When inspiration strikes and words are flowing onto the page, it’s understandable to bypass proper grammar rules. You’re in the zone. Ideas are more important than commas. But when you’re out of the drafting stage and ready to take on serious proofreading, missing punctuation and wrong words are inexcusable.
As a writer, especially one looking to publish, it’s essential to have a solid understanding of the basics before you send your drafts to an editor.
Catch the simple mistakes before you pass off your manuscript to a publishing company. A well-proofed manuscript will boost your professionalism and credibility, and it will give editors a chance to focus their attention on the heavier editing. AND it’ll save you money, as many editors charge by the hour!
Before we jump in … a pre-pre-checklist:
Read out loud
It’s quite easy to overlook mistakes when you’ve been staring at the same text for days, months, years … Reading your work aloud, with vocal inflections and emotion, is a huge help when proofreading and checking for clarity.
Utilizing two senses boosts your awareness and focuses your attention on what’s actually on the page—not what you think you wrote on the page.
Above all, take your time. Most errors are made, and overlooked, when we speed through things. If you read at a too quickly, you won’t give your eyes sufficient time to spot errors.
Without further ado, the top 10 things to pre-proofread:
1. Skimmed-over extra words (ever wrote “the the doorbell”?) and silly typos (is it “a” or “an” hour?) pop out on the page when you are concentrating word-for-word.
2. Complicated phrasing: If your tongue is tripping over writing that is familiar to you, a new reader may have more trouble with it. Think about rephrasing or simplifying your sentence for an easier read.
3. Faulty structure: Reading aloud is also a good way to catch sentences that sound strange, like…
Sentence fragments: sentences missing a subject or complete verb.
Run-on sentences: sentences that have at least two complete sentences combined without correct punctuation.
Long sentences: if you have to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, that’s a clue it’s too long and, perhaps, unfocused.
4. Comma Splices
Be wary of comma splices—commas that separate clauses that could each stand alone as a sentence. Too many commas can be a bad thing. Quick fix: replace the comma with a period, semicolon, or restructure the sentence.
5. Quotation Marks
Though word processors typically format your quotation marks automatically, it’s easy to double check: are your quotation marks facing the right direction (curved toward your text) and does all punctuation fall inside your end quotation?
6. Double spaces, missing punctuation, and indents
An extra space after a period or a missing period at the end of a sentence is simple to correct and clean up the look of your manuscript. Also, make sure all your paragraphs are indented—with the exception of the first line at the beginning of a chapter or under a headline.
7. Wrong Words
Spellcheck is NOT foolproof! Wrong words can sneak into your writing and spellcheck might never indicate the error—because they are spelled right, right?
Homonyms are words that sound alike, but have different spellings and meanings. Make sure you’re writing the right “their,” “there,” and “they’re” in your story.
8. Its or It’s?
“Its,” is the possessive form of the pronoun and is never written with an apostrophe; however, the contraction of “it is” is always written as “it’s.”
9. Hyphen or dash?
Hyphens connect two words or numbers together into one concept, especially adjectives, like “ill-fated,” and break up a word at the end of a line.
En-dashes (short dashes) replace the word “to” or “through” when discussing a range of values (June 2–13).
Em-dashes (long dashes) are used like commas or parentheses to emphasize clauses, interruption, or indicate changes in thought. Note: em-dashes are the length of two hyphens; typed together, most word processors will automatically create an em-dash.
10. Dot, dot, NOT
Three periods does not an ellipsis make. An ellipsis is a period-space-period-space-period space, surrounded by a space on both sides. Most word processors will automatically make an ellipsis after creating three periods, but it doesn’t hurt to double check! There’s nothing worse than seeing a broken string of periods on a line.