I’m writing this piece for the benefit of all self-published authors, or those choosing a publishing company, as I’m becoming increasingly aware that, sadly, advice about making proofreading (and editing) choices is very much needed.
Firstly, if you’re not sure about the difference between editing, copy editing and proofreading, you might like to read this short piece: What do proofreaders and editors do?
Now, let’s help you in your search!
Who is the best person to proofread my work?
Okay – you’ve finished your novel/novella/short stories, and would like to publish on Amazon for Kindle, or another website. You’re fairly confident your work is as good as you can make it, but you’d like an impartial, qualified third party to check it for those little errors that you know you may have missed, especially as you’ve read over your work many times and still keep noticing mistakes. You don’t want any reviewers saying things like, ‘a good book spoilt by typos and punctuation errors’. So you look around for a proofreader. You Google, you compare prices, you ask around on Twitter.
Unless money is no object, which is certainly not the case for most people, you have a limited budget to spend on the production of your book, and certainly don’t want to waste your money. There are many great proofreaders and editors out there – I know quite a few. There are also, unfortunately, two kinds of bad proofreaders: the Cowboys and the Inept. Beware of them!
These people will take your money and do little if anything for you. At worst, they just run your work through spellcheck. I would call them thieves, because they take your money under false pretences. I’ve seen some horrifying results of dealing with Cowboys, first hand, from the experience of authors I’ve met online, or worked with. These are just a few:
- A short story that started with a missing apostrophe in the first word
- A 15,000 word novella that had supposedly been proofread 3 times, in which I subsequently found 222 errors
- A novel which had been through the hands of both an editor and a proofreader – but I found 94 errors in the first 8 pages
- My client whose 3 books had previously been published by an indie publisher with a very smart website – he came to me because he kept getting reviews complaining about punctuation and spelling errors. I found a few hundred errors in each book. I won’t mention the name of the publishing company, but it’s available upon request!
No proofreader is infallible (everyone can miss one or two errors), but my poor clients had been conned out of their money by people who had no intention of doing a proper job for them.
The Inept – almost as bad!
There are, I’m afraid to say, growing numbers of these. Some are quite frankly hilarious and devoid of credibility, such as the lady I saw who advertised herself as a ‘proffesional proofreader’. Some of them, sad to say, are intentionally deceptive, some are just misguided, but the end result is the same:
The person who loses out is YOU.
Many of the Inept are looking for a way to make money in ‘indie author land’, and have observed the growing demand for proofreaders/editors now that the self-publishing market is increasing on a daily basis. Some consider themselves qualified because they have a reasonable grasp of the English language, or because they write a bit themselves. Still others have been on ‘proofreading courses’, which should carry a government health warning, in my opinion. The pyramid starts here, with the course providers who rip-off the aspiring proofreaders; I feel sorry for the people who spend money on such courses, thinking it will help them earn money.
Beware the proofreading course!
Some of the courses promise their students guaranteed work (which is impossible), or that they can earn X amount of money per hour. Many courses teach and examine their students on all those clever little proofreading symbols, now pretty much obsolete in the proofreading business, which is now almost exclusively done online – even within journalism. I have yet to hear of one that mentions Track Changes, which is the tool a proofreader in today’s e-world needs. Track Changes enables the proofreader to make changes online, and the author to accept or reject the amendment. The idea of a proofreader sitting there with a paper manuscript and blue pen, arduously covering the pages with symbols, is years out of date. One course I investigated recently actually states ‘most proofreading and copy editing is done on paper’, which is just a downright lie.
My other gripe about these courses is that having completed one (and thus being able to wave about the piece of paper saying they’ve passed the exam) doesn’t mean a person has the grammatical knowledge and experienced eye required for proofreading – or, similarly, the understanding of the market and experience of publishing required for editing. Editing courses (often run alongside the proofreading ones) are usually very brief, but in traditional publishing, people don’t become fully-fledged editors without literally years of full time experience at a more junior level.
A word about editing – my sister is a prolific indie author who edits her own work and says the following: “Over the past three and a half years I have written 14 novels, 1 novella, many short stories, and over 150 blog posts. I have never had a book review that calls into question my grammar or punctuation skills, but can see now that my first efforts at DIY editing were not as successful as my later ones. Adequate editing takes real experience; I read articles about it by those more experienced than myself, observe how traditionally published books are presented, and learn all the time – I’m currently editing a friend’s first novella, but I still wouldn’t consider myself qualified to charge people money for what I can do. I’ve heard many horror stories from author friends who’ve entrusted their work to so-called editors, and ended up with something worse, not better. One writer friend told me she’d had many of her delightfully worded sentences replaced by others that were not even grammatically correct. Doing a brief course will not teach you how to recognise superfluous detail, clichés of plot, narrative and dialogue, ‘clunky’ sentences and the frequently found wrongly assigned dependent clause if you can’t already identify them, any more than doing a creative writing course will make you a good writer if you have no basic talent.”
