Lucky you—your book is getting published! You’ve spent hundreds of hours crafting and polishing your masterpiece, and dozens more with your trusted editor fine-tuning your writing for a huge new audience.
And now the layout of your book has been designed: how the words fit and flow on the page, where the page numbers and illustrations go, how wide the margins are… every detail that goes into making your book look beautiful. After years of work and sweat, your book looks like, well, a book.
But you’re not finished quite yet. Before your magnum opus is ready for the bookstore shelves, there’s one more task awaiting you…
Once your book is laid out, it’s absolutely essential that you, the author, proofread your story one last time before it’s published.
Why You Must Proofread Before Publishing
“But why?” you ask.
After all, you’ve already spent so much time and effort editing and re-editing your book. And your editor’s worked on it, too. And so have your friends, and your family members, and your usual cadre of peer editors. After all those eyes on it, shouldn’t your book be ready for the world?
In a perfect world, yes.
But mistakes happen. Errors get overlooked. Commas get forgotten—or erroneously added. The fact is, even at this stage, there might be some small details that every one of your trusty editors managed to miss, you included.
So to that end, here are our top 5 reasons why you should proofread your book post-layout, and tips for how to edit a book before it’s sent to print.
1. Errors Always Sneak Through
We’ve touched on this already, but it’s worth reiterating: no matter how well or how closely a book gets edited, small mistakes will inevitably get left in the supposedly “final” version.
That’s 100,000 chances to miss a mistake.
Don’t make the blunder I made. When I was publishing my first novel, I was so eager to see my work in print for the first time that when my editor sent me the final page layout, I barely skimmed it.
I told myself there was no way there were any mistakes in my manuscript. My peer editors and I had already scoured every page twice over, and I had already been fine-tuning my story for more than three years running, obsessively editing and re-working every piece of it.
Not to mention, this project had been my honors thesis in college, and had passed a panel of professors and industry professionals with high marks. If they couldn’t find anything left to fix, I figured, nobody could.
But when the first copies of my novel finally arrived on my doorstep, there were—you guessed it—mistakes hidden among the pages.
And there was nothing I could do about it! My book was out there, available to the reading public—and all I could do was live with the knowledge that I was selling imperfect copies of my beloved novel.
My point is that no matter how many people edit your work, there’s still a chance they’ll miss something important. Errors are sneaky little devils, and it’s up to you to hunt them down and squash them before they do serious damage to your finished book.
2. Many Hands Mean Many Germs
Ideally, your manuscript will pass through many hands on its journey from a rough first draft to a finished, published book. Friends, peers, professional editors—more eyes on your writing means the feedback you receive is more diverse, and comes from more points of view.
However, while this diversity of editors is extremely valuable, it also presents one very real risk:
Every new person who edits your book has a chance to insert errors into your manuscript.
Think of your manuscript as a public water fountain. As more people (your editors) come to drink from the fountain (read and edit your book) the chance of contamination grows higher and higher. Your book might escape unscathed—or it could end up crawling with germs.
Accidents happen, after all. Your friend could open your Word document and lean on the spacebar, splitting a word in half. Or a writing peer could experiment with a possible reworking of a chapter, copy-pasting a section to another location—and forget to change it back. Or your editor’s cat could walk across the keyboard, inserting an errant QWERTY into your thrilling climax.
Every time you or somebody else opens your book file, they might insert a new mistake… And unless you’re thorough in the proofreading process, those mistakes will end up in your published book.
3. Book Design Is a Transformative Process
When a book gets laid out, one of the last steps is a process called threading, where the words are fitted into the finished layout template page by page. Your publisher might do this for you, or if you’re self-publishing you might do it on your own with your own software.
But no matter who’s at the keyboard, mistakes can get inserted into your book during the threading process.
This can take a variety of forms. Software malfunctions can delete words, or even whole pages of your story. Words can get split and hyphenated in displeasing ways. A slip of a finger can insert a V into the page when it was meant as a ctrl-V paste shortcut. “Widows” and “orphans” can manifest—when the first or last line of a paragraph are separated from the rest of the paragraph by a page break.
