Why Proofreading Matters

Last month, the Evil Mastermind had a fun post called Typopotamus, where he discussed typos and some strategies for eradicating them from your writing, including hiring a good editor and proofer. In one of the comments author Jeff Dawson had the following to say:

“Indie readers sometimes spend too much time looking for errors and what nots. This is good and yet bad at the same time. The good part: they are catching errors writers, beta readers and editors are missing. It provides a chance to quickly make the changes and upload a new version. The bad: some readers and reviewers are focusing on miniscule problems and bashing an otherwise good read.”

I agreed with the good part, no matter how well an author does in chasing down typos and getting the appropriate support to catch those he or she missed, some are still going to sneak through. This applies to all books, regardless of their pedigree. It was the second part of Jeff’s comment that, as a reader, I took exception to. I started to reply and before I finished realized I had a blog post instead.

When I’m reading, I don’t think I’m focusing only on proofing issues, but I seldom give a book the kind of review the author is going to be happy to see if they have numerous typos and other issues that should have been caught in proofing and copy-editing. I have three main reasons for a take no prisoners approach to this when reviewing indie books.

First, because this does matter. Anything that prevents the reader from becoming immersed in the story and staying there is bad. When I read a line that doesn’t make sense, I read it over to try and figure out what I missed. Having to do that very often is a distraction and throws me out of the story. Sometimes the problem is me. I re-read the sentence and it makes perfect sense. More often, it is because I don’t understand why the character “went form the kitchen two teh bedroom” or if the stranger was going to enjoy being disabled after “waiving they’re hand.”

Second, because indie authors have this reputation among many readers. When I started my review blog, I knew many readers felt this way and also knew that, while a valid complaint about some books, it wasn’t valid for many others. By having this one of the areas specifically mentioned in my reviews, those bothered by these issues would be warned about books that had a problem in this area. I also viewed it as my small contribution toward getting indie authors with these problems to “up their game.” Yes, the story matters more. I’d rather read a compelling story with an overabundance of typos than a perfectly proofed, yet boring story. But with so many books that get both right, why bother reading either?

Which brings me to the last reason. Readers compare your book to all books, including those that were traditionally published. Traditionally published books rarely have problems in this area. It seems whenever I see someone complain about indies in this regard, someone responds with, “well yeah, but some traditionally published books do too.” My short answer is, “not often.” Very few books are typo free. I’ll almost always spot a small number (2-4) in any book I read. Finding more than that in a traditionally published book is something that happens so infrequently in my experience, as to not be a consideration, with one exception. The exception is those kinds of errors that happen during conversion (whether OCR or, more often these days, from one electronic format to another). Publishers don’t get a free pass for those problems either. You’ll find plenty of customer reviews bashing traditionally published books for conversion and formatting issues (another area they need to work on).

You can argue that an indie book is cheaper and try to make the case that this makes a difference. I’ve heard indie authors say, “what do you expect for two dollars and ninety-nine cents.” What they’re missing is that the single biggest investment a reader makes in your book isn’t the price of purchase, but the time to read it. Having to mentally edit to uncover a wonderful story isn’t going to leave the reader happy, nor the author when that reader is deciding whether to purchase their next book.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

45 thoughts on “Why Proofreading Matters”

  1. Yet there is a difference between proofreading and editing. It’s one thing to catch spelling and grammar errors with a decent proofread, but quite another thing to catch historical inaccuracies (i.e. The Help) and repetitiveness (i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey) with a respectable content edit.

    1. Absolutely, Jeri. All phases of editing which I, for simplicity divide into content editing, copy editing, and proofing, matter. However, I view much of what happens at the higher level as stylistic and often not with clear cut right and wrong answers. As you get to the lower levels, the right answer becomes more concrete with fewer exceptions.

  2. All very good points, Al and I agree. Don’t give the reader a chance to be taken out of your story by mistakes. Once they do, it will be hard to get them back and move on to someone else.

