Many authors use friends, family and trusted beta readers to critically assess their work, and this can fulfil many of the functions of an editor and copy-editor. It is unlikely, though, that they will find all the errors and problems, because they will not be aware of the many things that copy-editors and proofreaders look for, to give a book a professional finish. Revisions that an author makes as a result of feedback can also introduce new errors, and plot and character inconsistencies.
Increasingly, many of us find that we are proof-editing, where an author’s work needs more editorial decisions and intervention than would be the case with a final proofread, but does not need all the elements of a comprehensive copy-edit. Much of my work now falls into this category and I really enjoy the variety that it brings.
More information about these various roles can be found on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ (SfEP) website: http://www.sfep.org.uk/pub/faqs/faqhome.asp

A fellow member of SfEP, Louise Harnby, has written a useful free booklet, Guidelines for New Authors: http://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/guidelines-for-new-authors.html

Whichever approach an author takes, a professional final check can make all the difference between a book that is a joy to read or one that irritates its readers because it has typos, awkward sentences or a plot that loses the plot!

5. You don’t have to name and shame but have you ever read a best seller and thought that the proofreading was lacking?
Yes, I have, and I know from talking to fellow proofreaders and friends that this is happening more and more often. Publishers face financial constraints and some are probably modifying the editing and proofreading stages, perhaps relying on the manuscript being error-free once it has been through a full copy-edit, even if changes are made afterwards, and not having it proofread before publication. None of us can be a hundred per cent accurate, but certainly I see more typos and other errors than I used to.
6.How do proofreaders charge for their services and what should authors expect for their money?
Proofreaders (and copy-editors and proof-editors) charge in various ways. In most cases, we ask to see a sample of the work first, so that we can make a fair assessment of what is involved and how long it will take, and therefore of what it will cost. If we haven’t seen a sample, we may reserve the right to renegotiate the fee if the work isn’t as described to us, for example, if it needs a full copy-edit rather than the requested ‘quick proofread’ that the author believes it needs.

Some proofreaders will quote an hourly rate, and give an indication of how many hours they expect to take. Some will use a similar process but quote a fixed fee, so there is no change in the cost if they take slightly longer, or slightly less time. Other proofreaders quote a rate per thousand words, and this is the system that I use. As with the fixed fee, the author knows from the beginning what the cost will be, which helps when they are putting together their budget.

All authors should be able to expect that the work is carried out professionally, and that their manuscript is returned on time, at the agreed price. They should also be able to expect that the editorial freelancer has provided the service that was agreed; in other words, not a full structural edit with big changes if it should have been a proofread!

It is important that both sides are clear about what service is required and what is offered, as that will form the basis of the fee that is charged and of what the author can expect. I ask to see a sample before I quote for the work, about 2000-3000 words, taken from somewhere part way through the manuscript; the beginning is usually the part that has been reviewed and revised most, so isn’t always representative of what might be needed.

Once I have looked at the sample, I know whether I can do what the author wants or not. Sometimes it becomes clear that the manuscript would benefit from the input of an editor, and I know I don’t have that skill, so I will say so. On occasion, my evaluation of the sample indicates that it needs a proof-edit, a slightly greater level of intervention than a proofread, particularly if the work has not already been copy-edited. When this happens, I usually proof-edit part of the sample I have been sent, so that the author can see why I am making that recommendation, as my quotation will reflect that higher level of intervention. Usually the response is one of surprise at how many errors and inconsistencies I have identified, and my recommendation is accepted!

7. What advice would you to an author who hasn’t got the budget for a professional proofreader?
This is difficult, because I know that authors face many costs when self-publishing, but I would urge caution about not using a professional proofreader, particularly if the manuscript hasn’t been professionally copy-edited either.

No doubt beta readers, friends and family who read the manuscript will point out all the errors and inconsistencies they see, but they might miss something that will jump out at a proofreader. An author reads and rereads their manuscript as they edit and revise it, before and after feedback, and will feel sure that they have picked up all of the errors, or most of them anyway. Unfortunately, that reading and rereading is precisely why errors get missed – because familiarity means we see what we expect to see, not what is there. None of us, not even professional proofreaders, can proofread our own work.

Proofreading is tax deductible! Authors can offset editorial services against tax, so that should be taken into account when calculating the true cost of having a manuscript professionally checked.

For these reasons, I recommend that authors consider very carefully before deciding not to use a professional proofreader. Annoying readers by publishing a book with errors might end up costing more than having it proofread.

8.How can authors get in touch with you?
The best way to contact me is by email on jude@jwhiteassociates.co.uk, sending me a short sample and an indication of what type of book it is, an estimated number of words, and proposed timings and deadlines. I am also happy to be contacted by phone during the week (077707 42471) if an author wishes to discuss their book before sending me a sample or further details.
I’m so glad that I asked Jude to take part in my ‘What does it take…’ series, even though we worked together on Conditional Love, I’ve learnt a lot from her interview and I will definitely be checking out Louise Harnby’s booklet! Thanks Jude 

Other posts in the ‘What does it take …’ series
What does it take to run a successful book tour? by Sharon Goodwin
What does it take to be a best-selling author? by Joanne Phillips
What does it take to design an award winning book cover? interview with Design For Writers
What does it take to self-edit your manuscript? Interview with Debi Alper

By Cathy Bramley

Cathy is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby farm, The Lemon Tree Cafe and A Vintage Summer. She lives in a Nottinghamshire village with her family and Pearl, the Cockerpoo. Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has always been an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. Now she thinks she may have found her dream job.

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