30 June 2020

Proofreading during a pandemic

The first paid editorial job I ever had was working as a proofreader. I was in my senior year of high school and saw an ad in one of our local weekly newspapers that the newspaper itself needed a part-time proofreader. I was managing editor of my high school newspaper, and I was beyond excited at the idea of working for an actual non-school newspaper. I called, went in for an interview that day, and was offered the jobtwo days a week after school and into the evening. I was so excited that I accepted on the spot. Only as I was walking out of the managing editor's office did she call after me and say, "Don't you want to know that the pay is?" Oops. The pay was $5 per hour, which I said was great. So much for negotiating. But little did she know, I was so excited, I would have done it for free.

After I went to college, I occasionally was hired for random proofreading jobs. A friend was having a book published with a small press, and I proofread it. When I was in law school, I proofread a new edition of a textbook about white-collar criminal law for the professor who wrote it. These days, I occasionally am hired to proofread novels. Of course I also proofread my own stories before I submit them and, depending on the publication, before they're published. And I proofread anthologies I edit or co-edit, though I always like to have the authors proofread their own stories too, and I rely on any proofreader the publisher provides too. It's always good to have more than one set of eyes.

I've almost always proofread on paper. I think I read more carefully on paper than on the screen. I'm not sure why that is. There probably is research on this very topic, as I'm sure I'm not the only person like this. But I don't need to know why. I just need to know that it's true, and it is true. I know that for certain because tonight I ran a little test to be sure.

I've been offered a new proofreading job. I'd rather not go to the post office during the pandemic, so I was wondering if I could proofread this book on my computer instead of on paper. So I ran the aforementioned test. A friend sent a short story to me in which she introduced a few errors, and I read it on my computer, marked the errors in track changes, and returned the story to her.

Did I catch all the errors? Nope. While I caught some she hadn't known were in there (yay!), I missed two of the ones she introduced. Two mistakes in seven pages is not a good rate. So it's back to proofreading on paper for me, and I'll have to risk going to the post office. (And yes, maybe I wouldn't have caught the errors on paper either, but my track record suggests otherwise.)

One technique proofreaders use to do their work well is to read backward, word by word, so you focus on the words, not the story. (If you get caught up in the story, you might miss errors.) That works for catching actual typos. Most of them anyway—but reading backward doesn't enable you to catch if a typo results in a real word. Sure, you can spot that this wordd is wrong reading backward. But you can't tell that this bird is wrong, as you would need the context of the sentence for that. Reading backward also doesn't enable you to spot if there are missing words in a sentence, although you probably could catch if if the same word appeared twice. (Did you just catch that?)

So I don't read backward when I proofread. And I have to guard against getting caught up in the story that I miss things, so I do different things to stay focused. Often I'll keep a sheet of paper on the page, covering up everything below the line I'm reading, and that seems to help. Sometimes I'll read out loud. When I proofread the criminal law textbook, I found myself reading it out loud in a southern accent. It forced me to read more slowly, enabling me to focus more. It's strange the tricks a person will come up with to get the job done right.

So, authors, do you proofread your works on paper? Or on the screen? Do you have any techniques you use to do a good job? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oh, and before I go, I want to offer a big thank you to Kristopher Zgorski, who mentioned SleuthSayers in his Blog Bytes column in the current issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. If you're a new SleuthSayers reader due to Kristopher's column, welcome! (Heck, if you're a new SleuthSayers reader not due to Kristopher's column, welcome as well!)


  1. Barb, these days I tend to read onscreen. But I do find that reading out loud really helps. Still it seems that no matter what I do I don't catch everything.

    And that's great about Kristopher Zgorski mentioning SS. I haven't gotten my copy yet, so looking forward to that.

  2. Not an author, but I find that if I am having trouble getting caught up in what I am reading, I can read backwards sentence by sentence, not word by word. That is how I taught my students to check their work to make sure that each sentence was complete and made sense as well as to help them catch errors. Those who did it that way stood out but of course few tried it. I don't do just proofreading now but I used to do quite a bit for friends.

  3. I often have to read onscreen and I don't like it. At early stages of my own work I used, Like Paul, to read aloud, but after many years of teaching and allergies trashed my voice, I learned to use Apple's speech software. Now in my ear, all my work sounds like the old High Quality Bruce and vaguely Swedish.

  4. Hi, Barb. Your "if if" reminds me of the badge I got at the General Cigar Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in the '60s. In yellow letters against a black background, it read


    and it was surprising how many people didn't notice the duplicated "THE."

    When I moved to Amsterdam in '79, the first job I was able to get was as a proofreader for a company that published medical textbooks and conference proceedings in English. That was good training, and I learned to enjoy careful proofreading. My boss taught me to tap each word with my finger as I read it, which slowed me way down and was really helpful.

    Nowadays, I proof on the screen, but I proof aloud, which has the same slow-down effect.


