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When to Edit, and When to Proofread
One of the biggest frustrations I hear from editors and book layout people is that authors don’t understand what proofreading means.
As a simple definition, proofreading is reading an already completed and polished manuscript to look for final errors that may have been missed in editing. If the manuscript is ready for proofreading, then the errors found should be relatively minor and probably no more than one per page, hopefully much less. Proofreading does not include editing or rewriting.
Many editors have had an author come to them with a manuscript that they claim needs proofreading, but really needs editing. Editing is much more substantial than proofreading—it can include rewriting sentences, deleting unnecessary content, inserting new content, moving sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters, and correcting grammatical and punctuation errors. Many editors will distinguish between copyediting, developmental editing, or other types of editing. Hopefully a good editor will do everything for you, but remember that not all editors are created equal. You might find a great editor who can do developmental editing to improve your book’s content, develop your characters, or help you strengthen your plot, but they might not be as good at knowing the rules of commas, how to catch split infinitives or in correcting subject-pronoun agreement problems.
Every book needs editing. If an author says a book needs proofreading, it most likely needs editing, unless the author has already had someone else edit the book, and even then, only if that person is qualified as an editor.
Most editors will do a free sample edit of a few pages of a manuscript so that the author can see what needs to be done in terms of editing—sentence structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation—and once the sample edit is done, the author as will generally agree that an edit should be made, not just a correction, if the editor knows what he is doing. It doesn’t hurt to get a few editing samples before choosing an editor to make sure you find an editor who will give the book all the attention to detail it needs.
After the editor has finished editing the manuscript and the author is satisfied with the edits, it is important to find a third party who is really good at proofreading to review the manuscript to catch those few errors that the author and editor did not catch; your editor can correct for you, but a third set of eyes is never a bad idea. Just make sure the person is a qualified proofreader – your wife or best friend most likely isn’t.
Once proofreading is complete, the manuscript is finished and ready for layout. Here again, “proofreading” becomes a term that authors don’t understand and that can frustrate both the editor/proofreader and the layout person.
It has been said many times that no book is finished. We just choose at some point to let it go – which often means we believe it’s ready for publication. No book ever written was perfect, and no book was to everyone’s taste. You can create a beautifully written, grammatically correct book with perfect punctuation, but it can still be rewritten to make it better. The problem is that once the book is sent to the person in charge of the layout, the author must refrain from rewriting. The author must be absolutely sure that the book is ready for publication when it is sent to the person responsible for the layout. If it isn’t, keep editing and correcting. Just don’t do it once the book is sorted.
Shapers don’t read the books they shape; they are not editors or proofreaders and will not correct your spelling or other errors unless you find them and ask for them to be corrected.
The layout process involves converting the manuscript into a new program. Today, authors typically write books in Microsoft Word or another word processing program, and editors will edit the book in the same program. But when the book goes to the layout person, the text is converted into a design file, such as InDesign, a program created specifically for book design.
The layout person will send the proofs – the finished formatted book in pdf format (or sometimes on paper) – to the author for approval. At this stage, only a correction should be made. The PDF file is not the book, but a copy of the book and cannot be edited directly. I know many editors and layout people who have been extremely frustrated with authors who decide at this point that they need to insert sentences and paragraphs, reword phrases, and flip chapters. Once the author receives the proofs, whether as pdf or hard copy, the author should only look for typographical errors and any changes should be considered absolutely necessary. Only the layout person, not the editor, can make changes that the author requests, although all changes must be performed by the editor to ensure that grammatical errors that the author may not be aware of are not introduced in the text.
It can be time-consuming for everyone involved if the author decides to make proofreading changes other than fixing a few typos; a paper printout of the styled book should be marked or a separate document created recording all requested changes with page number and page layout for easy reference. The more corrections requested and the more extensive they are, the more likely it is that additional errors will be introduced into the book. Stylistic preferences are not considered corrections and should not be made at this stage – only correction of serious errors. In short, once the book is laid out, it’s no time to rewrite.
Many layout people, and especially print-on-demand grant publishers, will charge authors for any changes they make to the book because so many authors haven’t realized that once a book is laid out, rewriting is not appropriate . Other layout professionals will allow a certain number of revisions, such as twenty-five or fifty, for free, and anything over that will be charged per hour or per individual revision. Some layout specialists will even ask the author to make the changes in the Word document if a major rewrite is needed, then the book will have to be re-formatted and the author will be charged accordingly, as it may take less time for the person to layout to reshape the entire book rather than individually having to insert several hundred small changes – and again, remember that every correction made has the potential to introduce a new typo.
Authors, make your life easier and the life of your layout specialist and editor. Learn the difference between proofreading and editing and when one is needed or the other. When you sign off on that manuscript as complete and send it off to the layout person, make sure it’s as perfect as it’s going to be to save everyone time, money, and frustration. Then the last stage of the production of the book will pass easily and the book can be quickly sent to the printing house.
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