How to Proofread Like a Professional


You’ve written, you’ve rewritten, you’ve had your manuscript assessed, you’ve rewritten again (and possibly again), you’ve had it edited and it’s finally time for your book to be published. If you’ve already paid a manuscript assessor and editor and you can afford a proofreader as well, then go ahead and do it. A professional will always be able to do a better job than you. But if you’re looking for a way to save a few bucks and you’re confident you have the skills to take on the final stages yourself, then here’s how to proofread like a professional.

Step 1: First you’ll need an electronic proof. A proof is your book laid out in the way it’s going to be printed. You can’t proofread if you don’t have a proof. If you have a publishing contract, your publisher should organise for a proofreader to undertake all the following steps. If you’re paying a publisher to print your book, they should provide the proof to you. If you’re self-publishing, templates are usually available that you can paste your proof into and apply the appropriate styles (headings, opening paragraphs, following paragraphs, etc).

Step 2: Turn on Track Changes.

Step 3: Run the Spelling & Grammar Check (making sure that you’ve first selected and applied the language you want the Spelling & Grammar Check to look for; if you’ve chosen US English, then, for example, –ize endings will be considered correct and –ise endings will be considered incorrect and vice versa if you’ve chosen UK or Australian English). Let’s face it, if there are tools available to make the proofreading process easier, then we’d be fools not to use them. And the Spelling & Grammar Check is one of the greatest technologies ever invented to help speed up that process. Remember, though, that Microsoft Word doesn’t know English as well as we might like it to. So consider all suggested changes and also remember that it’s okay to ignore the ones that don’t make sense or that you know are just plain wrong.

Step 4: Now read the proof for yourself and make corrections on screen as you go.

Step 5: On the Review tab in Microsoft Word, change the Display for Review setting from “Final: Show Markup” to “Final” so you can’t see the changes you’ve made in Step 4. Now repeat Step 4.

Step 6: On the Review tab in Microsoft Word, change the Display for Review setting back from “Final” to “Final: Show Markup” so you can see all the changes you’ve made. Review the changes and if you’re happy with them, accept all changes in the document.

Step 7: Check for widows and orphans. Widows and orphans are where one line at the start of a paragraph is at the bottom of a page or where one line at the end of a paragraph is at the top of page. Publishing etiquette dictates that there must be a minimum of two lines of a paragraph together at the tops and bottoms of pages (not including single line paragraphs). Microsoft Word has a function for automatically ensuring this but sometimes this means the facing pages of a proof are slightly uneven at the bottom. Where this is the case, I like to make slight changes in the text to even it up manually (either by deleting a few words here and there or adding a few in).

Step 8: If your proof has a table of contents and page numbers, check that the page numbers in the table of contents match up with the page numbers throughout the book. (If you have an automatic table of contents, update it and that should make it accurate. If you have a manual table of contents, first of all, why? Secondly, go through the text and make sure the page numbers in the table of contents match up with the locations in the proof.)

Step 9: Order a printed proof. This should look exactly like what you will be offering readers for sale.

Step 10: Read your printed proof like you would read any other piece of writing for pleasure but have a red pen handy. Circle any final mistakes you find.

Step 11: In the electronic proof, correct those final mistakes you’ve found in the printed proof.

Step 12: Repeat Steps 7 and 8. (You can also repeat Steps 9, 10 and 11 if you want to but if you’ve done this process thoroughly, you shouldn’t need to.)

Step 13: Approve your finalised proof for printing. Approval is a must. No publisher or printer will print your book without the proof being officially signed off. This way, if there are any mistakes, then you are responsible for them and all the copies of your book that are printed with them in it. If you’re printing on demand, then there won’t be any upfront costs and you can always make a few more changes and approve a second proof but if you’re doing a print run, you will be liable for the cost of any printed books. So try to make sure you’re as happy with the book as possible. You don’t want to have to pulp hundreds or even thousands of books. Apart from the costs, it’s a terrible waste.

And that’s it. A final word though: it’s impossible for your book to be perfect. Small errors almost always slip through. (I was at my sister’s house reading out loud part of a chapter in her copy of Project January that referred extensively to my nephews and I was mortified to see a straight apostrophe instead of a curly one when I thought I’d found them all. The horror!) A good rule of thumb is this: if you eliminate enough errors that only professional editors, proofreaders and pedants are able to find the rest, then you’ll have done well. Good luck!

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