Proofing Tips

Here you will find guidelines and tips to help when checking any text document, in particularly for prose to be published. It is not comprehensive, and only covers a fraction of what is involved in checking, proofing and editing a book. It is intended the list will grow over time with examples. Remember, what is acceptable practice or standard in one country may not be in another.

  • Use single word spacing after a full stop/period. Set your word-processing program to default to single space or, as in Word, the Auto Correct setting. Use Search/Replace to double check and correct any double or treble spaces. There are technical reasons for doing this which I won’t elaborate on here.
  • Study a few conventionally published books by the major publishing houses, to see and understand how they have handled things such as dialogue, layout and style, punctuation and formatting, and use as a guide if you are unsure what to do.
  • Never rely solely on spellcheckers. Grammar checkers are next to useless, as they cannot distinguish between correct use of words, particularly homonyms (their, there, there are, they’re, or here and hear; where, wear or ware; plain or plane etc). Use Search/Replace to check on word use, particularly on it’s (contraction of it is) and itstheir and there.
  • Learn and know your weakness words in spelling and add them to the auto correct. When typing, add character names to the Auto Correct, ie bb to type in Barbara. This ensures your character names are always spelt the same way throughout. There are many words that can be spelled various ways. Which ever way you choose, ie if you want to spell “realize” with a z, that’s fine; just ensure you spell that word with a z all the way through the document. The big rule is: Consistency and Standardization.
  • Read the text out aloud to yourself, or send document to Kindle etc and read it back in voice mode. It is a bit mechanical but so useful. Or, even better, invest in a voice mode program for your PC, ie TextAloud. This is inexpensive, has English and American voices, male and female, and other languages available. If your text sounds jilted or prolonged when read aloud, it will be even more jarring to the reader.
  • Check for one thing at a time throughout the document. Work from the back to the front, sentence and paragraph at a time. This prevents losing yourself in the story again or tweaking so that you forget the task in hand. Don’t try to do the whole book at once.
  • Understand the meaning and use of phrases before you use them. You would not believe the amount of times I have read “tow the line” when, in fact, it is “toe the line”.
  • Quotation marks. Double or Single? It doesn’t matter which, as long as you are consistent throughout. If using double, ensure any single word or quote within the document is also within double quotes. Do not use double on dialogue and single everywhere else, or vice versa. The only exception is if you have a word or statement within a dialogue or quotation (a quote within a quote, ie: “I didn’t do it because he said to me: ‘If you do I’ll kill you’, so I wasn’t going to argue.”).
  • Put each piece of dialogue on a new line every time, unless it is interspersed with a tag line or action by that same person. Avoid constant use of he said/she said tag lines especially in a two-sided conversation. Once order of speech is established, it should be clear from the writing and words used who is talking. Ensure all dialogue has opening and closing quotation marks.
  • Punctuation in dialogue. The final comma or full stop/period in dialogue should always be inside the closing quote. If using a full stop, ensure the next sentence begins with a capital letter. If a comma ends a piece of dialogue, ensure a lowercase letter is used on the next word unless it is someone’s name. If a speech tag is before dialogue, a comma should be used, not a colon. A colon can be used before a quotation or indirect speech.
  • Exclamation marks should only be used in dialogue on single words or short phrases (eg “Ouch!” “Oh my God!”). The words themselves in dialogue and any speech tag should be enough to show tone and meaning (“Get out of here,” she screamed.) Do not use double exclamation marks, questions marks or an exclamation and question mark together. You wouldn’t use a comma and a full stop, would you? A piece of dialogue is either a question or a statement, it cannot be both. The ampersand (&) should only be used on things like company names, eg Dombie & Sons.
  • Numbers should always be in words including centuries, decades, age, measurement, time, although it is acceptable to use numbers on specific years, ie “It was in 1925…”. Numbers after twenty should be hyphenated.
  • Apostrophe use. Big minefield if unsure. Apostrophes are not used to pluralise words (thus: TVs, CDs, MDs, CVs, bananas). An apostrophe denotes possession: John’s hat, which is a contraction of the hat that belongs to John. It is also used to show where letters have been omitted as in clipped speech, eg  youn’ ’uns. An extra check is needed to ensure you haven’t put in a closed quote mark when using clipped speech in dialogue – another good reason for using double quote marks.
  • Use a ruler to follow text line by line. This will concentrate your eye to the words on that line only to spot any error.
  • Check manuscript for consistency in Italicised words or phrases used. Italics should be used to emphasise a particular word and on foreign, unfamiliar words. Titles of books, films, newspapers, songs and paintings can also be in Italic as a matter of choice.
  1. Great post, Kit, with some extremely useful information. As both an author and a freelance editor, I come across so many writers who seem to think they don’t have to bother following any kind of rules with their writing. I’m sure they don’t realize how difficult they make it for the reader. These rules are not there simply to satisfy the pedants among us, but to enhance our enjoyment and understanding of the written word. And when you consider the number of writers producing work that is not in their native language, these rules become even more important. I think they’re quite fun too (although I’m sure that makes me sound like a geek). I’m a UK writer who had to alter her book to fit a US publisher; some of the differences in style and grammar were surprising, and many made me smile.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts on this subject.

