A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Novel, Part Eight – Proofreading
Updated: May 23
Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel yet? You are almost ready to start sending that manuscript out to agents, or self-publish your masterpiece.
Proofreading is the final stage of editing. Its purpose is to ensure mistakes are kept at an absolute minimum. Up to this point we have been looking at your entire novel at a macro level, but now it’s time to check it line by line. There are plenty of proofreaders you can hire if you struggle with this, but there are also things you can do to make it easier to do yourself. Ideally you will find as many errors as you can then pass it to someone to check again, either paid or unpaid. An extra set of eyes on your manuscript with be invaluable. This is slow and careful work. Don’t rush. It isn’t unusual to spend as much as 30 minutes on each page when you start out, although your speed is likely to improve over time.
1) Print it out. Yes I know that means a lot of ink and paper, but you will pick up more errors on a printed page than on a computer screen.
2) Use a ruler or blank paper to ensure you check one line at a time rather than skipping ahead.
3) Have a dictionary by your side and if you are in any doubt at all about whether you used the correct word, look it up. Your spellchecker will not flag it if it’s a real word, even if it means something entirely different to what you intended.
4) Learn the basics of grammar and punctuation. There are plenty of books on the subject if you can’t commit to a professional or degree level course on the subject.
What are you looking for?
Anything and everything that is incorrect. Mark it in red on your printed page and make the changes to your document later.
We may often find repeated words in our text, e.g. the the.
Check for spacing between words and especially after full stops. These should be standardised.
Inconsistencies of spelling – especially of names and words where alternative spellings are available.
Jumbled text – where either words in a sentence have been transposed or letters within a word.
Spelling – refer to your dictionary if you are in any doubt.
Using the wrong word, e.g. effect v affect, except v accept, there v they’re, alter v altar, whose v who’s and many, many others.
Indents, line spacing and changes of font.
Capitalisation – proper nouns usually start with capital letters, but common nouns do not.
Incorrect use of commas and other punctuation. We will discuss this in more detail in a moment.
Dialogue markers – he said, she said. More on this subject below.
Commas and semi-colons are sometimes used as though they are interchangeable, but they have different rules. A comma divides sentence fragments whereas a semi-colon divides full sentences (and could be replaced with a full stop) but is used to link two sentences together.
Literary conventions warn against the use of the exclamation mark in fiction. Many critics suggest this humble mark should be limited to dialogue.
Should we use a full stop or a comma at the end of quoted speech? I’m afraid that depends entirely on what follows the piece of dialogue. It might be easier to show an example.
‘I am leaving,’ Harriet said.
‘I am leaving.’
‘I am leaving.’ Harriet waved goodbye.
In the first instance what Harriet says and the fact that she said it are all one sentence and are divided by a comma. In the third and final instance Harriet’s speech and her action are two separate sentences and are divided by a full stop.
Does it matter?
Well to some readers it matters a great deal but, as long as what you have written makes sense, a lot of readers won’t care whether or not it follows arbitrary grammatical rules. So I suppose it depends on
a) who you are writing for, and
b) whether you care about getting it right.
As long as the story makes sense to the reader then you are doing it right, whether you are following standard grammar and spelling, using a legitimate variation, e.g. colloquial, or are creating your own rules that you use consistently. However, if your individual style means that readers cannot understand what you have written you have a problem.
Hopefully you feel ready to beat your novel into a shape that represents the very best work you can produce. It can be easy to become obsessed with perfection, but almost no books are completely error free. If you finish with a book that has maybe six errors over 300 pages, you’ve done well. If you have errors on every page then you are likely to turn readers off, however good your story may be. Errors can be very distracting for a reader. Try to minimise them, but at some point you need to let go or your book will never be read. Like most things in life, it is a balancing act. I’d like to quote Maya Angelou (albeit a little out of context) -
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I have to admit I am a little nervous about next week’s blog. We will be covering aspects that I am still learning for myself. If you have any suggestions or disagree with anything I have said, next week or in any other week, please feel free to use the comments box. With that disclaimer in place, next week we will be looking at delivering your finished novel, including – the relative merits of traditional vs self publishing; how to find an agent; how to snag a publisher; writing an elevator pitch and the dreaded synopsis. I will also encourage you to start writing something new.
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.
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