  3. Good morning Al, Well, I feel honored to be quoted in this article. My case in point would be the non-ficiton book, “It Never Snows in September.” by Robert Kershaw and recently published by Allan Publishing in the UK. This is an excellent acount from the German persepctive during “Operation Market Garden.” The insight and recollections of the story are magnificient. Now, let’s talks about the flaws. I lost count in the last 3/4 of the book. If I would have pulled out a red pen, I would have run out of ink. The mistakes were unbelevable and in today’s market, would get an “F” for editing. If I would have stopped reading, I would have missed “the rest of the story.”

    I agree, about editing issues from Indies and traditional publishers, but how do writers respond when a book, say 100,000 words and is rejected because it has one improperly hypenated word or perhaps a reader declines a review becasue an professor said, “any novel which uses adverbs or words ending in “ing.” are an outright no-no. That to me is overlooking the story and deliberately hunting for mistakes. Perhaps it is the line of not seeing the trees for the forest or vice-versa.

    In this tumultous time of publishing, it does fall on the Indie to make every effort to turn out the best product they can. I’ve also learned that even after the book has been proofread, edited and copy edited, it still is the authors ultimate responsibility to give teh book one more good going over before sending it to the presses. Our readers are watching.

    1. Jeff, I completely understand what you’re saying about the book you described. You would have missed out as a reader and, for you, when you reached the end after possibly wondering whether it was worth it, you realized that it was, at least for you. So, did you recommend the book to others? If so, were their disclaimers on your recommendation? How many readers do you think abandoned the book and, if this author wrote any more, didn’t bother to check it out? I daresay many of those who abandoned the book would have reacted much the same as you when they reached the end. Instead, the author got an unhappy customer and, at least as important, didn’t get the recommendations.

      As far as your other questions, I have an opinion on most things, so I’ll give you mine. Some people (I was going to say readers, but this applies to more than just books) are never going to be happy with anything and are always going to look for a reason to complain. The single missing hyphen is that thing for them. If you know that is the only issue, then shrug your shoulders and go on, knowing that they couldn’t be pleased. Not using adverbs is one of those things that, like “show don’t tell,” is a good rule of thumb, but isn’t, nor should it be an absolute. To some degree, it is a taste thing. If someone is being that specific, they might really being saying they found your action descriptions weak or something else. Or, it could be they feel important pontificating on things they know nothing about. (I often find myself wondering how often I do that, as in right now.) If you haven’t read Stephen King’s books, “On Writing,” it has a good case for no adverbs. If you aren’t familiar with the argument for not using them, that would be a good place to start. Then like any rule of thumb, once you understand the rule, you can decide when to break it.

      1. Good morning Big Al, Yes, I gave the book a glowing recomendation. It is a brilliant account of the battle. Now, did I place a disclaimer at the end. I did mention that the publisher needed to go back and have another go at it. I doubt many readers threw the book down in disgust because it was such a pivotal battle in WWII, we will overlook a trangression in order to get a better feel and udnerstanding of history.

        When it come to reviewing a book, whether released or in the final process, I do my utmost to notify the author of any discrepancies or apparent problems along with a draft of the review. I’ve only had one author take unkindly to the critique whereas the others were very appreciate of the analysis.

        Adverds, i will look into the rules. I freely admit, I’ve overdone their use and am diligently working on combing them out and hunting for more descriptive sentences and words to describe the scene.

        On a personal note, I felt honored that the post turned into a full blog segment. Thank you.

        In closing, if a story is compelling enough, I can slide right by the minor problems and continue forward. If not, well, moving on….

  4. Completely agree re: professionalism. Your books are going to be vetted against EVERY other book out there. You might not write as well as (insert famous author here) – yet, anyway! – but your indie book’s production value should be at least as strong as anything coming out of NYC.

    In fact, my usual argument with folks talking about readers who look harder for errors in indie books is this: how can they tell in the first place? If you’re doing an outstanding job producing your book, there should be no way, short of a bunch of online research that most readers are not going to bother with, for anyone to tell how your book was published.

    That ought to be the goal, IMHO. To have production values on the book which are so strong, so professional, that your book stands at least on parity with the quality of books coming from major publishers.

