So, you’ve just dashed off the concluding words of your magnum opus and clicked that trusty “Save File” button one last time. Huzzah! All those late nights and sunny days spent indoors have finally paid off. The only task that remains is to begin sending it off to prospective publishers—right?
Well, maybe not quite yet. Remember, yours will be just one among scores of manuscripts landing on those publishers’ desks. The average acquisitions department is already awash with would-be best sellers. When your work does finally get taken for a spin, it’s going to need every advantage you can supply to help it stand out from the crowd. One of the simplest ways to boost your chances is to proofread your work.
“But,” you ask, “isn’t that why publishers have editorial departments? Why waste my time fixing trivial typos when an editor’s going to go through it all again anyway?” For starters, not all typos are trivial, and the ones that get past your spell-checker are also those most likely to cause major misunderstandings, or at least trip up readers. It’s also worth remembering that although acquisitions editors do their best to recognize each manuscript’s potential despite its superficial flaws, they’re also devoted readers themselves who appreciate eloquent writing and storytelling. An egregious disregard for the “its/it’s” distinction, for example, could be what gets an otherwise promising submission condemned to manuscript purgatory.
Editing, moreover, is not free. Publishers have to pay the folks tasked with bringing your work up to grammatical snuff, so a manuscript that’s already been purged of silly mistakes that are easy but time-consuming to fix is going to be a much more attractive prospect for publication than one riddled with errors. This point is especially relevant to you authors planning on self-publishing, since any editorial work done on your manuscript will be coming straight out of your own pocket!
Here are a few proofreading strategies that just might give you an edge over your competition:
- Run the spell-checker! Don’t just accept its suggestions blindly; pay close attention to context and consider what it is you’re actually trying to say. Even good old spell-check gets it wrong sometimes.
- Walk away. Being too close to your work can give you a skewed perspective on it. Go think about something else for as long as you can. When you do return, try to pretend it’s something you’re encountering for the first time in a magazine or bookstore.
- Print out a hard copy. You’d be surprised what a difference it can make to see your words on paper.
- Ask a friend to proofread your work. Friends are always curious to find out just what it is you’ve been working on for so long, and their fresh eyes are almost guaranteed to catch mechanical errors and other awkwardnesses you may have missed.
- Read through it backward. It may sound odd, but some writers find that this technique helps them overcome their familiarity with their work and focus more objectively on individual sentences and paragraphs.
- Invest in a good usage guide and a dictionary. Fear not—there’s no need to memorize these from cover to cover (unless you want to!). Just keep them close at hand, and don’t be afraid to consult them when you’re unsure of something.