Each stage in the editing process improves a manuscript and requires an acute attention to detail. But even if you’ve written the most brilliant prose and meticulously researched your book, readers will dismiss the work as sloppy, amateur, and unprofessional if it’s riddled with typos.
Frustratingly, these types of mistakes are often the hardest to catch in our own work. Our brains are so busy with the higher-order tasks in writing that our eyes literally see what they want to see. Though proofreading errors are difficult to spot, once you know what to look for—and have some handy tricks for uncovering them—you’ll be amazed (and probably slightly horrified) at what you can catch.
The great news is that every typo you do catch is one error your readers will never see.
1. Wrong Words
What are they? “Wrong word” mistakes are ones your spell-check software won’t catch because the word you used is an actual word and spelled correctly. It’s just not the word you meant to type. These generally come in two forms:
- Homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, like sight, cite, and site or bear and bare
- Words that are just a letter or two different, like soldier, solider, and solder; lightning, lighting, and lightening; or through and though
Wrong word errors have created some hilarious mistakes in books we’ve edited, like: The killer dashed through the kitchen and hid in the panty.
Whoops. Nothing drains the tension out of a climactic police-chase scene like random underpants disguises.
How to catch them: These are by far the hardest errors to catch with your eye, so you have to rely on your next greatest tool: your ears. Read your work aloud, or have someone else read it aloud.
If you’re writing on a computer, technology is your friend here: Microsoft Word now has a Read Aloud function under the Review menu. To use this tool, check out the following instructions. If you’re using Office 365, you can even add a Read Aloud button to your Quick Access Toolbar—super convenient!
- Windows for Mac: https://support.office.com/en-gb/article/hear-selected-text-read-aloud-ce9fb073-2a4d-44d2-95f7-6a532f0ab112
- Windows for PC: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/use-the-speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c
2. Dropped Words
What are they? Dropped words are exactly what they sound like:
- words that you meant to type but never did
- words that you accidentally deleted during the process of writing and revising
Usually, they’re smaller words—like articles (a, an, the) or prepositions (to, of, in, on)—and that’s why your eye skips right over them. So you might end up with something like: After I finish this article, I am going the store. Or After I finish this article, I going to the store.
How to catch them: Grammar checking software will catch some of these but don’t trust it completely. As with wrong words, hearing the text aloud is the best way to detect a missing word.
3. Dropped Punctuation
What is it? Like dropped words, this is essential punctuation that is missing. We’re not talking about commas or hyphens here; the usual suspects that readers are likely to notice include:
- missing punctuation at the ends of sentences or paragraphs
- lonely quotation marks (you’re missing either the set at the beginning or the set at the end)
- missing punctuation around dialogue tags
How to catch them: Grammar-checking software may help, but the fastest way to catch some of these errors is to do a series of searches in your electronic document. Here are a couple of our favorites.
To do a document search in Microsoft Word, go to the Edit menu, choose Find, and then choose Advanced Find and Replace. A sidebar will expand on the left side of your window. In the top (Search) box there, type:
4. Duplicated or Transposed Words
What are they? Duplicated words are are words you accidentally typed twice (as I just demonstrated), usually because you paused your train of thought while writing. Transposed words are correct but just in reverse order. An example would be something this like sentence.
How to catch them: Spell-check and grammar-checking software can usually catch these, but the read-aloud trick definitely will.
5. Misspelled Character Names
What are they? You may scoff and think that you’d never do such a thing, but we see misspelled character names in the manuscripts of even super-famous authors. And they’re especially prevalent if a character has a name with more than one common spelling. Examples we’ve seen include:
- Kelly, Kellie, Kelley
- Conner, Connor
- Rachel, Rachael
- McGregor, MacGregor
- Hannah, Hanna
- Page, Paige
Keep in mind that inconsistent spellings can appear both in first names and last names, so you’ll need to be vigilant and check both.
How to catch them: Choose a combination of letters that all spellings—the one you want and the alternative(s)—have in common. For the examples given above, we’d use:
Using the Advanced Find and Replace sidebar, type just this letter combination (case sensitive). When you click Find, every instance in the manuscript will appear in a list. Then you can easily scan down the list to look for any alternate spellings that don’t match the one you want, so you can correct them.
6. Scene Continuity Errors
What are they? Scene continuity errors are mistakes in the action of a scene. For example, a character may stand up when they never sat down, close a car door twice, shake hands with someone we’ve been told is standing behind them, or hug someone even though their hands were zip-tied behind their back three paragraphs ago.
In these cases, the words are all correct, but the action or body position of a character is illogical or repetitive.
How to catch them: Unfortunately, there’s no Advanced Find for these mistakes. There are really only two options: (1) Give your manuscript to someone who hasn’t read the story before, so they can catch these things for you. (2) Put your manuscript away for a week or more and then come back and read the scene again with “fresh eyes.” To be safe, we suggest doing both.
7. Formatting Mistakes
What are they? Formatting mistakes are errors of type layout. You don’t need to worry about these until you’re getting close to uploading your manuscript for publication (if you’re self-publishing) or during your final round of proofs (if you’re working with a publishing house).
Some of these issues don’t apply if you’re only creating an e-book and don’t intend to offer your book in print. That’s because some print design elements don’t translate to electronic devices because the page layouts aren’t fixed.
Check in ALL books
- If your book has sections or chapters, check to make sure the sections/chapters are numbered correctly and sequentially and that the chapter headings on the actual pages match their entries in the table of contents (if you have one).
- Also be on the lookout for chapter labels that are inconsistently treated on chapter-opening pages. For example “Chapter 1…, Chapter 2…, Chapter Three…”
- If your book has front matter or back matter—like a dedication, acknowledgments, introduction, or about the author—make sure these elements are in the correct order according to your table of contents and that no sections are missing or duplicated.
- Make sure your copyright information, including your ISBN number, is correct.
- In print books, you have headings at the top of every spread of pages. Usually the one page heading is the author’s name and the other is the book’s title. Or one page is the book’s title and one page is the chapter title. Whatever approach you choose, you need to check every page to make sure the headings are consistent.
- Similarly, you’ll want to check the page numbers to make sure they’re sequential from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next.
- If your designer has made the decision to hide the page number or heading on chapter-opening pages, check all of them to make sure this was done consistently.
How to catch them: If you’re proofreading printed pages, you’ll just have to flip back and forth to check the table of contents and chapter-opening pages, unless you can get two copies of the proof. If you’re working in Microsoft Word, you can choose Split under the View menu to generate a second copy of your document, so you can keep one version set to the table of contents and scroll through the second one to make checking faster.
An Ounce of Prevention
Giving your work a final proofread before sending it out to an agent or editor or uploading it for publication requires a little time and patience, but it’s absolutely worth it. Once the errors are out there, you can’t take them back without costly electronic change fees or, worse, pulping physical books. So take your time to polish to the best of your ability, ask friends or family to be your “fresh eyes,” and hire a professional editor if your budget allows. You’ve worked too hard to be sunk by typos. (Just remember our cautionary tale about the killer in panties.)
—Lauren M. Bailey is the director of Kirkus Editorial.