Proofreading – What’s It All About? (Louise Harnby)

Sophie Playle

Louise Harnby is a very well respected and established professional proofreader and copy-editor. Her blog has been an inspiring resource for me over the years, and she’s been a wonderful friend to me, too. Since proofreading isn’t something I offer, I asked Louise to share her experience in this area. Over to Louise …

I set up my freelance proofreading business in 2006. Prior to that, I’d worked in publishing houses since graduating in 1989. Publishers, like any other business, have their own jargon. Walk into the editorial or production departments of any publishing house and you’ll hear terms such as ‘casting off’, ‘widow’, ‘orphan’, and ‘demy quarto’.

Before I worked in publishing, I thought casting off was something to do with knitting, a widow was someone whose wife had died, an orphan was a parentless child, and demy quarto … honestly? I had no idea what demy quarto meant, but I’d have taken a guess on it being a character in a gangster movie.

In publisher-speak, casting off means, roughly speaking, estimating a book’s length. Widows and orphans are the short, stranded lines that appear at the top or bottom of a page. And demy quarto is a book size of approximately 11.25 by 8.75 inches. Now you know!

A right old proofreading kerfuffle

But these terms aren’t the only ones that confuse non-publisher people. ‘Proofreading’ comes with its own set of problems. For many, the term is an all-encompassing one that includes any form of editorial intervention, from initial manuscript evaluation, rewriting, advice on structuring text, and help with plot development, to editing text line by line to ensure consistency and logic, right through to checking text for punctuation, spelling and grammar errors. In fact, this isn’t the case – writing, critiquing, editing and proofreading are all different editorial functions…

As a professional proofreader, it’s my job to ensure one thing before I commit to working with a client: that they understand exactly what I do. Failing to clarify what my proofreading service includes can be a disaster because it means the client isn’t going to get the service they want. And if you’re a writer who has thought long and hard about putting your manuscript into the hands of freelancer, and paying them for the privilege, this could lead to disappointment, frustration and a sense that you’ve wasted your money.

That’s not good for me, and it’s not good for you. Trust is at the core of the relationship between the writer and editorial freelancer, so clarity is essential, right from the start.

So what is proofreading?

A proofreader checks your text for spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax errors. In other words, we’re the people who look out for missing parenthetical en dashes, rogue commas, misplaced apostrophes, inconsistent heading sizes or line spacing, weird or unreadable fonts, dangling modifiers, omitted full points, missing quotation marks, subject/verb agreement, errant vocative commas, and a hundred and one (thousand) other little niggling things that might end up in your manuscript by accident. We’re the people who put the final polish on the manuscript to make sure it appears professional.

Have you recently downloaded an ebook for your Kindle and thought to yourself, ‘I can tell this is self-published’? And it’s not because of the characterization or the plot. Rather, there’s something a little off here and there. Perhaps the paragraph indentation doesn’t appear conventional. Maybe the display of dialogue isn’t what you’re used to seeing. Or there are simply too many typos for you to accept that it’s been through a professional editorial process.

Proofreaders are the people who stop this happening. We’re the ones who clean up after the writer (you), the manuscript critiquer, and the copy-editor have done their jobs. We sort out the last-minute glitches that can mean the difference between a piece of text looking professional and amateurish, between it looking as if it’s been traditionally published and simply uploaded into the Smashwords’ Meatgrinder with no further thought. We’re the ones who enable the reader to focus on your fabulous story rather than tripping themselves up halfway through a sentence.

Can’t I just ask my mate to proofread it? Or do it myself?

Of course you can ask your mate to proofread for you. I’d recommend it. It’s a fresh set of eyes and they’ll probably do it at no cost. I’d recommend choosing the friend who also happens to be a professional proofreader, though, since they’ll be aware of what the industry conventions are – all those niggling things I mentioned earlier that, if not attended to, make a book appear ‘off’.

As for doing it yourself, yes do that, too. The more things you catch, the less work a professional will have to do, and that will save you money. But let me give you a little piece of advice. You’ll miss things – I guarantee it. Not because you’re unintelligent or lazy or incapable. You’ll miss things because it’s your text and you’re too close to the words. You’ll see what’s in your head before you see what’s on the page.

I self-published an editorial freelancing guide in April 2013. I’m a professional proofreader and I hired another professional proofreader to work on my book because I knew I’d miss things. It’s not because I’m not good at my job; it’s because I’m a human being and when I’m writing, I’m writing. I’m not editing, I’m not critiquing, I’m not proofreading. I’m putting a stream of consciousness into a document and this stuff is based on what I think and feel. My proofreader picked up things I could have sworn weren’t there when I checked the book!

Please, take it from me – you can’t proofread your own work to a professional standard. I’d bet money on it.

Why being turned down for proofreading is a good thing

A good proofreader should be honest with you. They should be prepared to look at a few pages of your text and evaluate whether it’s ready for proofreading or needs to go back a stage (to an editor). They should be prepared to articulate what their service includes so that you are both in agreement about exactly what’s expected. And they should be prepared to turn down the work if they don’t feel it’s possible to proofread it – that the intervention needed to make the text work would involve editing, or more – or if you’ve made it clear that you need more help than they are qualified to offer.

If a proofreader turns you down, please don’t be offended. They didn’t decline the job because they didn’t want to work for you. They declined because they felt they couldn’t work for you. Some editorial freelancers have a range of skills in their service portfolio. Me? I’m just a proofreader, and proudly so! When I turn you down it’s because I don’t have the skill to critique or rewrite your manuscript; nor can I offer you advice on structure, logic and flow. I don’t have experience of working in these ways and I don’t have the training. That means I won’t take your hard-earned cash for providing a service skill that I don’t have. If you don’t expect your dentist to fix your washing machine, or your child’s schoolteacher to fix your teeth, you’ll know what I mean. Instead, I’ll refer you to one of my hundreds of colleagues. Then, when you’re ready for proofreading, I’ll welcome you with open arms!

For more information about the different levels of editorial intervention, and useful resources on marketing, taxation, distribution channels and e-formatting for the independent writer, download my free Guidelines for New Authors.

Louise Harnby specialises in providing proofreading and copy-editing solutions for authors of fiction. An Advanced Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), she trained as a proofreader with the Publishing Training Centre and qualified with distinction. Freelance since 2006, she has proofread over 350 books.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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