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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

7 steps to accurate proofreading

If you can raed tihs, 
you're giong to hvae a tguoh job 
pronfiog an entrie book.

I bet you can read the above sentence. It says, "If you can read this, you're going to have a tough job proofing an entire book."

Translating gibberish into ideas that make sense is just one of the many magical things our brains can do. It's a neat trick, but this ability will cause typos to slip through during proofreading if you're not careful.

Check this earlier post: "Jumpstart Monday // Writer's Procrastination." Can you find the mistake I missed, even though I read the piece at least a thousand times? I left the mistake in the article on purpose so that you can see how 2 little letters can create obstacles to perfection. (For some reason, this makes me think of Donny Osmond: "One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl." Even more decoding: for 4 decades, I thought Donny sang "don't spoil the whole bunch of girls." Ha!)

I digress. Is it realistic to strive for perfection? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Deactivate brain decoder
That subtitle made me think of the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica. Anyway, to do a good proofing job, you've got to shut down that part of the brain that wants to make sense of the world. You don't want to see the entire forest. You only want to see one leaf at a time.

I know, I know. How tedious can you get? But that's what it takes to do a really good proof. Let me tell you, if you can find a good proofreader, pay that person well. Proofreaders, the unsung heroes of the publishing world, are worth every penny, and they're never paid enough.

I'm not the greatest proofreader in the world, but working with budget conscious clients means that I must proof as well as edit manuscripts. Here are some ways I turn off the brain decoder.

1. Drink coffee. When desperate, eat a cookie. Yesterday I complained about my weight being too high, and this is exactly why. When I'm on a deadline and am forced to work into the wee hours of the night, I have to do what it takes to stay awake. An alert brain will have a better chance of catching mistakes. A sleepy brain will start decoding like crazy. There have been times when I've proofed late into the night, and the next morning when I read the text over again, I'm ashamed and appalled at how much I missed. Better yet, get a good night sleep and start again in the morning. Adapt said advice to your own biorhythms.

2. Go thrift shopping. If you've been working with the manuscript for some time, you need a break. How do you know? You've read the last paragraph 20 times and it still doesn't make sense. Take a break, even if you're on a deadline. You're going to be mad at yourself if you turn in a manuscript full of mistakes to the printer. Let's say you catch some of those mistakes at the printer review stage ("the blues"). Not only will you be in a bad mood, you're going to have to pay for each correction. What if those mistakes make it into the final book? Believe me, your readers will let you know you did a poor job of proofing. I've seen reviews on Amazon.com that could make you cry.

3. Get a pair of fresh eyes. Because of funding issues, authors will try the DIY approach to proofing. I really do understand about being broke, but in the long run, you're shooting yourself in the foot if you sacrifice quality. Your friends and cousins might buy your first book to support you, but you're only going to get repeat business and word-of-mouth buzz if you develop a reputation for quality and excellence.

If you wrote and edited the book, I guarantee, you're no longer objective. If you can't afford a good editor (which is a whole 'nother issue), you must at least hire a good proofreader, someone who does it for a living. I learned this lesson the hard way. Even professional writers and editors need a good proofreader. But if you must proof your own book, at least ask a couple of friends to read it as well. Tell them to look specifically for typos. Otherwise they'll come up with all kinds of ways to rewrite your book, and at this stage, that's not what you want.

4. Stare at the page. This suggestion is totally unorthodox and borders on the insane, but I'll offer it anyway. Sometimes when I'm watching TV I'll have my manuscript on my lap. When the commercials come on, I'll turn the sound down and just stare at a page, especially one that feels a bit off. I may even doodle a bit in the margin. 

Suddenly, dramatically, a typo will leap from the page, startling me with the full brunt of its inaccuracy. How did I miss that! The brain has just gone holographic. I don't know the science behind it, but I believe the subconscious mind records everything – every letter, period, and question mark. If you trust that off, intuitive feeling, the mind will sort through what it remembers, and the truth will come to light.

5. Don't skim. Where's the fire? Simmer down now. Read slowly, carefully. Read aloud. Take deep breaths as you read each line. Use a bookmark to read one line at a time. Moving your fingers or a pen slowly under the words will help you focus and slow down. 

6. Don't depend on your memory. If you're quoting other sources, by all means, proof against the original material. If you proof without checking the original source, you're going to miss something, and it may be important. It's amazing how a misplaced comma can create an entirely different meaning from what was intended. When quoting others, strive for perfection. Make sure your every word and punctuation mark corresponds exactly to the original.

7. Be bored. If the text is too entertaining, your pleasure-seeking brain will start decoding vast passages and the next thing you know, you've forgotten to proof the chapter. Then you'll have to start all over again. Ugh. 

Now if it gets too boring, that can be a problem, too. Sip coffee. Get up and stretch. Do Leslie Sansone's 5 minute walk

To do a good proofing job, your brain must stay awake and focused on the words in front of you. Don't be seduced by the narrative or story. Focus on the details, word by word.

Donna Marie

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