The Editing Process: Proofreading

Updated on March 1, 2024.

Now that you’ve gone through the big stages of editing—developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting—you’d think your book would be ready for the bookshelves of your local library or bookstore. However, there’s still one stage left that is probably the most important.

According to Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (2019), proofreading is defined in two ways:

  1. Reading typeset copy to correct errors introduced during the typesetting, formatting, or file conversion of the final document and to identify any serious errors not caught during copyediting.
  2.  Proofreading in which the proofreader either has (comparison proofing) or has not (blind proofing) been supplied with an earlier version of the text to compare the current version against.

Translating that for the layperson: an author sends the printed version of their book (usually as a PDF) to the proofreader to ensure that each word, sentence, and paragraph displays as intended without any errors having been introduced during the conversion process.

The only corrections at this stage are for egregious errors. Misspellings, incorrect end-of-line hyphenations, and orphans (where a line ends before the paragraph’s indent space) and widows (the line at the top of a page less than three-quarters’ width of the paragraph) are primarily the realm of proofreaders.

Essentially proofreaders read the text as though they were the consumer. They do this in a multitude of ways, but primarily using the manuscript’s style sheet, the house style guide (or the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) if there is no house style guide), and the latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

The style sheet lists numerous pieces of vital information like how certain names, words, and acronyms are displayed, how numbers are treated, and specific grammar or structure rules. CMOS offers more generalized options of all these, which is why the style sheet/guide always takes precedence.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is the dictionary of choice for the book publishing industry, and can either be used in hardcopy version or through Merriam-Webster’s official dictionary site. It’s where proofreaders go to see how words are supposed to be broken across lines. For example:

  • waf·fle·stomp·er
  • fa·ce·tious
  • neb·bish

 (Yes, those are all real words. Look them up if you don’t believe me.)

Although the previous levels of editing described all require focus, proofreading is not for the weak at heart, either. Proofreaders can’t skim through the text. They must check at the lowest level of writing—literally letter by letter, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, and line break by line break—to catch as many errors as possible before a book is sent to final printing.

Not only is the author’s credibility on the line, but so is the proofreader’s. Lisa Poisso, editor and story coach, advises that “a 95-percent accuracy rate makes a respectable benchmark for editing.”

While that leftover 5 percent may seem like a high number, in a typical novel of 80,000-100,000 words, even the most meticulous eyes can miss a few things. As long as those mistakes are few and far between, and especially not in the midst of crucial scenes, most readers will forgive the odd mistake or three.

So now that you’ve gone through the four major stages of editing, you can finally move forward in the publishing process. Book cover design, marketing, and release are the realm beyond editors and proofreaders, but you can feel confident that any editor(s) or proofreader(s) you’ve involved in your process have worked their hardest to ensure the inside copy is as clean as possible. That confidence will take us all a long way!

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