    1. You got exactly what I was trying to say, Kevin. If you want to compete, you have to be ready to be judged on the same standards.

    2. Actually, Kevin, Amazon lists the publisher of every book it sells, including indie books, on the book’s page:

      Paperback: 528 pages
      Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
      Language: English
      ISBN-10: 0345803485
      ISBN-13: 978-0345803481
      Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
      Shipping Weight: 13.3 ounces

  5. Well said, BigAl. I love it when you bloviate. *swoon* 😀

    What I would like to know is how authors feel about getting an email from a reader with a list of editing errors that they have found in their book, be it two or fifty? Is it even kosher to do that? I have done this on occasion, sometimes it is well received a couple of times it was not. I am not an editor and have not been trained to be one; I am just a reader who is trying to review Indie books because I have enjoyed them and would like to see them enjoyed by more readers. I realize I have quite a run-on sentence here, I need my own editor! But this will show you that the errors I catch are pretty blatant errors and generally not punctuation.

    1. Linda, not to muscle in on Al’s post, but as a writer I am very grateful if any reader flags a typo to me, so I can correct it (which is one more beauty of e-books). As long as the typo is a bone-fide language error, it can only help improve the finished product. The only potential problem you might have, is suggesting stylistic corrections that may be caused by variant-form words or structures. There’s some odd English out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
      I would also point you (and other writers) to one of my favourite writers, the UK military historian Max Hastings. This guy has written loads of books over the last 30 years and has sold bazillions of copies, BUT, on the front page of his website, he says something like “Hope you enjoy the books, but if you should spot a typo, do please let me know, thanks awfully.”
      And that is the attitude of a real writer 🙂

      1. Thank you, Chris for answering. I would never be so bold as to suggest a stylistic correction. But I have asked ‘is this what you meant to say?’ and I have gotten the answer to that question as ‘yes’ that is how I meant to say that. I would never argue the point. I don’t wish to step on anyone’s toes in the process. I actually stopped doing this, but I do wonder at times if I should forward the needed edits that I find. Thank you again. 🙂

        1. *blush*

          Now behave, Linda. 🙂

          I think it depends. Like Chris says, many authors are going be happy to know. It helps them put that much polish on their product. As Jeff said in the comment at the top of the piece, reader’s giving feedback on things like typos that snuck through their editing and proofing process can be a big help because in the world of ebooks fixing a problem is practical.

          However, for me personally, I have another complication. The majority of the books I read where contacting the author is feasible, are also books I’m going to be reviewing. If I’m reading a pre-release version of some kind (a beta or ARC) I’ll often let the author know so they can fix it in advance of release. I also won’t downgrade the ranking I give the book based on these issues because in this situation the book has not yet been set in stone and in most cases an additional proofing is planned.

          In the situation of a book that I’m reading to review that has already been released, my approach changes drastically. I’ll, with rare exceptions, only notify the author if the number of problems I find are low enough that they aren’t an influence on my ranking of the book. Even then, I only do it if it is an author that I’m confident is not going to think that I gave them a 3 or 4 star instead of a 5 star review because of the problems I found and start arguing that the character really did ‘waive’ his hands. So this is something I rarely do. If I was a regular reader, I might be more inclined to forward what I found.

          If the problems are bad enough that it did influence my ranking and it isn’t a beta or ARC, then I’m not going to send it to them. My logic is, those authors are a bigger risk of getting into an argument when I was actually trying to do them a favor. I also think that if they cared enough about their book, there wouldn’t be this many problems. I’d much rather help the author who tried, and missed the mark by a little, than those who didn’t try. I don’t want to be their unpaid proofer.

          It is safe to say that I am also much less likely to send errors when there are a lot of them based on past experience. (I’m sure you know which one I mean.) I think sending errors to an author who missed the mark badly is setting myself up for a very public battle. One that I’m confident I’d come out of okay, but would rather avoid all together.

          Is this comment post length yet? 😀

      2. I agree. And I am appreciative to anyone who lets me know about an error- I prefer tactfully, but I have had one snarky reviewer point some things out on a book. despite my immediate hostility at the scathing review, I cooled off, thanked her, and immediately made the changes. She was polite and pulled her nasty review.

