Books are beasts. Huge and often unwieldy. Novellas can range from 25,000 to 70,000 words; novels from 70,000 to north of 120,000 words. So there’s plenty of scope for missing mistakes when you write and self-publish one.
The bigger the word count, the greater the chance that you’ve made (and missed) errors such as misspelled words, missing words, duplicated words, inconsistencies and wayward formatting.
If you plan to self-publish a book on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace or any other platform, you might not have the luxury of working with an editor who can bang your manuscript into shape. You might not have the cash to hire a professional proofreader to give it a final polish. You’ll probably be doing all this yourself.
And that’s OK. You CAN do it yourself. Here are some of the ways that I’ve found to stamp out screw-ups in a book before you publish it. Maybe they can work for you…
1. ‘Prove’ before you ‘proof’
In bread making, you typically ‘prove’ your dough before you bake it. In other words, you let the dough rest for a while, so that it can ferment and rise.
It’s useful to build a similar ‘proving’ phase into a self-publishing process. It’s not complicated. In my case, it involves nothing more than ignoring my manuscript for several days – typically a week. Although the time period might be longer if the word count is higher.
Why do this? Because by the time a book has been written and gone through several rounds of edits, you’ve usually become too close to the text. You’ve subconsciously memorised words and sentences, making it difficult to proofread them with any objectivity.
Consequently, when you start to check through it again, you often read what you expect to see, not what’s written on the page. The more you see a recognisable word or phrase – a character name, a place, a fact, a quote, a person – the more you’re tempted to skip over it when you encounter it again. You assume that each mention of it is correct, even if it isn’t.
When a book is left to prove, I usually try to engage my brain in something else in an effort to reduce the familiarity that I’ve built up with the words I’ve written. This makes it easier to come back with a fresher eye and to (hopefully) spot errors or inconsistencies that I might previously have missed.
2. Develop a style guide (or story bible)
Consistency is crucial, whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction because mistakes stand out. For non-fiction, a style guide can help you keep track of how you use language. For example: words that are often misused or misspelled, formatting rules (i.e. when to capitalise words and when not to) and punctuation prompts.
It’s a professional approach to content continuity. Newspapers, magazines and large websites all use style guides. If you plan to self-publish a non-fiction book, you might find it useful to join them.
Think of a story bible as a style guide for fiction projects. It can often be difficult to keep track of everything that you’ve written in a novel – the colour of a character’s eyes, how many bullets are left in a gun, what the inside of a certain location looks like.
By jotting down this information into a separate file (the aforementioned story bible), you can easily find and refer to these details and ensure that your descriptions remain consistent and accurate.
3. Know when to stop editing
This is a hard one to stick to. But by the time you get to the proofreading stage of a publishing process, you’re not supposed to be rewriting chunks of text or adding in new paragraphs. Proofreading is an error-hunt, pure and simple. So you should be on the lookout for spelling goofs, incorrect formatting, missing page numbers, and so on.
If you edit something at this stage, you run the risk of creating new errors as you chop and slice the content. Not only that, you’re taking a step backwards into editing territory. This can bog you down in an endless cycle of polishing and re-polishing, writing and rewriting that can trap your book in a publishing limbo. At some point, you’ve got to stop and consider your book ‘good enough’.
4. Change the flow
When I sat down to check through my third book, Don’t Trust Your Spell Check, I was desperate to find a process that (a) wouldn’t take long, and (b) would be effective at spotting errors. While I didn’t manage the former, I hope I nailed the latter. Here’s what I came up with…
First, I obviously checked the manuscript in the software that I used to write it – Scrivener (I can’t recommend it highly enough). Then, once I’d made any changes, I exported the whole thing into a PDF for a more old-fashioned proofreading session. As a former magazine editor, I was trained to print out pages, scribble corrections on them in red Biro, before finally making any amendments on screen.
That said, I don’t want to print out 150+ pages of A4 every time I want to proofread a book draft. My solution is an iPad app called GoodNotes, which enables me to view the PDF manuscript exported by Scrivener (see screenshot below) and digitally scribble on it with a stylus. To my mind, it’s the next best thing to a physical print out.
Crucially, by proofreading pages in a PDF, the layout of the text is different to the layout in Scrivener. The font is bigger. There are margins. Both of these break the familiar sentence structure in unfamiliar places, making the manuscript look and feel quite different.
Re-flowing the text like this is a simple but effective way to spot errors you might have missed on a previous read-through. You still see the same words, but the altered layout forces you to read them differently.
You can go a step further by outputting your book to a Kindle .mobi file, emailing it to a Kindle email address (you can find this in your Amazon account via Your Account > Manage your Kindle) and proofreading your manuscript again on a Kindle or in a Kindle app.
Again, the layout will be different. New. Best of all, the highlighting functionality built into the Kindle is an easy way to mark up any lingering errors that you spot on your next read-through.
5. Read your content out loud
One of the proofreading tricks that I mention in 5 Common Proofreading Mistakes Bloggers and Web Writers Make is reading your content out loud. It might sound a silly approach, and a lengthy undertaking at that. But authors like Joanna Penn find it invaluable.
“You can find inconsistencies across the story and continuation issues,” she says, “e.g. a character is drinking tea and then coffee, or you’ve described a scene and then you realize it’s night-time. It improves dialogue to hear it spoken out loud. When your characters are actually speaking, you realize they wouldn’t say it quite that way. You find typos and mis-placed words that your brain skipped over when reading on the page.”
Reading content out loud gives you a more accurate feel for the rhythm and pacing of your sentences and paragraphs. It’s especially useful for testing and improving dialogue before you self-publish.
As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once said: “dialogue has a sound, it either goes clink or clonk. When perfectly executed, it is like music, with a specific tempo and flow.”
And Sorkin knows what he’s talking about.