The Truth about Proofreading


by Susan DeFreitas, Collaborative Editor

Climbing Writers, beware: By the time your book is ready for proofreading, you will have read each sentence what feels like a million times. And yet, insidious errors lurk within the pages of the manuscript that you simply cannot see.

That’s why every author, no matter how adept, needs a professional proofread in order to produce a professional product.

But being both a professional editor and, as of this fall, a debut novelist, I’ve recently come to grips with some cold, hard truths about proofreading, of which every writer should be aware.

The first truth is that every book goes to print with errors, whether it’s brought out by the biggest New York publishing house or launched by a self-publishing author.

Early in 2016, when I was stressing out about the fact that I kept finding errors in the manuscript of my novel, Hot Season—despite the fact that it had undergone two rounds of professional proofreading—I was talking about it with Indigo’s founder, Ali Shaw.

A rare-book collector, Ali informed me that in the old periodicals dedicated to book collectors, the typos in each featured book's first edition were always listed. Why? Because these errors, once they were pointed out by readers, would be eradicated by the next edition; they proved that what someone claimed was a first edition really was.

The bottom line of this first truth is that finding errors in your first print run isn't the end of the world. In fact, it’s par for the course, even if your book has benefited from more than one round of proofreading.

The second truth is this: Even the most astute editor (and here at Indigo, I believe, we have some of the best around), there’s still a possibility that minor errors could slip through. When it comes down to it, you are your book’s last line of defense.

Yes, you, as the author, are often blind to your own errors. But you're also the person who's most invested in this book—so before you simply approve or ignore your proofreader’s recommended edits and send the file to the printer, print out that manuscript one more time and go through every sentence again. (Another trick is to read on your computer’s screen, but at 200 percent magnification or in a different font.)

To be clear, this last pass isn’t to look for places to rewrite. Rather, your mission is to catch the most common type of error that shows up in first editions: missed or repeated words, such as, She talked her brother, or He climbed the the mountain.

Even so, though, after all that painstaking effort—on the part of both you and your proofreader—it’s nearly inevitable that you’ll find at least one error in the printed book.

That’s because perfection in a book, grammatically speaking, is like the speed of light; the closer you come to reaching it, the harder it is to attain.

The final truth here may be the most important, though, and that’s this: Finding a typo in a published book is not a great thing, but finding one in the first fifty pages will almost always strike your reader as worse.

Early on in a book, perhaps the reader’s brain has not yet fully entered the dream of the narrative—or perhaps the reader has not yet fully bought into trusting the author. Whatever the reason, a typo that appears in the first fifty pages of a book is more noticeable than one that appears later on, so proofread these pages obsessively (and ask any literate person you know who might be willing to do the same).

I tell you all this not to make you anxious but to encourage you, dear author, to relax. While we all must fight this age-old battle, it's one that we’ll never (quite) win.



SusanSusan DeFreitas is a developmental editor, line editor, and, yes, proofreader for Indigo—a job she’s been known to refer to as “comma wrangling.” She is the author of the novel Hot Season (forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions), has placed work in nearly thirty journals and anthologies, and is a regular presenter at conferences throughout the Northwest. She believes in the power of story to heal, help, and make whole. She also believes in The Chicago Manual of Style.