        1. Thanks for responding, Kathy. The times I have emailed an author to tell them about the needed edits I found, has always been before I posted my review. I try not to be snarky or disrespectful, I just point out locations they need to take another look at and I always question my findings. I do not claim to know what I am doing, I am just a reader trying to promote Indie authors whose books I have enjoyed reading.

  6. Excellent post, Al, and as with most comments here, I agree with your points. I would also suggest that the quality of the story-telling plays a more important part than authors might realise: if the story and characters are done well, then the reader will be less likely to notice the odd typo. I know it’s very subjective, but, as a reader, I often use finding a typo as an excuse to say the book is shoddy, when really I’m just not enjoying the story-telling all that much. These elements are, I think, connected.

    1. Absolutely, Chris. If the book isn’t drawing you in to begin with, the little things you might gloss over are going to be that much more noticeable and easy to hang your hat on as the reason.

  7. Excellent post, BigAl. I think authors have an obligation to our readers to make sure our work is as good as we can make it. And I don’t hold with this “What do you expect for $2.99?” argument. No.

  8. I actually read one book that had at least one typo on every single page. I wrote to the publisher and offered my services as a proofreader. Sadly I never heard back from them.

    1. Wow, itsrebekahlyn, that’s bad. Was this from a small publisher or one of the biggies? The few books I can think of that averaged an error per printed page (which would be > 200 errors) were both self-published and had a lot of other issues beyond that. My tolerance is tested well before a book has that many problems.

    1. 😀 Yes, I did! It really wasn’t intentional. I forgot to swoon, didn’t I? Am I on probation now? ~sigh~

      1. How wonderful to hear the word ‘bloviate’ again……in my readings of Presidents of the U.S.A. I read about Warren Harding … apparently the man who invented the word ‘bloviate’


        Brian Hobcraft

        Gore New Zealand

        1. helloo … how do I arrange for my image to show
          rather than a white visage of some ‘perfect’ being!

  9. I came late to the party, as usual; all the best lines have been taken and all the best points have been made. In fact, I find there is nothing much left to say but to congratulate you on an excellent article, Big Al.

    Well, I could perhaps just reiterate on what you and Chris and several others said or inferred: the better the book is written (and that includes the three areas you mentioned, Big Al) the less likelihood of committing the cardinal sin: losing the reader. Proper editing is vital!

    1. Thanks for the comment, TD. Are you saying that once I’ve written a comment longer than the post, the subject must be exhausted. 🙂

  10. Al, great post. Typos drive me absolutely nuts and I pull out all the stops to find them before I publish. I recently wrote a blog about the fact that my brain works against me (with the nicest intent), as it so often shows me what it thinks I want to see rather than what I’ve actually written. Luckily there are a lot of tricks to proofing: using a different font, a different size, even pasting the entire MS into Notepad, then copying and pasting back into a blank Word doc. Amazing what shows up! As for “their, they’re and there,” no help for that but a dictionary and good memory. I’m thankful for excellent English teachers that drilled that into my brain. Finding the wrong word in a book instantly demotes the author down several pegs in my view.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. What you’re saying is very true and the rule rather than the exception. In just a short blog post or comment I have a hard time shaking out all the issues. I’m of the opinion that virtually no one is capable of adequately proofing a book length book on their own. There are exceptions, but they’re few. However, there are a lot of tricks for self-editing including those you listed, that can come close.

  11. I agree,wholeheartedly, with the need to correct the mistakes. I finished my first major novel: “Cardinal Sins” three months ago and I have read, read, re-read, re-read and re-read the manuscript. I even refreshed my English grammar studies. I found a wonderful series of modules from a Canadian university and commenced learning – all over again – predicates, direct objects,nominatives … etc etc etc and nearly collapsed from grammar overload! But just as well I refreshed … I found mistake after mistake. I think I have a good story; it is controversial, to say the least. But if it is no good ‘in the writing’ the story is a failure!

