Proofing the Proof

I’ve read that proofreading a manuscript is best done with a printed copy rather than on a computer screen. The reason has to do with the way in which the eye-brain connection handles the task of processing the words, and that it’s easier to catch errors when they are on paper.

Over the years of toil with my novel, I’ve generally not bought into that theory, primarily because in practical terms my experience didn’t validate it. A far more relevant factor in determining the effectiveness of a self-edit seemed to be familiarity. I’ve read every sentence in one version or another so many times that my brain would jump ahead of my eyes and fill in with what it assumed was coming rather than wait for my eyes to get there and find out for themselves. In case you were wondering, that’s a layman’s explanation.

Another reason is that I exist on the Scrooge end of the frugality scale. A 100,000-word, one-sided, double-spaced, 12-point manuscript with one-inch margins eats up a bunch of paper, not to mention ink. Which, in case you didn’t know it, is the most expensive element on the planet by weight. And yes, I know that’s an esoteric tidbit of no interest to anyone else, but it’s always amazed me that printer manufacturers can offer their products for so little and still make a profit. It’s called “the ink-jet business model,” and a lot of wealthy people are living the life of luxury with the net proceeds from selling printer ink to you, me, and millions of other consumers. But I digress.

Another aspect of proofreading is deciding what your objectives are before you begin. One of my writer acquaintances is a professional editor, whose website here describes her services as: substantive/developmental, line edit, and copy edit. Reading the descriptions of how these editing levels differ offers valuable insight into the process  when conducted by an expert.

It also raises the question of whether writers should expect to self-edit their work effectively. That determination in turn requires a definition of “effective.” If writing were a science, that might be possible. Absent a purely objective criteria, subjectivity plays a crucial role, and in one sense we’re right back where we started.

In the final analysis, cost became the driver in my decision. As with interior layout and cover design, I had more hours to invest than venture capital. Receipt of the proof trade paperback copy of my novel triggered an internal debate, of sorts, about whether I needed to proofread it, and if so, how carefully. The manuscript in all its formats has been scrubbed to death. How can there possibly be anything of significance remaining?

Luckily, the mental gymnastics of that justification ultimately failed. And in order to proceed with a final self-edit, I had to accept the fact that although my primary objective would be to look for errors in the copy, I couldn’t ignore the other two levels of editing.

It began with an imperative to myself: Don’t get wrapped up in the magnificence of your prose, the sentences you have come to love, the flying and crash investigation details so carefully crafted. Slow down. Try reading each sentence twice. Look at each word, every punctuation mark and space. Then read it again. Evaluate paragraphs for what they are, the building blocks of scenes, and look at each one in isolation to see if it works by itself, and then in relation to the adjacent paragraphs for how well it fits into the flow of the story. Accomplish the edit without undue interruption so that continuity issues will be more easily detected. And the biggie (probably an impossible goal), try to assess how a “cold” reader will experience the novel from the beginning through the middle and all the way to the end.

Without bending the cover back too far (it’s my baby, after all), I began with the title page and front matter and by the middle of page 2 got this strange feeling that something hadn’t looked right on page 1. What was it?

At first I concluded that my eyes were playing tricks on me, but further scrutiny focused on the fourth paragraph. Was it condensed text? Had the leading been inadvertently changed? What about the font?

I compared individual letters in the paragraph with the same letters in paragraphs three and five and couldn’t decide for certain, so I opened up the source file in InDesign, selected the Text Tool, and clicked in the body of paragraph four. Imagine my surprise to see Times New Roman 11-pt rather than 12-pt.

I realize that in the total scheme of things in this life, this is a tiny speck of nothingness. Unless you’re copy editing a 374-page book. Then it becomes a heart-stopper. If it took that much time to visually recognize a difference of one point, think of how long it’s going to take to place the insertion point in every paragraph in the novel and check the font size.

In that same paragraph I also found no space between the period at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. These two discoveries immediately shoved me head first into edit mode, and I’m glad it did. I found more than enough to justify the time it took.

Each change in the interior or cover files previously uploaded to Amazon’s print-on-demand service requires another CreateSpace review. I received notice of successful completion within about 12 hours and was offered the opportunity to approve the newest version with or without reviewing another proof copy. As you might imagine, a preordained decision resulted in an immediate order, this time for five copies. It may be time to recruit fresh eyes.

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