Manuscript and Book Proofreading

Dos and don’ts of manuscript proofreading before publication

Female academic conducts research online

Although it is possible to single-handedly produce a good creation, great creations typically require teamwork. When it comes to writing, whether a book, manuscript or article, having a great support team is crucial. 

This team consists of the author, editor, and academic proofreader.

You might think of a published manuscript as a remodeled vintage 1952 automobile. The author is like the original manufacturer – they are the visionaries and creators, but the vehicle does need some repairs. The editor is like the refurbisher who will replace old parts, remove the rust and grease the axles. In this analogy, the academic proofreader would be the quality and safety control expert. The quality control experts don’t initiate any repairs to the car, but they do check to make sure that all the repairs were done correctly, and make necessary minor adjustments. And in the end - the driving experience is undoubtedly superior with unparalleled peace of mind. 

Now we return to writing. Why do you need to proofread? Simply put:  

A polished, error-free paper allows editors, reviewers and your target audience to focus on what's really important: the information and messages of your manuscript.

Like it or not, we are critically thinking beans. Our brains willl focus on the exception and the anomaly. Likely, this is exactly what you are doing right now. In the preceding sentences did you notice one, two or three typos? In this case, these serve to enhance my idea. But if the topic matter was different, they would likely only detract by distracting you. Additionally, you might assume that the lack in professional editing mirrors a lack in topical content, or in other words, an unpolished text reflects an unpolished idea.

In your published work, it is safe to assume that you would prefer that your readers give proper and full attention to your ideas and not your typographical proficiency. 

What is the difference between editing and academic proofreading?

Although these two actions do have some overlap, they should not be confused with one another, nor should they be identified as synonymous. 

An author’s draft is given to an editor who will prepare the material for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it. Typically this means repairs at the micro and macro-levels.

  • The micro-level includes correcting grammar, spelling, facts and figures.
  • The macro-level includes verifying an overarching logical flow, and consistency in tone, style and language. 

Editing is a process that may entail considerable back and forth between the author and editor.

Proofreading is the final stage of the writing process and can only come after editing has been completed. The proofreader reads and corrects any errors. Typically proofreaders will focus on visual styling and language styling. 

  • Visual styling includes typography, format, layout, margins, page numbering, italics, alignment, quotes, paragraphing, spacing, tabs, and fonts.
  • Language styling includes spelling, punctuation, grammar, hyphenation, capitalization, abbreviations, and acronyms.

Proofreaders polish the finished product. In general, proofreaders work on proofs of the book after it has come back from the publisher when only small changes can be made. Therefore, it is important that all of the content has been agreed upon before commencing the proofreading process. There is no re-writing after they finish so it is important that your proofreader is meticulous and pedantic about their work.

Can I proofread my own manuscript?

Yes and no. On the one hand, if you are a careful reader with a discerning eye, you are definitely capable of finding errors. On the other hand, there are multiple reasons why although you can proofread your own book, you probably shouldn’t.

  • Familiarity. Although you are familiar with your text, you are also too familiar. Your brain is wired to read in an “auto-correct” mode. In other words, you are programmed to be blind to textual mistakes. The more familiar you are with the text the fewer chances there are that you will notice any mistakes.
  • Critique. Proofreading is a critical process, and self-critique is extremely difficult and not as valuable as critique from someone else. 
  • Time pressure. Typically you are working under time constraints, whereas a professional dedicates their time for this precise purpose.

Nevertheless, should you decide to self-proofread, here are some tips to sharpen those skills:

  • Avoid exhaustion. Set your paper aside between writing and proofreading. Give yourself a day or so between your last revision and your proofreading.
  • Know what to look for. Make a mental note of the mistakes you need to watch for. Often mistakes are repeated in patterns.
  • Printout or computer screen? There are pros and cons to both methods. Try working on a number of pages in both formats. See what works better for you. 
  • Put it in reverse. Try reading the paper backward, page by page, or even sentence by sentence. By annulling the logical flow of your text, you are less likely to falsely envision proper punctuation and more apt to notice the minutiae.
  • Technology. Use your computer’s editor and spell-check, but don’t rely on it blindly and make sure to scrutinize each change to ensure it is correct and improves your text. 
  • Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences and missing words, but you'll also be attuned to other problems that you may not have identified while only visually scanning the text. This will also help you adopt the role of the reader, absorbing the text through their eyes and ears.
  • Text to Audio. Use a text to audio program to have your text read to you. This is a great way of identifying when there is a sentence that doesn’t read correctly.  
  • Cover up. Use a ruler to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping over possible mistakes and allows you to deliberately pace yourself as you read through your paper. 
  • Ask a friend. Having another set of eyes look over your writing will often spot errors that you would have otherwise missed.

If you decide to go the route of procuring the services of a professional proofreader, here’s what to look for:

  • Language. Look for a professional with robust knowledge of the language of your work. Keep in mind that nothing will ever really replace the precision of a mother-tongue. 
  • Computer skills. Your proofreader should be comfortable in computer literacy and basic research. Be sure they use tracked changes so you can see the changes they make. 
  • A critical thinker. Proofreading is not a brainless technical procedure. Superb analytical skills are essential.
  • A good eye. This job demands a tremendous amount of attention to detail.
  • Persistence. The demands of this work can be quite draining. Make sure that your person of choice has the necessary attributes of vigilance and diligence and can meet your deadline. 


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