Proof Copies: Do I REALLY need them?

Yes.

We could end it there and call this the shortest blog entry I’ll ever write. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

So let’s talk for a while about WHY you need proof copies of your book.

We’ll start with a few basic presumptions. We’ll presume that you’ve written your manuscript, that you’ve re-written it several times, that you’ve had it edited (hopefully professionally!) and made the necessary changes. We’ll presume that you’re releasing a paperback and that you’re industrious and decided to do the page layout and formatting yourself.

Are we all on the same page? Good.

Given these presumptions, how long would you guess you’ve spent staring at these words on your computer screen, even after you’ve finished writing them? Over the course of your many drafts and edits, how many times have you read over the same words? The answer is many – you have spent many many hours reading the same 70,000 words many times over.

And that, my friend, is the main reason why you need physical proof copies of your book. The problem isn’t that you’re lazy or stupid or sloppy.  You’ve read through every word of your book over and over again to catch even the smallest mistake, but that creates a whole different problem.

You see, the human brain has an incredible capacity to translate actual information to meet its own expectations. Have you ever read that email that gets forwarded around every few years where the letters in the words are all jumbled up, but you can still read it because the first and last letters are in the right place? Or have you ever glanced at a sign quickly and done a double-take because you think it says something wildly inappropriate? On closer examination you will probably discover that the actual words on that sign aren’t what you thought you saw. This happens because our minds work as our own visual Universal Translators (no Trekkies here? Would a Tardis reference be better? … No? oh never mind!) The point is that the brain is very good at taking the mixed up visual data that our eyes capture and fitting it into the empty slots of what we EXPECT to see. It’s a kind of mental shorthand that enables us to understand what is being presented to us even when it is visually incomplete or incorrect.  The more familiar we are with a visual cue (sign, symbol, word, sentence, etc.) the more easily we recognize it, and the less work our brain has to do to translate.

That’s a very handy trait under certain circumstances, like when reading signs on the side of the highway or skimming through your facebook feed.  It’s a lot LESS handy when you’re attempting to do something like proofing your own writing.  The more time you’ve spent on a text, the more familiar you become with it. The more familiar you become with it, the more likely your brain is to implement its handy-dandy visual translation trick when information is incomplete or incorrect.  That’s why you can read a sentence very carefully on more than one occasion and never realize that there’s a word missing.  This is doubly true if you are constantly looking at the information in the same format (in a Word document on your computer screen, for instance).

So how do you trick your brain into turning off this less-than-helpful superpower? The key is to find a way to make the words less familiar. Take them out of the setting that you’re used to seeing them in. Force your mind to actually engage with the text, rather than allowing it to see what it always sees. There are ways to do this before you get to the “proof copy” stage of the book-making game. Printing out your manuscript is one way of doing it.  Putting it in a drawer for a month is another. Both of these ideas work because they take away the familiarity factor. Words on a page read differently than words on a screen. Words that you haven’t seen in a month read differently than words you worked on yesterday.

But let’s say you’ve done that a half-dozen times or so. Do you still need to order a proof copy of your book?

YES

Because this is the only way that you will see exactly what your consumer will see.  And for whatever reason, things that didn’t stand out to you while you were formatting your text or editing your manuscript will become glaringly obvious when you see it in on that magical 6×9 page, held in your hand, and flipped through for the first time.

Let me tell you – I am a meticulous person, and if you’d asked me at the time of submitting my book for printing if I’d needed a proof copy I probably would have laughed. But I ordered a proof copy anyway. And a week or so later, when I received it and read through it, I was SHOCKED at the errors that I found. It wasn’t that there were so many – but they were so blatant, so obvious, that I couldn’t fathom how I’d missed them! There was even one on the first page. How mortifying is that?!?

So if you’re planning on self-publishing your book take my advice – order a physical proof copy before you hit that “publish” button. Believe me, it’s better to wait the extra week or two and find the typos yourself than it is to skip that step and have those typos found by readers. Remember, it only takes one or two glaring errors to convince a reader that they are dealing with an inferior product. And that’s not the impression you’re looking to leave, is it?

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4 thoughts on “Proof Copies: Do I REALLY need them?

    1. Absolutely! I’ve got a kindle, and it is one of the most convenient things in the world. I can throw it in my purse and know that I won’t have to decide what I’m reading until I’m in the mood to read it. But at the end of the day there’s nothing quite like an actual physical book in my hands.

  1. This is great advice. I’m a professional editor and proofreader, so when I read a manuscript on screen, I have the advantage of seeing it with fresh eyes–but when I print out a copy, I often find errors I missed on screen. A good proofreading trick that works for many writers is reading your book from back to front so you’re reading words instead of the story.

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