Proofreading is an essential step in the publishing process of any book genre, but particularly for nonfiction.
On the surface, this may seem like an unnecessary task to follow multiple rounds of editing, but it’s actually critical.
The thing is, while most people think proofreading is just about finding the odd typo and small grammar mistakes that made it through the editing process, when it comes to nonfiction books it’s a lot more involved than that.
In this article you’ll learn the 7 essential elements of professional proofreading and why they all need to be taken care of before publication.
If you’re self-publishing, this could mean the difference between strong and weak sales, and if you’re seeking a traditional publisher, it could mean the difference between being published or being passed over.
The Importance of Proofreading
As I mentioned above, proofreading is a lot more involved than simply finding typos or grammatical mistakes.
It also involves ensuring text flows well, considering whether any changes need to be made for clarity, formatting, tone and structure, and accuracy.
Imagine if your nonfiction book is free of typos, has perfect grammar and punctuation, and every citation has been thoroughly fact-checked.
But after it comes back from the printer you realize that all your citation references are off by one.
Or imagine if all of the above is correct, but after publication you get a cease and desist letter to pull all books from distribution because you’re using an image for which you don’t have the copyright.
Or imagine if all of the above is correct, but you happen to have included information that’s libelous without being aware of it and get sued.
These are the reasons why proofreading is such a critical task that cannot be taken lightly.
What Proofreading Really Entails
Proofreading should only be performed once all editing passes have been completed and once your manuscript is “frozen.” That is, there are no further changes to be made to your content.
The only changes that should be introduced from this point onward are those involving:
- Correcting writing mistakes (e.g. rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.)
- Accuracy (e.g. fact-checking and numbering accuracy)
- Consistency (e.g. making use the same style is used in all headings and subheadings of the same type)
- Legal exposure (e.g. making sure that there are no copyright and libel risks)
While some of this work can be performed by the author through DIY proofreading, the final proofreading pass before sending the book for publication should always involve a professional.
As a nonfiction writer your book is an extension of your reputation, and any amateur mishap in the proofreading process may end up costing you a lot more than proofreading fees.
The 7 Essential Elements of Proofreading
So, let cover the seven essential elements of proofreading so you know what is necessary to produce a nonfiction book that meets industry standards:
1. Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
The first pass in proofreading a nonfiction book is to check for spelling errors, grammar flaws, and punctuation mistakes that were missed during the editing process.
Now, while you might be tempted to think that this can be taken care of automatically by spelling and grammar checkers, the reality is that these tools can get easily tripped up by homophones (e.g. pair vs. pare, to vs. too, their vs. there, etc.)
So, it’s important to proofread with a critical eye and not rely on automation alone.
2. Formatting, Pagination and Citations
When it comes to formatting, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the formatting of your book look consistent throughout?
- Is your book formatted according to industry standards?
- Are there any odd spacing issues that need to be taken care of?
This is an important proofreading step as it ensures that your product looks professional and well put together.
When it comes to pagination, the questions are:
- Are all page numbers correct and in sequential order?
- Are the page numbers consistent across different sections of the book? (e.g. in some design styles, the first page of a chapter has no page number)
- If your book has an index, are the page numbers in it correct?
As for citations:
- Are they all included and correctly formatted according to standards?
- Are all quotations and references properly attributed to their original sources?
- Do all reference numbers match the numbers in the footnotes and/or endnotes?
3. Flow and Readability
Next, you need to look at overall flow and readability:
- How does the flow of ideas work throughout your manuscript?
- Do sentences, paragraphs and chapters transition smoothly into one another?
- Does your book have a consistent layout and design throughout?
- Are there any elements that need tweaking or rearranging?
- Is the overall structure of your book logical, fluid and easy to follow?
4. Consistency in style
When it comes to style, you need to focus on consistency throughout your manuscript. For example:
- Does all the text throughout your book have a consistent style and tone?
- Is there any repetition or inconsistency in language use? (e.g. using the same word multiple times in the same sentence in close proximity to each other)
Nonfiction books must be as accurate as humanly possible — this is a critical element of proofreading because it reflects directly on the reputation of the author. Some questions you need to ask yourself include:
- Are all facts and claims in your book accurate? (e.g. is the publication year of the quoted study 1989 or 1981?)
- Do the sources for those facts check out? (e.g. are they the original source or a secondary source? Pro tip: make sure to always quote original sources)
The proofreading pass must also take care of minor aesthetic issues such as line breaks, font size and spacing.
Check to make sure that anything visual looks just right. Any inconsistency in the visual appearance of your book will look amateurish even if the content is first class.
7. Overall quality assurance
Last but not least, proofreading also serves as a final quality control measure.
Proofreaders also need to check for any inconsistencies or errors that have been overlooked during the editing process.
For example, an editor might have suggested that a section in chapter 5 be moved to chapter 7 for clarity, but in the transition the section may still have a passage that reads “as mentioned above,” which now needs to be changed to “as mentioned in Chapter 5.”
How to Proofread Your Own Work
Before you pass on your book to a professional proofreader, here’s a simple 5-step process you can follow to help you as you embark on your initial DIY pass:
Step 1. First off, make sure to find a quiet environment with minimal distractions to work in — this will help you concentrate better on proofreading your manuscript accurately.
Step 2. Print out a copy of your manuscript and proofread it on paper — this is often easier than proofreading onscreen.
While professional proofreaders are used to working with electronic mark-up tools, for DIYers it’s a lot easier not to miss errors if you print out a copy of your manuscript and proofread with a red pen.
Step 3. Read through your work aloud. This can help you identify errors that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Step 4. Read your work backwards (i.e. read your last page first) — this helps you proofread more efficiently by preventing you from getting “lost” in the narrative and missing a few errors you would have otherwise spotted easily.
When we get immersed in the content of a book, sometimes our brains will fill in a blank or overlook a mistake for the sake of cognitive continuity.
Step 5. Break your proofreading down into manageable blocks — proofreading the whole text at once will just be too overwhelming.
Take regular breaks — proofreading for too long can cause you to miss errors due to tiredness and lack of focus.
Proofreading Tips for DIYers
Finally, here’s a handy checklist with useful advice and pointers that you can reference for your DIY proofreading pass:
- Use proofreading tools such as spell checkers and grammar checkers as a first line of defense to minimize the work in your manual proofreading pass.
- Check all facts and sources one by one, making sure all references or citations are accurate — e.g. check all URLs, sources, and dates to make sure they are still current.
- Check for missing words or phrases — proofreading also involves checking for any omissions in the text, not just grammatical errors.
- If your book is technical in nature, double-check your figures and calculations making sure any numerical information and formulas are correct.
- Check carefully for homophones! (many automated proofreading tools will miss these)
- Make sure to proofread all visual elements such as pagination, line breaks, fonts, etc., ensuring everything looks correct.
Proofreading is an important step in the writing process, but it doesn’t have to be difficult or intimidating.
By following these steps aided by proofreading tools where applicable, you can be confident that your work meets industry standards and looks the best it can before you pass the completed, edited manuscript to a professional proofreader (pro tip: your DIY work may significantly reduce proofreading fees!)
The proofreading process helps ensure accuracy, clarity, and readability, while also ensuring consistency in style and formatting.
While proofreading is essential for any book genre, it’s critical for nonfiction books. So make sure to proofread your manuscript thoroughly and systematically, taking care of all seven elements listed above.
Doing so will help you create a professional error-free book that meets industry standards, burnishes your credentials as a credible expert in your field and opens doors to the opportunities you’ll gain by becoming a published nonfiction author.
Harry Wallett is the Managing Director of Cascadia Author Services. He has a decade of experience as the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing, which has sold over 3 million copies of books in all genres for its authors, and looks after a team of 50+ industry professionals working across the world.
Harry is inspired by the process of book creation and is passionate about the stories and characters behind the prose. He loves working with the writers and has shepherded 1000s of titles to publication over the years. He knows first-hand what it takes to not only create an unputdownable book, but also how to get it into the hands of the right readers for success.
Books are still one of the most powerful mediums to communicate ideas and establish indisputable authority in a field, boosting your reach and stature. But publishing isn’t a quick and easy process—nor should it be, or everyone would do it!
A professional grade book takes 250+ individual tasks to complete. Cascadia is an expert in every single one of them. Do you want to harness our expertise to launch your book into the stratosphere? Chat with us!