Visit this blog's 'Write a book' category page for previous posts in this series.
Receiving your fully laid out book back from the designer is often the first time it feels like a 'real thing'. Even though all you get is an electronic file – usually a PDF – it looks like a real book for the first time.
But the job's not done yet. From the outset I have talked about the fact that a book is different from most other writing projects. It needs to be done right. More than right. It needs to be done as perfectly as possible. So the next step – proofreading – is as important as any other.
Proofreading is not copyediting. Yes, there are similarities of course. But where copyediting is like the final quality control check on a car (checking that nothing is missing, and that everything is in the right place), proofreading is like the final detailing before delivery – making sure your book really shines.
In a perfect world, editing will have got the text of your book into perfect shape. Proofreading will just be about finding glitches introduced during the design and layout process. In practice you will still find pesky typos at the proofreading stage, but the focus will, hopefully, be more on the layout than on the words.
Don't read. Look.
By this point you will probably have read your book so many times that you are thoroughly tired of it. That can be a good thing. When proofreading, you want to be 'looking' at the words rather than reading them. When we read we scan and tend to skip over words. When proofreading it is all about the detail, and often typos will be hiding in places that are so 'obvious' you can't believe you haven't noticed them before.
One trick some people use is to proofread backwards, forcing you to look at the detail rather than reading the text. You are looking for an extra space, a missing word, a misplaced line break, the same word accidentally repeated. This is the stuff of the fine-toothed comb.
Make multiple sweeps
In addition to the text, proofreading should also involve: checking chapter headings and sub-headings; checking the 'running headers' at the top of the page; checking the page numbers; cross-referencing the table of contents and the page numbers; verifying illustrations and their captions, if used; verifying all numbering ... and so on. Rather than try and see all of these at once, it pays to sweep through the proof multiple times, checking one area on each sweep. You'll need to do the same with the book's cover.
Get a second opinion
Like copyediting, proofreading is hard to do properly when you are very close to a project – which you obviously are being the author. It is certainly worth doing yourself, but it is also a good idea to involve someone else. It's less important that this is a professional, though it is still a good idea. But someone who you trust as detail oriented could be quite effective too.
Keep changes minimal
Your designer will appreciate it if the changes you make at the proofreading stage are kept to a minimum. This is not the time to be rewriting slabs of your work. The laid-out book is not a word-processing document: any major change that involves repaginating (inserting or removing pages) will be time consuming for the designer and risks introducing a new round of errors.
Go three rounds
You'll generally need to go back to the designer two or three times. The first round of proofreading will find most of the glitches. The second round is mostly to check that the designer has understood your corrections and made them accurately. (Don't re-proof the whole book at this stage: focus on checking that the original errors have been dealt with.) The final round should be very minor, just double-checking the previous round's corrections.
Producing a book that is entirely error free is very hard to do. On the other hand, a dedicated approach to proofreading should result in a book that is very close to perfect, with one or two typos, at most, sneaking through.