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Proofreading 101: What It Is, and Why You Need It

Page proofs…galley pages…typeset pages…first pass pages. Different names, same thing. We’re talking about a critical turning point in the author’s journey. Specifically, the moment when your manuscript starts transforming into an actual book. 

The term “proofreading” has entered the general lexicon, so it’s likely you’ve got a basic sense of what it entails. Perhaps the word brings to mind the image of an editor, pencil in hand, putting a second set of eyes on your writing. And indeed, proofreading is the art of ensuring there are no obvious errors in your work.  

But when it comes to the process of writing a book, there are some important proofing details you need to know.   

Enter this blog. My intention is to explain what proofreading services are, why you need them, when you need them, and what you can expect it to cost you.   

It may not be the sexiest information you’ve ever read, but if you want to write books like the pros, it’s required reading. 

What is a “proof” anyway?

The term “proof” apparently dates to the 1600s, when the printing press was just getting its wings.  

At that time—and throughout the several hundred years since—a “proof” was a trial run of a print job. Whether the job was a flyer, a pamphlet or a full-length book, the letters would be loaded into the galley on the printing press (a process called “typesetting”) and one single copy would be printed. 

This “galley proof” would then be corrected by an eagle-eyed human, and any errors would be corrected by the typesetter prior to the full print run.  

This “reading of the proofs”—aptly titled “proofreading”—still happens today. Anytime a document is reviewed for errors prior to printing or publishing, it’s said that the document is being “proofread” or “proofed.”  

At what stage is a book proofed? 

These days, most books are written in word processing software such as Microsoft Word. Editors prefer they be drafted in a basic Times New Roman 12pt font, with standard margins and text double-spaced.  

When printed, the resulting stack of paper is called a “manuscript.” This manuscript is edited for content, revised and eventually copyedited.  

But this manuscript is not yet a book. Except for the occasional workbook—and the most DIY variety of publication (hello, Kinko’s!)—you’re not going to see books sitting on bookshelves at the 8-1/2 x 11 size of the typical manuscript.  

Instead, it is the job of a professional typesetter to massage your text into a beautiful interior design, worthy of your book. An interior design that’s compact and readable, elegant and easy to navigate.  

Once the content is poured (that’s a fancy word for cut-and-pasted) into a design template, it’s entered a new phase. Leaving “manuscript” behind, it is now called by a variety of names: 

  • Typeset pages 
  • Galley pages  
  • Galley proof 
  • Proof pages 
  • First-pass pages 

Whatever name you call this new version of your baby, this much remains the same: It’s time for the book to get proofread. 

Note: I have no evidence for divine forces more compelling than the fact that errors invariably get introduced—in a most ghostly fashion—during the transition from manuscript to first pass pages. If you take just one thing from this blog, let it be this: Get your pages proofread at least one time after the book is set into type!  

If you do, and zero errors are detected, I will seriously buy you a pie. (I’m not even kidding, feel free to contact me.)  

What should I look for when choosing proofreading services?

There is truly only one thing to look for when choosing the human to proof your book. You are looking for someone who offers book proofreading services for a living.  

Within the publishing business, proofreading is considered a skill all its own. At one house I used to work for, we would bring potential proofreading candidates into the conference room and leave them there with a set of error-laden first pass pages and ask them to proof as much of the book as they could in one hour. In the process we’d be testing them both for speed and accuracy. 

Proofers look for much more than obvious typos. (Though your proofer should pick up every single one of those as well.) Just some of the things they’re watching for: extra spaces; incorrect punctuation; odd capitalizations; and design errors, such as extra spaces between paragraphs or misspellings in the “running heads” (headers and footers on the page).  

You need someone who not only understands basic editorial principles, but the basic principles of book design and formatting as well.  

The only way to make 100% sure you’re getting this pu-pu platter of proofing prowess is to hire someone who’s already getting hired—all over the place—for this kind of work.  

What’s it gonna cost ya? 

Compared to content editing, proofreading services are very reasonably priced. That said, different proofreaders charge in different ways. Some prefer an hourly rate, and in those cases you’re likely to spend $25-$40/hour depending on their location and level of experience.  

If the proofer you’ve selected wants to work hourly, be sure to ask for an average number of words or pages they can proof in an hour. While it isn’t going to be perfectly accurate, it should give you a ballpark of what you’re going to end up spending. 

Other proofreaders will charge on a per-word basis, with average rates running $0.02-$0.04 per word. If a highly accurate, advance cost estimate is important to you, you’ll probably be happiest finding someone who will charge based on word count. 

How many rounds of proofing do you need? 

Most authors I speak to are surprised to hear this is even a question. Shouldn’t one round of proofreading be satisfactory? The answer—after decades of industry test-driving—is a resounding no 

Most traditional book publishers put each book through no fewer than three proofing passes. (Aptly named “first pass,” “second pass,” and “third” or “final pass.”)  

The importance of an error-free reading experience for your end-user cannot be overstated. To readers of your book, typos or misspellings equal a lack of care and expertise. This is the last impression you as an author want to make! Proofreading your book thoroughly is like an insurance policy against negative reviews. 

Three rounds of proofing is the gold standard. If you’re self-publishing, it’s where you should aim. Why? Because your book will be competing with traditionally published tomes—and they’ll have their proofing ducks all in a row.  

But if you can’t afford three rounds, get at least two. 

And if you can’t afford two rounds, oh my goodness, please get at least one. 

Are you ready for proofreading? 

So…is your masterpiece ready for typesetting and proofreading services? If so, you’re in the right place. We have decades of book proofreading experience in our KN Literary Arts tribe. Good people who have edited for traditional houses and self-published authors alike. Just tell us a bit about where you are in your project, and we’ll hop on the phone to talk it through!