Writers – get ahead by proofing backwards!

It’s every author’s nightmare. Your book’s been published. You get the first advance copy in the mail, tear open the packet in great excitement, stand back and admire the final product – the feel of the cover, that fresh-ink smell that every brand new book has. Then open it. And – [dramatic chord]. Find a typo.

Usually it’s one perpetrated by the publishers during the editing/publishing process. But still awlward. There are two types of proofing – proof-editing and line editing.  Today I’m going to tell you about a really good way of line editing. Backwards.

Line editing is what most people think of as ‘proofing’ – fixing literal errors in the material.  It’s absolutely vital to get right, because a book out in the shops with this sort of error in it creates the impression of general sloppiness. Publishers have long recognised the point, and the onus is on self-publishers and small indie houses to follow suit.

It’s important to make sure anything you’re submitting to an agent or publisher is top notch. But the pressure really comes up once your manuscript been sold and is on the road to publishing. Or if you go down the self-published road. That final product has to be right. And the path to a good typo-free book starts at home. Literally, if that’s where you write.

The typical commercial proof-checking process is something like this:

1. Author proof. The author checks their text before it’s delivered.It won’t be 100%. Because of the nature of the beast, authors are their own worst proof-readers, more on that in a minute. But it’s important to kick-start the process. It also gives a professional edge to the manuscript..

2. Proof-editing. The publishers proof-edit (edit for grammar, consistency, house-style and sense) then return to the author. The author checks the proof-edited text to make sure it hasn’t introduced any errors.

3. Line edit. After typesetting, the book is line-edited. The author, again, usually gets a hack too. I often find places where proof-editor fixes have failed because of problems with Word’s Track Changes vs typesetting software.

4. Second line edit. All final changes are taken in and the book is re-checked to make sure the final corrections were properly implemented. Then it goes to print.

5. Usually there’s also a check of the printer proofs, traditionally via ozilit proofing but today usually from laser or large-format inkjet output, after the file has been RIPped for plate output (raster image processing). Often errors are spotted here, frequently because pages are in ‘imposed’ form (more on that another time) and disconnected from numerical sequence.

So the finished book has had at least five or six checks, four or five independently of the author. Ideally this should include one read-aloud pass, in which two people sit sound. One reads aloud, including saying all the pronounciation, the other cross-checks the proof. It’s a brilliant system. It’s also hardly ever done, for cost reasons. Indeed, cost-cutting has led some publishing houses to crib the whole process. And it’s hard for self-publishers and small indies to match, not least because of the costs associated with hiring independent proof-checkers. But it’s vital because even the best effort per steps 1-5 above still leads to:

6. The proud author gets their advance copy, opens it, and finds an error on the first page they look at. And yes, it’s happened to me. More than once.

It’s hard to proof, you see.

That said, you can reduce the risk of missing something obvious in that line-edit by reading backwards.
Backwards? Sure. Not necessarily word-for-word, certainly sentence-by-sentence. The problem when reading forwards is that meaning takes over –trivial stuff passes by. That, incidentally, is one reason why authors are their own worst proof readers.

Read it backwards, though, and that meaning’s broken up. You focus on the mechanics – full stops, capitalisations, spelling and all the other little bits and pieces that make up a good line-editing proof check.
Do you have a trick to help yourself proof? Have you had any “OMG, I can’t believe it” error experiences? Do share, I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

16 thoughts on “Writers – get ahead by proofing backwards!

  1. Interesting! I’m definitely taking note of this for the future. I actually had an– incident of sorts recently that is still fresh on my mind and haunting me. I applied for MFA programs this past deadline round, and after all my apps have been sent off.. I find a spelling error right there on the first page: “visted” instead of “visited.” The manuscript had definitely been edited more than once so I was just in horror. Anyway, the end of that story is still to come! *crosses fingers*

    Thanks again for the tip!


    1. Pleased to help. I find the majority of errors and typos in my books emerge as a result of well-meaning but misfiring publisher editorial change. There are several culprits. The common one these days is not properly implementing Word track-changes – edits are half done or words not included in the deletion. There are also known issues where typesetting software like InDesign ends up reading the deleted material as well as the new (Word files aren’t text, they are executables that store EVERYTHING, including deleted text). A bit of a minefield, and I am not convinced that modern e-automation actually saves any time or is more accurate than the traditional old processes, especially the cross-reading aloud. They may be expensive by modern standards, but they really worked.


    1. Good luck. And if you can get somebody to look over the material, cold, it’s always worth it, even if they’re not a professional proof-reader. Another trick is to put the manuscript into the (metaphorical) drawer for a month. Then re-read. It’s amazing what springs out – and not just typos (“Did I write THAT?”).


  2. Great post. I read my work time and time again and then my wife reads it and points out all the things I’ve missed. I like the idea of the backwards edit. I highlight all my text and then go through sort of line by line. I never do it in order either and clear the highlight as I go. Still miss things. 🙂


  3. It’s the nature of the beast for authors to miss things in their own work – my biggest problem is missing things that the publishers have perpetrated during the editing process, some of which have sprung back to bite me later. Familiarity breeds not so much contempt as, well, familiarity…


  4. it helps get that disconnection between the literal content (word by word, letter by letter) and the intended meaning, which kicks up any literal mistakes. Of course proofing for meaning is also important – but that’s a different matter.


  5. Matthew,
    This is a great advice. I never thought about it, but off course you are right. I can see it in front of me. That´s something I will tell all my other writing friends, and I will take it with me as I keep om with my book. Thanks for sharing, you´re great.


  6. Proofing backwards is one of my favorite types of editing to do! The trouble I run into is remembering to take the TIME to edit it before hitting the send button. I have a bad habit of posting things when I’m in a rush/excited and then forget to edit.


  7. Always a hazard! And the question is whether to let the typo stand or go back and fix it – basically, is it worse to be seen to make an error, or to change stuff post-fact? An awkward one.


  8. That’s really great advice! And indeed it must be awlard to open your advance copy and see a typo!

    The worst editing mistake I read was in a non-fiction book where they got their millions and billions mixed up. It was something like “the cost was five billion – three billion for x, one billion for y and one million for z”. Not impressed with that!


    1. I’ve had quite a number of experiences of opening up the advance copy and seeing something egregious. Often, alas, introduced during the editorial process. One of the big issues publishers face is line editing – especially in this day and age as the pressure is on to cut costs. Expert editors aren’t cheap.


  9. Please tell me you added the word ‘awlward’ in the 2nd para to be funny…? If so, I had a nice little LOL-chuckle.


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