How to Proofread your Ebook Like a Pro, Part 1: Looking for Language Errors

by Corina Koch MacLeod
Updated February 2014

Literary cat

There’s little more frustrating than paying for an ebook, carving out some time to read it, and discovering that it’s full of typos, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. I’m not talking about formatting errors (wonky fonts, gaping holes between words, blank pages — issues I address in more detail in this post). I’m talking about the fine art of creating prose that doesn’t cause readers to “trip.”

As an copyeditor and proofreader, it’s my job to see errors and catch as many of them as I can. Allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret: even editors miss things (gasp!), which is why readers often do cartwheels when they spot a typo in a manuscript that’s been professionally edited, and worse, printed on paper.

How forgiving are readers?

Editors know that it’s difficult to catch everything, but here’s another little known secret: readers seem to be willing to forgive the occasional error. The question is, how much will readers put up with before they abandon a book? One error per chapter? Three per book? I haven’t found anyone who has hard and fast numbers, but I believe it’s best not to tempt fate, and to do whatever you can to create a book that’s as close to perfect as can be.

It’s generally agreed upon in the publishing world that hiring someone to edit your book is a worthwhile investment, but if you can’t afford this service, or can’t devise a trade in lieu, you need to DIY.

Get distance

If you’re proofreading your own book, it’s likely not a good idea to finish your book on Friday and upload it to Amazon or Smashwords on Monday. Why? You won’t be able to see it the way a professional proofreader will. You’re too close; you need some distance.

At the very least, put your book on ice for a week (a month or two is better) and do something else, like explore a new writing tool, or start your next book! Then, come back to your book with fresh eyes. Traditionally published books take about two years to get to print. And while I’m not suggesting that you wait two years before your book goes live, do attend to your book in the way that traditional publishers attend to theirs. This kind of attention takes time. Gain some distance so you can catch those errors that would otherwise go unnoticed.

If patience is not your strength, you can bypass the wait time by hiring a proofreader. Search the Editors’ Association of Canada or Editorial Freelancers Association directories to find a proofreader.

Proofreading checklist

Below is a list of some of the “language” or word-level items editors look for while proofreading an ebook. I’ve listed them from the most distracting to the least distracting. Keep in mind that editors generally look for grammar issues (sentence level) during an earlier copyediting stage, and mostly stick to the following items during the proofreading stage. However, if you notice a grammar error, by all means, fix it.

Proofreaders check for the following:

  • typos
  • misspellings
  • spelling variations (color or colour?)
  • confusables (avoid or evade? bizarre or bazaar?)
  • hyphens in the middle of words that occur in the middle of a line (these tend to show up when a book has been prepared for print first, and end-of-line breaks haven’t been deleted in the source file)
  • missing hyphens
  • missing headings (readers using headings to navigate ebooks)
  • punctuation errors (comma splices, apostrophes, semicolons)
  • punctuation placement (“Put it inside.” “Not outside”. Keep it tucked in.)
  • unconventional use of italics and boldface
  • inactive hyperlinks
  • acronyms spelled out the first time (so readers know what they stand for)
  • numbers — numerals or spelled out? (also check for accuracy — you don’t want someone to die before they’re born)
  • words spelled the same way throughout the book (phoney or phony?)
  • proper use of capital letters (the city or the City of Toronto?)
  • caption and heading styles (sentence case or title case?)
  • consistent use of punctuation (US or U.S.?)
  • dates and date ranges (1963–68? or 1963–1968? Hyphen or en-dash?)
  • citations formatted consistently (nonfiction)
The average reader may not be bothered by or even notice items towards the bottom of the list. A good dictionary, a style guide, and online articles, like those posted at the Grammar Girl website, will help you fix items that readers are most likely to notice.

Use a consistency checker

When you’ve completed your proofread, you can use this free online consistency checker to check for anything you may have missed. There’s an art to understanding the results that this tool spits out, but at the very least, it will give you a view into the kinds of decisions that editors and proofreaders make to create a clean and consistent final product with the fewest number of distractions.

What about formatting?

Proofreaders also look for formatting issues while proofreading a document: blank pages, large gaps between words, and any other visual distractions that get in the the way of a positive reading experience. In a this post, I provide you with a formatting checklist to check for formatting issues.

Cutting costs

In the end, if you decide to hire a proofreader for a final look at your manuscript, anything you do first can save you money on editing and proofreading costs. A carefully prepared document will take a proofreader less time to proofread, leaving more money in your pocket.

Image by SuziJane

2 thoughts on “How to Proofread your Ebook Like a Pro, Part 1: Looking for Language Errors

  1. I totally agree on putting it on ice. I proofread and edit for other and always urge them to sit on it for a bit.

    Still, that can often be hard to do; there’s a temptation there to get the work out as quick as you can.

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