    Feel much better now. Misplaced participles frighten me no more.

    Kind wishes,

    Brian Hobcraft
    New Zealand

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian. Can you tell us more about the grammar study you did? I don’t know about anyone else, but I could stand a refresher course too.

  12. Hello Al,

    Go to http://www.nald.ca/CLR/seach/
    (National Literacy Secretariat of Human Resources Development Canada.
    Download the three modules: “Academic Studies English” Parts 1, 11. 111 Grammar.

    Fantastic resource but be prepared to do some homework! It is fun doing the exercises though … my confidence in writing has soared.

    Best wishes, Al.


    1. Thanks, Brian. As for the word bloviate, it was on a friend’s word of the day calendar a few years ago and she, along with several other friends including Linda decided it applied to me, and use it often. 🙂

      1. Hello Al,

        “Warren Harding His Life and Times” Francis Russell is well worth a read. There is the bloviator of all bloviators!

  13. Being on the other side of the issue, I can tell you that the “well what do you expect for $2.99?” comment is second only to “well when a major publisher picks up my book, they can pay to have it proofread and edited.”

    I receive between 80-100 emails a week from people who want representation who haven’t taken the time to have their book proofread or edited, or did their own “home made” cover. Then they get angry that they sell only a handful of copies on Kindle or they fail to get any traction from reviews or acquisitions editors.

    The fact is, an author sells words. If they don’t take the time (and money) to make certain that their product is perfect, they will not be successful. There is too much competition out there to be mediocre. Yes the occasional “crappy” book gets through, but they are the exception.

    As far as reviewers that pick apart a book based on pronoun use or using “ing,” there will always be those pedantic jerks who miss the beauty of an amazing story because they are searching for the hyphen error. BUT, readers won’t care. Plus, many stories are enhanced by the conversational tone and the use of colloquialisms. Don’t we all slide into a southern accent when we read Gone With the Wind or anything by Tennessee Williams? Don’t we all sound (in our heads) like English Victorians when we read David Copperfield? And after the initial struggle, I know that I start thinking with a Shakespeare-esque tempo within a few pages of Taming of the Shrew.

    Authors must see themselves as artists first and business people second in order to be successful and that means not being satisfied with a poorly presented product. Authors like to think that they have given birth to a story, but like all parents, they have to clean up, feed, and dress the baby too.

    Alexandrea Merrell

    1. Well put, Alex. If an author’s goal is to self publish as an entre to later get an agent and traditionally publish, their chances aren’t going to be helped if they turn off readers with bad covers and a shoddy product. Despite the saying, we do judge books by their covers.

      Regarding your comment about reviewers, I fully admit my reviews are tough on books with pervasive grammar issues. However, I don’t pretend that I catch everything. When I do, it means I tripped over the sentence while reading it. I’m also not so pedantic as to see bad grammar in dialogue as an issue if what was said makes sense for the character. Many people use bad grammar when they speak. Characters do (and should) too.

  14. Excellent post BigAl.

    I’ve had to do two professional edits on my last book, and now another proof reading try. I never had this issue before. I find that proofreading done electronically on the desktop isn’t the same as proofreading on the manuscript’s hard copy. I try to save paper by proofreading the ms on my electronic file, but then after printing a few pages as a test, I find more errors? Did anyone find this same problem, or is the fault in my reading glasses?

    1. Thanks, Lilan. From my limited experience and what I hear from others, your experience isn’t unique. I think anything that changes your perspective, helps catch more errors. It isn’t that you can’t catch them electronically, it is that the longer you view something from a particular perspective, the harder it is to spot errors. This is why many authors (I daresay most) aren’t capable of proofing their own work and need a different set of eyes. It isn’t that they don’t have the expertise (many do), but that they’ve been looking at this book and polishing for so long that they see what should be there, not what is.

      That said, there are a ton of ways I’ve heard including hard copy (as you suggest), reading on an eReader (if you have that option), reading aloud, putting on a Kindle and having it read aloud, using different fonts (on a Kindle, paper, or in your word processor), etc.

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