    • Hello Cas. Some very valued observations you have made, and very well put. I fully concur with your comment and pleased you visited. If you’ve any tips, especially for writing and for American markets, I would value hearing them.
      Great to meet you.

      Kit

  2. Diana mentioned your post on Facebook. Thanks for the comprehensive list. I find reading my MS backwards works very well for me, since I get easily lost in the narrative.

  3. Some great tips here, especially proofing it from back to front. What a great idea. Thank you.

  4. Brilliant idea to have these rules in one place, Kit. I can’t tell you how long it took me to automatically use one instead of two spaces after a full stop. I used to be lazy about putting characters’ names in auto correct too until my lovely editor asked of a Polish character “How are we spelling his name? You have three variations.” Oops.

    • Hi Shirley. Am sure it took you as long as me to get used to single spaces. Having had to type and key countless reference books for Oxford Uni Press and the EU over the years, it was hard going until I found the auto correct and search and replace, and I still use the search button even though typing singles is second nature to me now. I read a book not so long ago that had the main protagonist’s name spelled three different ways in the same paragraph. Am afraid that book wasn’t never read to it’s end, and ended up being used as a doorstop.
      Kit

  5. This is clear and helpful, but I would question three points that you make:
    1. Double and single quotation marks: my understanding is that one should use the opposite for quotes within a quote. Also acceptable when distinguishing direct speech from ‘other’ instances if the direct speech is in double quotes.
    2. Exclamation marks may be used where there is more than one word – but they should not be used indiscriminately. See Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
    3. Speech tags before dialogue – if at start of sentence, colon is acceptable.

    I think that while there are some unbreakable rules, others are a matter of taste. Consistency, however, is everything.

    Might you consider use of italics next?

    • Hello, and thank you for commenting. On the question of quotes, yes, if you are using double you use single for a quote within quote. However, you should use the same type of quotation mark for any quote/dialogue, whether direct or indirect within any one document. Publishing houses have a house-style: double or single quotes, and if you study mainstream publishing or the press, you will see this is invariably the case and the style adopted by major authors. There are still many more guidelines on quotations that I will be including.
      What should be avoided with exclamation marks is their over-use. Some writers seem to use them on every item of dialogue without understanding their true value. And, of course, you can use on phrases. The emphasis here is on paucity.
      The use of colons on speech tags before dialogue has, for some reason, become common practice but this is incorrect; a comma should be used for speech tags before dialogue, a colon when showing indirect speech or a quotation, particularly if that quotation is placed on a new line, and occasionally for emphasis.
      Much in writing and layout is a matter of taste, I agree, with few hard and fast rules.
      I will be including the use of italics along with others soon as this is one that many writers need some pointers on.
      All the best
      Kit

  6. Some excellent tips there, Kit. I come from a generation where we used typewriters and so getting out of the two spaces after a full stop was a difficult habit to break. I’m getting there though.

    • It took me a long time, too, to get out of two space habit. Thank goodness for Search and Replace facility on wordprocessing packages and Auto Correct. Thanks for commenting and do drop by again. More tips will be added in time.
      Kit

  7. This is really informative and helpful. I know the value of reading work aloud and it is a really useful editing tool but hadn’t thought of using Kindle. I might investigate TextAloud. It is very different reading your own work aloud from hearing it being read. I look forward to future tips.

    • Thank you, Mary. Although both voices are a bit mechanical, they certainly help. TextAloud is played through Word so I find it more useful and you can slow the speed and alter the pitch.
      Best Wishes.
      Kit.

  8. This is a very generous post, as well as informative and extremely useful. I really wish every Indie author would take note – we owe it to our readers and to ourselves to do the very best job we possibly can. When a reader gives up in disgust on a sloppily formatted self-pub book with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors littered like confetti, he or she may well decide never to risk reading a self-pub book again.
    I’m copying and pasting this post – and look forward to further instalments – thank you Kit! (I hope you’ll forgive me that one rogue exclamation mark – I think it’s warranted…)

    • Thank you, Gilly. I do so agree. And as to the rogue exclamation mark – forgiven. No doubt, there are one or two slips in my post, and I’ve been copy editing and proofing for over thirty years and still miss my own mistakes even if I can spot someone else’s a hundred yards away. Which all goes to show you, cannot proof your own work and that proofreaders are vital to the writing and publishing process. The beauty today is that, if an error is pointed out in an ebook, it can be readily corrected. Unlike paper books.

  9. Always useful to re-remind ourselves of these basic, simple rules. I always read what i have written out loud. it makes such a difference. Fantastic Kit.

    • Thank you, Niamh. I think the reading aloud is so fundamental, whether to yourself or to a group and also boosts one’s confidence in speaking, useful training when giving public readings should the opportunity arise.

  10. All extreamly useful – thank you Kit!

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