Proofreading is the final stage in presenting your manuscript (MS) for publication. Don’t skip it. Proofreading should happen after all other editing processes – and don’t skip them either.
For the purposes of this article I’m assuming that you have written a full-length novel, but the same principles apply to shorter forms. Do get your MS properly edited; you will probably have to pay for this service, but it is worthwhile. Editing looks at a piece of writing in its broadest sense, covering things like structure, plot, characterisation, and so on. An editor will point out such things as where the plot could be strengthened, when characters’ motivation is unclear, and how dialogue can be made more effective.
While editing looks at the big picture, proofreading looks at the detail – every single word and mark. Proofreading picks up typos, i.e. typographical errors, or accidental typing mistakes. These can be simple spelling mistakes, for example writing ‘though’ instead of ‘through’ or ‘hop’ instead of ‘hope’. It also picks up things like grammatical errors, inconsistencies, and incorrect punctuation, e.g. missing question marks.
It can be as difficult to proofread your own MS as it is to edit it. You are too close to the story, too involved with the characters and what they are doing, to be objective. When you look at the page, you can’t help seeing what you meant to write, not what is actually there. So the best advice is to get someone else to edit your story, make all the changes they suggest, and then get someone different to proofread it.
If for some reason you can’t get a professional proofreader, here are some tips for doing it yourself.
Give yourself some time. Put your MS aside for a while; perhaps work on another project. You need to get that piece of writing out of your head so you come to it from a fresh perspective.
Print out your work. Proofreading requires focussing on one word at a time. You must stop your eyes from running ahead, as they do when reading for pleasure. This is much easier when working from a printed copy than on screen.
Place a ruler under each line to hide the following text, and work your way down the page line by line. Use a pencil to point to one word at a time.
Read your work out loud. This forces you to read each word individually, and is also a good way to pick up things like repetitions, e.g. using your favourite word six times in one paragraph.
You will probably be amazed by how many little errors you will pick up!