For a long time, I've been intending to write a piece on proofreading. Partly because I think there are some useful points for writers (and proof readers), and partly because it drives me crazy, and also because sometimes it can be incredibly funny. Apologies for any authors who recognise their mistakes below - you shall all remain anonymous, and I hope you don't mind me quoting the examples...
- All writers seems confused over Mum/mum and Dad/dad (or Mom & Pop if you feel like going all American). In a typical short story collection, this error can crop up fifty or sixty times or more. So let's be very clear: you only use a capital if it is a name: "Can you come here, Mum?". If you are referring to a role or not using the word as a name, then it is lower case, as in "...his mum was gorgeous, if you liked women with beehive haircuts." Before anyone gets too smart on me, yes you would also use it as a capital at the beginning of a sentence :)
- Another capital problem: is it Post Office or post office? In this case, again, it depends on whether it is a name or not. The Middleton Cheney Post Office would have capitals, but "he would rob a post office every day before lunch," does not require them.
- Now one for the proof-readers. Let's say you find a word like 'refection', which is clearly missing the letter l, and should be "reflection". If you are particularly sharp, you may find the same mistake later in the chapter - good job! My question is this: why did you not then do a global search and identify the 12 other occasions when this mistake occurred throughout the book? A basic piece of knowledge I've picked up in proof-reading is that if someone has a habitual spelling or typing problem, it will come up more than once or twice. Use the global search. (If you, as an author, know some of your common mistakes, you could save everyone a lot of time and effort by doing that search yourself).
- Proof-readers like to use a set of arcane symbols that nobody else understands, and when they do write notes they tend to be short and sparse. This can make for some very bizarre and comical statements, taken out of context. My personal favourite was the recent one I spotted, scrawled in the margin, "Insert liquorice before cat". The mind boggles.
- Check your spelling, especially for unfamiliar words. There are some things that Microsoft (or your word processor of choice) will find for you, so use it and check everything. A conch shell is spelt without an e, sherbet only has one 'r' (bet not bert), and so forth. There are some mistakes though, that you will need to rely on friends/proof-readers to find. I had no idea that I was mis-spelling brooch (by using the verb broach) throughout one of my first short stories. Where a word can be spelt two ways, you are in great danger of not being helped out by spellchecker, beware!
- Has she ever had sex? This was one of my favourite comments, this time by the author who was reviewing the proof-reader's comments on his text. There was a certain story that contained some clear sexual references, and one sentence in question referred to a certain use of latex. The proof-reader had remarked that 'readers might not know what this means', to which the author had replied 'Proof-readers that have never had sex might not know what this means...'
- Style is hard to proof-read. I would encourage authors to develop their own style. I would encourage proof-readers to try and hear that style. We had one writer in particular whose characters have a very distinctive way of talking, using slang, and it works very well. However, the proof-reader was forever trying to turn the language back into the Queen's English, which was very frustrating for everyone involved. The corrections may have been grammatically correct, but that missed the point. Writer's understand that in speech people often drop connecting words, if only proof-readers understood that too...
- Mantelpiece or Mantlepiece? Sometimes I have to spend half an hour on the internet trying to figure out how a word should be spelt. There may be cultural differences (US and UK is a perennial nightmare, especially as an English person living in America and using a UK laptop with the US character set), or historical differences - when words change their spelling over time. I'm not sure if I have a good answer for this, but I would ask you to be consistent. If you decide daemon is spelt with an 'a', then please stick with it throughout your book.
- Song titles should probably be in italic. If you're going to put them in quotation marks instead, then choose single or double, and again, be consistent. Song lyrics are a disaster, from a copyright perspective. I have used them, and in my short story collection you will find the attribution at the back of the book, which took me months to secure, and far more money than you would imagine for a single sentence. You can find author's warnings about this topic all over the internet. Once bitten... I never use song lyrics in my stories anymore. If I need one, I make it up.
- One last tip. In Microsoft Word, you can select all of the text and choose the language. Quite often, you will find that if you have pulled a variety of stories into one collection, some of them may have different 'languages'. I've found English-American, English-International, Turkish, Italian, and several other peculiar varieties of language as the default for individual paragraphs. This can happen if you have used a template, or cut and paste something from the web, and so on. The challenge with that is that you won't get an accurate spell-check. It's a good idea to select all of the text in your document, and set the language to your language of choice. Then you can do a final run through looking at any spell-check and grammar errors.
Final point. I love the work proof-readers do. One of my authors recently checked a book and found zero errors. The proof-reader found over 50. There is a definite skill, and mindset, for this role. All of our books would be far worse without the work they do. My tips above are for authors and proof-readers to help them work together better. Keep up the good work!
P.S. What if I told you there were 5 deliberate errors in this short blog post, could you find them...?