Or, more common still, something about the final layout just looks “off” to you.
A good book designer will catch and correct most of these new errors, but in case he or she doesn’t—or you’re working on your own—you are the last line of defense against mistakes that snuck by while your book was being designed.
4. Your Book Looks Different Now
One of the best reasons to proofread your book after it’s been laid out is that you’ve been given a chance to see your book in an entirely new form.
All through the editing process, you’ve only seen your manuscript formatted as a Word document (or whatever word processor you prefer). No matter what structural changes you’ve made to your story so far, no matter how large or small, the book has still looked basically the same on your screen—same font size, same margins, same layout, etc.
Not to mention, over the course of writing and editing your book, you’ve become intimately familiar with every facet of the project. That’s natural—it’s your book, after all. You’ve read and reread every chapter, every page, every single line of dialogue dozens of times. You know your story so well, you could probably recite most of it by heart…
And therein lies the danger.
At this point in the process, you’re so familiar with your book that when you read it, you can’t see the words on the page anymore. You’re reading what you think is there instead of what you actually wrote. This is especially true once you’ve been accepted for publication: when you reread your work, your vision is diluted by the glow of success.
“I’m going to be a published author,” you say to yourself, in so many words. “If my book was good enough for them, there can’t still be mistakes in it—right?”
But once your book is all laid out and formatted, you can see your work with new eyes. You get to experience your story like a first-time reader would: not as a Word document but as a book, with a book’s dimensions and margins and overall feel.
This change in perspective can be hugely beneficial to the editing process, and allow you to catch errors you would have otherwise glossed over completely. While a minor spelling or punctuation mistake might appear innocuous in a Word file, they stand out like a sore thumb on an actual book page.
Seeing your manuscript in its final layout may be the last chance you get to view your work objectively, and the opportunity to make last-minute tweaks and corrections should not be ignored.
5. You Are Ultimately Responsible for Your Book’s Quality
Getting a book published is a team effort.
An author writes a manuscript, then dozens of peer reviewers help him or her rewrite it. A professional editor helps rewrite it again, and copyeditors clean up any lingering mistakes. A book designer creates the interior layout, while an illustrator creates art for the front and back covers, and sometimes even illustrations for the interior pages.
But despite the multitude of people who worked on the project, when the book gets published, there’s only one name on the cover: yours.
That means when book-lovers read your story, they won’t see a massive collaborative with many pieces created by different people.
All they’ll see is one book created by one author.
This means if your book is a success, you get all the credit. Whoever proofread The Hunger Games doesn’t get fan mail, and the cover designer for A Game of Thrones doesn’t accompany George R.R. Martin to fantasy conventions.
However, being the center of attention has a downside too. If your book doesn’t succeed in some way—an unappealing story, flat or unrelatable characters, or simply failing to connect with your audience—readers will blame you.
This is equally true regarding errors in the finished product. If your book hits shelves with spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, audiences will view such sloppiness as your fault, not that of your editors.
My point is this: once your book is laid out, you should proofread it one last time simply because it’s yours and yours alone.
That’s the wonderful thing about being an author. Not only are you responsible for writing an appealing story, but when you assemble the team that will help you finalize the project, you’re team leader by default. It’s your name on the cover, and it’s your reputation on the line. Yes, you bear the greatest burden, but you have by far the most creative control over the project as well. No matter how professional and conscientious and talented the rest of your team is, your book rises and falls, lives and dies by your hand.
Don’t think about proofreading as a chore. View it as your last hurrah, your one last chance to polish your book before you lose that creative control and your story is out of your hands forever.
Yes, it’s extra work, but it’s a valuable opportunity as well—and one no author should ever willingly pass up.
How do you proof your work before publishing? Do you read it aloud, read it backwards, or just trust fate? Tell us in the comments!
For more information about editing and proofreading your writing, check out these articles: