Dirty Little Secrets

If you’re a writer like me, you already know it’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your work before you declare it finalized.  Actually, it’s best if several “someones” can proofread your work and point out any errors.  Of course, this outside help doesn’t do much good if they’re not proficient in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  And I know you already know that simply using the spell check feature is not a reliable method of proofreading.  I don’t know the particulars of other writing or word processing programs, but I’m going to share some of the dirty little secrets I’ve learned while proofreading my work in Microsoft Word.

I start by searching the entire novel for a period followed by an apostrophe as well as a question mark followed by an apostrophe.  Sometimes these are warranted in that I may have written dialog wherein another person was quoted.  But more often than not, I’ve found that I made a mistake and meant to put an end quotation mark rather than an apostrophe.

The next thing I do is cut and paste one chapter at a time into a blank document.  Then I search for quotation marks.  Word highlights my searched items in yellow so I can see them easily while I scroll down.  On the left side of the screen, it tells me how many searched items were found.  If there’s not an even number of quotation marks, I already know I can expect a problem.  (The exception to this is, of course, when a stream of dialog is continued to a consecutive paragraph, thus eliminating the end quotation mark from the original paragraph and causing an odd number to occur.)  Viewing one paragraph at a time within one chapter at a time makes this go quickly, yet it’s also where I catch the lion’s share of my typographical errors.

Once that part is complete, I work on the novel as a whole rather than breaking it into individual chapters.  The next order of business is to search for “[space] and she” then “[space] and he.”  When the search results turn up, I then manually scan each entry to see if a comma appears before the word “and.”  Because of the grammar rule regarding using a comma between two independent clauses, this is one that sometimes gets missed when I’m writing quickly.  (And it’s also a comma that Word often wants to direct me to eliminate, though it is actually supposed to be there.)  Those are about the only punctuation corrections that I trust to searching as opposed to looking for them manually.

Next, I move on to spelling.  Of course I run spellcheck and see what turns up.  But that’s never enough.  After that, I search for any variation of character names (such as Michelle versus Michele – both spellings are technically correct, though I’m going for consistency), street names, city names, and any other proper nouns.  Occasionally, we can make an error like that and never notice it, and the computer will also never catch it for us.

Finally, I look for consistencies.  For example, I tend to sometimes interchange “toward” and “towards,” as well as “backward” and “backwards.”  (With these words, as well as afterward/afterwards and backward/backwards, the ones ending with S are the British spelling.  Without the S is the American spelling.  Technically, both can be considered correct, and Word never alerts me to either.)  Also, if you prefer to use the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma), you may want to search for “[comma] [space] and” to make sure you were consistent throughout your work.

So there you have it… a few of Rachel’s dirty little secrets to make your life a little easier.  I hope this helps.  Happy writing; happy proofreading!

Let’s talk:  Do you proofread your own work?  Do you do your own editing?  Do you have any dirty little secrets (on proofreading) that you want to share with us?

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41 thoughts on “Dirty Little Secrets

  1. I like to proof hard copies of a piece. At least once I read the piece backward. This forces you to look at each sentence alone, but right after that read the piece out loud, as some of the things you correct reading backward may not flow.

  2. Of course poetry is different in it’s editing process than book writing, but I did take a writing course where there were many book writers in the class. I guess a common problem is that a lot of writers use the same words over and over again in their books without reading them. Always a good idea to read aloud.

  3. I practice Marissa’s suggestion (above) to read your work out loud. I don’t write novels but I find it very hard to edit my own writing, as opposed to editing the writing of another. I can’t imagine writing a whole book and editing it myself Rachel. ❤
    Diana xo

  4. This is helpful to me, since I am currently in the process of editing my 3 stories that I plan to publish. I usually edit a story 3 times before seeking an editor to look it through. What you discussed in this post offered me more ways to efficiently edit my stories. Thanks!

  5. I love these “dirty” little secrets! I use the search and replace functions quite a bit in Word, but searching for punctuation consistencies is not something I’ve ever considered. So thanks for that!

  6. It’s always easier to proofread (and edit) other people’s work. Once I’ve read something (never mind once I’ve written it), my eyes see what they expect to see. The kind of mechanized checking you describe would help, but there’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes.

  7. Editing is something that most writers hate, and I’m no different. Used to think I was good at it, having proofread and edited all my sisters books, but when I wrote my own, it was very different. So much so, that it is now with a beta reader…
    Great post with some wonderful tips, thank you Rachel…

  8. Great tips, Rachel! I’ve used the Search feature to find words, and I’ve read some things aloud, but I’ve never searched an entire document for punctuation. Since my last two books were encyclopedias with many articles written by others, I’ve had to edit them–putting in the Oxford comma, deleting the extra space after a period, and making sure they conform to the style guide of the particular press. I’ve also, unfortunately, Googled paragraphs to see if they were plagiarized. The manuscripts are professionally copy edited, however, and the entire manuscript is also run through a plagiarize checker. I agree it is much more difficult to edit one’s own work, but it sounds like you’re a pro!

    • LOL! I’m definitely no pro, but I am a stickler for detail. I imagine it’s not easy checking for plagiarized work either. I would think the search tool would definitely help with the Oxford comma and the extra space after the period. 🙂

  9. Read it. Leave it. Read it again. The space to let it breathe on the screen and your brain to forget about creating it allows fresh eyes and better self-editing. My advice, dear Rachel.

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