The Perils of Proofreading

Oh, the joys of editing!

One of my wife’s pet peeves is when people complain about errors in my books. Not as if Becky and I don’t complain about typos, too, when we’re reading novels. Errors are annoying, and they can pull the reader out of an enjoyable story. Still, Becky just hates it when someone points to some mistake in one of my books — a missing word, a misspelling, a typo — and comes to the conclusion: “No one proofread this book!” Alas, nothing could be farther from the truth, but still errors happen. Why?

A tour of the editing process may be in order. The revisions start with me, of course. As the author, I must take final responsibility for any errors in the text of my novel. By the time I send a manuscript to my editor, I’ve spent a year with the story. I’ve read every chapter at least twenty times, trying to fine-tune it. That’s part of the problem. I know the story so well by then, I can easily miss errors. I skim over missing words because I know what is supposed to be there, and my mind simply supplies it. After I’ve checked the manuscript so many times that I just can’t read it anymore, I give it to Becky and several other members of my immediate family to proofread. I also read it aloud to my son (if it’s a Percy Jackson book). Reading aloud, by the way, is tremendously helpful for revision. I recommend it to every author. I catch sentences that don’t sound right and dialogue that needs revision, as well as many typos.

After all this, the manuscript is sent to my editor. She reads it primarily for content changes. This character needs work. This part of the story needs some tightening. She also catches many grammar or punctuation errors that eluded me. The manuscript then comes back to me. I make changes and corrections. It goes back again to my editor, who gives it another pass. If she approves, it then goes to the copy-editor, who is the real stickler in the process. He goes over the manuscript with a magnifying glass, studying the grammar, spelling, and usage. He checks all factual references to make sure they are correct. Wherever necessary, he capitalizes, punctuates, and basically standardizes the language. He even types up an extensive style sheet, sometimes 5-6 pages long, listing exactly which rules of grammar he invoked and which forms of usage will be the law in this particular manuscript. My editor then reads it again and sends it back to me. I give it yet another pass and then send the manuscript back for typesetting.

Now you would think, at this point, the manuscript would be free of errors. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Sometimes the manuscript is re-keyed completely during the typesetting process, allowing an opportunity for a whole new set of errors to be introduced. I do get to look at the galley (the typeset manuscript) before it is bound and turned into an advance reading copy — the kind that says ‘uncorrected proof,’ though this is something of a misnomer. Still, errors slip through.

Becky knows how long and arduous this process is, which is why she feels the need to rise to my defense when someone wonders why I don’t edit my manuscripts more carefully.

Me, I’ve become more philosophical about it over time. In a 90,000-word manuscript, five or ten typos shouldn’t be surprising. I knew I was in good company when I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince two summers ago. The hardcover edition has some glaring typos in it. This was the most anticipated literary event in the history of the world. You would think if any book would be error-free, it would be Harry Potter. But, no. Even his magic was no match for the dreaded Lord Typo.

So next time you come across an error in a book and are tempted to blame a lazy editor or lazy author, just remember us toiling away in the land of comma splices and hyphenated words. We try, dear reader. We really do!

Rick Riordan