How to Edit and Proofread a Manuscript

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Copyright 2009 by Morris Rosenthal

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Costs and Editing Checklist for Books

Most writers do a poor job editing themselves, even if they are excellent editors when working on other authors' books. Some of us are so bad that we can actually pay attention to the grammar warnings the word processor gives! Never try to cut corners on basic editing costs - poor proofreading and layout beats poor editing any day. People refer to edits with a mix of terminology, which I'm going to reduce to three basic categories: copy edits, hard edits, and tech edits. All manuscript editing should be done on double spaced paper, with a red pen, even if the editor will be entering those changes into a manuscript using a track changes option.

A copy edit is basically one step up from proofreading. Where the scope of the proofreader is generally limited to spotting typographical errors, misspellings and really gross errors in presentation, the copy editor adds grammar to the mix. One of my own special sins is using split infinitives, and when the copy editor catches them, I often change them back. Copy editors generally follow a set of hard and fast rules about how to use punctuation and terminology, and they don't pay a lot of attention to the overall structure of your composition or even the meaning of a sentence. You can give a copy editor a page of text written by a college English professor and get it back with three or four changes on every line! In other words, copy editors find their niche in bringing manuscripts in line with big publisher guidelines. Copy editors for large trades typically enforce gender neutral, politically-correct agendas, with maybe some cookie-cutter style guidelines thrown in. Due to the unfortunate fact that copy editors, particularly in the word processor age, often introduce errors, inexperienced publishers are probably better off skipping the copy edit and getting multiple proofreaders for the money.

A hard edit is when the editor is asked how to improve the manuscript. This isn't cheating on the author's part, it's an honest admission that it's impossible to read your own work through somebody else's eyes. While a copy editor or a proofreader can do their work one sentence at a time, a hard editor should read the whole book through once before trying to edit it. Among the vague guidelines I gave my editor on how to edit the first book I hired her for, I asked her to make sure I didn't repeat myself. Her feedback, after reading the book, was "You don't repeat yourself enough!" The hard edit can result in suggestions to combine or eliminate major threads in the book, to add more explanatory text in some places, and to return to college and take an English course. Wholesale rework of paragraph structure is also common, and a hard edit often ends up including most of the benefits of a copy edit in one shot. I don't think I'd trust an editor who charges by the page, our editor costs us $25/hour, and it's a good deal. Manuscript editing isn't a substitute for proofreading on a finished, typeset, proof copy. It's just too easy to introduce mistakes when actually rewriting text or moving words around.

A technical edit is somewhat akin to "fact checking" and, depending on the manuscript, can end up being exactly the same thing. Some technical edits go far beyond simply reading a text with an expert eye and picking out flaws in logic or out-and-out mistakes. Technical editors of computer books, for example, are required to verify computer code in the book and on any accompanying CD. Technical editors, (like myself, for example) will often chip in with, "You're explaining it all wrong" or "That's a really dumb thing to be telling people." Technical editors on poorly written books often turn into de-facto unpaid co-authors. Not all non-fiction requires a technical edit and technical editing is not limited to "technical" subjects. For example, a cookbook editor who spots a recipe calling for a half cup of salt instead of a half-cup of sugar, or cooking a turkey two minutes for each pound, is essentially performing a technical edit. Technical editors must be experts in their field, not in English grammar. Technical editors are traditionally paid by the book for large books and by the page ($2 or $3) for short books, which lowers publisher costs.

Proofreading should be performed by a number of good readers, the more who fit your production schedule, the merrier. The manuscript should be given to proofreaders in the final, typeset, form. Aside from the possibility of errors being introduced by whomever does the typesetting, it's just easier for most people to pick out errors in a text that looks like a real book instead of double-spaced paper. Proofreading the text of the book is the primary job of the proofreaders; most won't see the book cover until the book is produced. Most publishers no longer insist that proofreaders use the special proofreading marks, which is fine, since I never learned them. Proofreaders should really restrain themselves from commenting on iffy grammar and stick to mistakes. I tend to hire college students (English majors) for proofreading, along with volunteers, and this proofreading costs $10/hour (you can pay less if you're cheap).

Book Checklist before Printing

Once your manuscript is finalized and your book design is completed, you send the electronic files off to an offset or print-on-demand printer. They'll either give you the option to pay a few bucks extra for a "proof" or "galley" print for final inspection, or send one for free as part of their process. TAKE THE TIME TO READ IT. I don't think I've made every mistake you can possibly make publishing books, but I'll probably get there eventually. I incurred a couple thousand dollars in "skipped inspection" costs in my self-publishing career, so the following book preparation checklist is based on experience.

  • Cover - Yes, you've seen the cover a hundred times, probably approved a final version from a cover designer or artist already, but check it again. Make sure the title is spelled right, make sure it's centered on the book properly and you aren't losing some of the image over the edges. Make sure the ISBN number on the back is the correct one for your book. Same for the price. Proofread the back cover text a final time.
  • Spine - I blew this one myself to the tune of $900. My cover designer misspelled a word in the book's title on the spine, and I didn't catch it until the book jackets were printed. Make sure the spine text is centered on the spine and not creeping onto one of the covers.
  • Book Jacket (Hardcover) - Hardcover book jackets with inside flaps must be proofread again. I have a typo in the back flap text of that same hardcover jacket that I redid for the spine typo. I couldn't justify redoing it again for two repeated words in the flap text, but it still bothers me. Make sure that the case-binder or whoever is producing the actual cover of the hardcover gets the title on the spine correct as well.
  • Margins and fonts - Make sure the margins in the proof agree with the margins in your design. I have a book where they don't; fortunately the margins were large enough that the text didn't disappear into the binding. Make sure the fonts are the ones you selected, and more importantly, that they look nice. Check the top and bottom as well, with a ruler. If you find a mistake, don't be surprised if the printer tells you not to worry about it because the equipment they use for one-off isn't the same as the equipment they use for production. However, get your objection on record so if the real book is screwed-up, you won't have to pay for it.
  • Headers and footers - I had to halt production of a POD book after I had already approved it because I missed typos introduced by the book designer in the headers of two chapters. Since a header error appears on every other page in the chapter, or throughout the book, it's too serious of an error to pass on. While this didn't cost me any cash, it did cost me several hundred dollars in cancelled sales. The experience helped push me into doing my own book designs, as I'm perfectly capable of making such mistakes without help.
  • Chapter headings, TOC, Index - I have a book with a minor error in a chapter heading. I don't remember who introduced the error, but it was certainly my fault for not spotting it in the proof. I didn't even look at the proof, just approved it, in the theory that I'd seen it all a hundred times before. Same goes for the Table of Contents and the Index.
  • Picture Placement and Descriptions - Make sure that your pictures all appear in the right places. Depending on the technology used by the printer, this could be an easy mistake for them to introduce. Also make sure that the picture captions are correct, and proofed.
  • Proof in final form - Sit down and read through your whole book in the final proof or galley form. I don't care if you're so sick of it you want to puke. After a friend caught the Header mistakes mentioned above and I had to halt production, I took the time to read the rest of the book and found a half dozen other errors. I also made a few "final" edits and probably introduced as many problems as I fixed.
  • Check the tables! I made that error in my last book, the one I'm pushing here:-) Two editors, three proofreaders, plus another volunteer and myself all failed to pick up obvious errors in two different tables. After all, who actually reads table data? The cost to fix them was only $40 (joys of print-on-demand), but costs in publishing are measured in more than just dollars, and we may well have lost an early course adoption for a summer Masters in Publishing program since the review copy we sent them had these obvious errors in it.

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