As there are so many proofreaders and editors out there, and the internet is a big place, I’d like to make some suggestions to help you find the right proofreader for you.
- Don’t be lured in by flashy websites. Advertising blurb doesn’t guarantee results for the customer!
- Please don’t think that you can do the job yourself by using Grammarly! I’m sure it has some uses, as does spellcheck, but they are limited. A recent client said this to me: ‘I use the program Grammarly and it does a lot of what you say that you do in your email. I’ve had a very good review of one of my books but the reviewer complained about the proofreading. After it was published I pulled it off the market and rechecked it for spelling, grammatical errors, punctuation, and run-on sentences and corrected all of it and still got the same kind of complaint from a review.’ I can’t say this often enough. Proper, effective proofreading needs the eyes of a real person!
- Some of the websites sound very impressive – but some have just taken the wording from the sites of experienced proofreaders/editors, in order to sound as if they know what they’re doing.
- Read the testimonials with care. They should be from writers who have published work including the proofreader/editor’s changes (or at least presented CVs and student essays). You’ll be paying out money to this person – make sure that others have happily done so before you. Some of the more unscrupulous actually fake references. There is a site called Writers Beware, which every writer should follow, co-founded by author Victoria Strauss, which ‘outs’ the con merchants.
- So, how do you check out the genuine? Easy! A tried and tested proofreader will have a selection of testimonials, with the names of many clients you can contact via Twitter or Google. You should be able to read a sample of their work online; virtually all writers publish via Amazon, and it is possible to read a sample of every book on sale, by using the ‘Look Inside’ feature. I do realise that a proofreader who is just starting out will not have page after page of testimonials; everyone has to start somewhere, and many start off by working on a friend’s novel, as practice. If you are thinking of giving a chance to someone who has just started out in the business it’s important to …
- … ask the proofreader to give you a free sample, i.e. work on just a few pages of your text, so you can see if what they do is up to the standard you’re looking for. A proofreader or editor has to be the right ‘fit’ for you! When you get the results back, if you’re not sure, ask someone for a second opinion. One of the best ways to make your choice is simply word of mouth – ask more experienced writers who they use.
- Please don’t expect a good proofreader to be immediately available to work on your book. Anyone worth their salt will be booked up a few weeks in advance, so try to plan (as much as the creative process allows, of course) to set the process in motion before your book is ready to go to the proofreader.
- Lastly, a word of advice to aspiring proofreaders – please, please ask around before splashing out money on these courses. There may be some good ones around, but the qualifications offered by many of them are not recognised by the publishing industry. Your most important qualifications will be a very, very sound knowledge of the English language (by which I mean more than just being able to spot a superfluous apostrophe!), an eagle eye, and a love of your work!
And finally, I’d like to relate to you a cautionary tale from one of my regular clients, looking for a proofreader before she met me. Here is what she says:
“I posted a job on eLance.
I advertised for a proofreader for an anthology. Since most job applications on eLance are copy/pasted, “Dear Sir, I have read your job description carefully and am the best person for this job because I have the required skills and experience” without the applicant so much as reading the job description, I always post a test question. Those who don’t answer the question won’t be considered.
I decided to set a simple test.
I explained that I was looking for a proofreader who could work in both British and American English. I wrote:
‘To check that you have read the job description and have the required skills, please tell me how you would correct this sentence: When autumn turned into winter, the travellers learnt about the judgement.‘
(The word ‘autumn’ signals that it’s meant to be British English. And the sentence is in perfectly correct British English. So a proofreader should leave it as it is.)
Uh-uh. This was an eye-opener. I was immediately inundated by applications – about fifty in the first few hours.
Quite a few people announced that they were top professional proofreaders, fully familiar with both British and American English… and then they proceeded to correct the sentence to, When autumn turned into winter, the travelers learned about the judgment.
Quite a few came up with a mishmash of British and American: When autumn turned into winter, the travellers learned about the judgment.
They even offered the correction in the same breath as declaring their competence regarding British and American English. I’m a leading expert in British and American English, and I have pleasure informing you that the correct version of the sentence is: When autumn turned into winter, the travellers learned about the judgment.
Out of the fifty, only two deduced that the word ‘autumn’ combined with all-British spelling signalled British English.
It gets worse. Several rewrote the sentence, changing it completely to improve the style. Winter had finally arrived, and the travelers were informed about the judgment.
It’s shocking to think that a proofreader might do that to a work of fiction, ruining the author’s voice, and it’s worrying because an editor might simply accept the Track Changes without realising what the proofreader had done.
In my job description, I even said that I didn’t want the proofreader to do any style edits. But really, no proofreader should rephrase an author’s work. (A copy editor may make suggestions, but a proofreader should not, let alone change things unasked.)”
So, as my final word, dear authors – take all the time you need when choosing a proofreader!