  5. I do most of the proofreading of my own stories onscreen just because I'm too lazy to print them out first, but I too think proofing on paper is easier (and better). I seldom read what I'm proofing aloud, but when I do it's in a southern accent (surprise!).

    I like Jeanie Jackson's "trick" about proofing without getting too caught up in the narrative. I'll have to remember that.

    Enjoyed the column, Barb!

  6. Barb.
    As a dyslexic, I depend on proofreaders more than most. I hire one to go through my ms even before turning it into my publisher. First, I use a software tool called Grammarly on each chapter. Then it's off to someone who can see mistakes that I can not. If I type double words, miss words, or my favorite, misused words, my brain will compensate and skip right over the mistake. I have had fabulous experiences with proofreaders and dreadful. I mean, how can I check the proofreader's work. I have great respect for those who can help me get my story onto paper correctly! I would not be successful without them.

  7. Barb, I proofread on screen; then I print out a hard copy and read it; and then I do like Paul, and read it aloud.

  8. Barb, you took me back to my freelancing days. Today I proofread all my own work by reading it aloud. This comes after several edits on paper. When I serve as a Beta reader for a friend, I usually print out the ms and make notes as I go along and then make these corrections on the computer. I feel I miss too much when I read on line. Years ago I read an article about how people read, and learned about the movements of the eye. Now whenever I'm reading anything I notice when my eye rises to the tops of the letters and gains speed; this is a warning sign for me when I'm reading for editing or proofreading. I also like the idea of tapping each word to slow myself down. I may try that.

  9. Interesting column.
    I proofread on screen and always read aloud, much slower than I normally speak.


  10. Years ago, Chris Offutt warned me to "beware of the screen-sized paragraph," his way of saying that paragraphs are a mark of punctuation, too, and that you need to see how they lie on a page to help the work's rhythm.

    I print everything out and walk around the room reading it out loud. For some reason, walking and talking rhythms seem to be connected (for me, anyway), so if a phrase is awkward or outright wrong, I will either break stride, stumble of saying it, or both.

    I've never liked track changes, even though i understand their theory and value. I much prefer writing out my comments. Maybe that's just because I'm an old guy.

    Reading a work backwards, sentence by sentence is a great way to make sure that sentences connect logically. I picked this up from a composition book years ago, and I'm not sure of the title because it's long gone. It might have been Writing to the Point by William Kerrigan (I'm not sure of the author's name, either). The book was very basic, but it was terrific for teaching the basics of expository writing.

    Great post, Barb. It's too easy to overlook the importance of proofing before a work goes out. This is a solid reminder, especially with your examples. I was recently looking at one of my novels and found two typos that got by all of us years ago. Ouch.

  11. I love writing on a computer, but the last pass I take through any of my fiction is on hard copy. I find it easier to catch typos, missing words, a final tweak of a sentence. I also like to read copy aloud, though that isn't always on the hard copy.

  12. I like to have my laptop read aloud to me as I follow along on the screen of my desktop. That seems to catch many things, although not others. And it can be amusing, such as when the "reader" comes across the word "hoodie," a hooded sweatshirt, and pronounces it "who die."

    I find my biggest problem with proofreading is when an editor has requested so many changes in a work that I almost feel it's not "my" work anymore, and somehow my mind screams that I am not responsible for finding the errors that have crept in during the editing process.

  13. Hi, Barb, great post! I proofread on screen first, then on paper. Mmm, maybe next time I'll do the opposite.

  14. Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting on the blog.

    Jeanie, thank you for the idea to read backward sentence by sentence (instead of word by word). That does sound like it would eliminate the problem of getting caught up in the story while still allowing the proofreader to have context when she reads the story. I'm going to try that.

    Janice, maybe you have adopted a Swedish accent and you don't realize it. You should ask someone! ;)

    Josh, tapping each word would probably really slow things down. I wonder if that would be cost-effective. I'll stick with reading aloud.

    John, I'm shocked--shocked I tell you--that you read aloud in a southern accent. Thanks for making me laugh.

    And Kathleen, thank you for making me laugh too. (Who die?)

  15. I prefer proofing off a hard copy, because I can circle words and mark corrections! (I only get to proofread my own stuff!)

  16. A most interesting topic, and a great column, Barb.

    I invest a lot of time in proofreading. First, I read a whole novel aloud from the screen. Then, I read a scene aloud again, immediately followed by a second reading of the same scene, but then in a bigger font size (say, 24 points) and in an extremely slow tempo, syllable by syllable. Then, I put the text aside and do something else. A couple of hours later, I read the same scene again aloud in the normal font size (12 points). When I've done triple reading all scenes, I print out the text and read it again, but not aloud. After finishing, the novel goes to my publisher. The copy-editor will work on it, with me.

    After that there are two final proofread rounds for me: after the completion of the ebook I read the ebook, and then when the first hard copy proofbook comes available. A lot of work, but worth it! I just hate the ouch-experience when a reader discovers typos or other mistakes. . .

  17. Wow, Anne. That is extremely thorough. Good for you.


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