Nine things I learned about proofreading in the last two months

I have spent the last two months working with a copyeditor and two proofreaders on my novel A Pair of Docks. I am a fairly clean writer. I do not usually have run-on sentences, I can spell, I generally have subject-verb agreement and I know how to use most major punctuation marks (although I still struggle a bit with commas, em dashes and colons). In my day job, I often work as an editor and proofreader of technical writing. I thought the copyedit and proofreading portion of publishing my book would be a breeze.

I was very wrong. Here is what I learned:


1) Consistency, consistency, consistency:

My manuscript is fairly complex in the sense that the characters are trying to solve a mystery. They read things, Google things, write things down, quote things, work with symbols and sometimes very large numbers and refer to past conversations. There are sounds, and physics rules that run through a main character’s head. All of these portions of the text had to have their own formatting, and set of rules and that formatting and those rules had to be applied consistently throughout the document. This requirement to be consistent, more than missed commas or typos, was the main challenge in my manuscript. To the extent you can, go through and identify all of these types of unique formatting before the copyeditor starts, decide how you are going to treat them and make a style guide (see below). There will be ones that you did not think of that crop up as you go, but if you have the style guide started, you can just decide on a rule and plunk it in to the style guide.

2) Develop a written style guide right from the beginning:

There are only a few absolute rules in punctuation, spelling and grammar and different copyeditors and proofreaders will have different preferences. Do you allow sentence fragments or run-on sentences? Do you use colons? Do you use the Oxford comma? Do you put a comma before the word too when it means also all the time, none of the time or just some of the time? Do you use single quotations or double quotations? Do you use single quotation or double quotations for things that are referenced or ‘air quoted’? Do you leave a space on either side of a set of ellipses or close it up to the text? Work with the first person in your line up of proofreaders to develop this style guide that outlines all of the rules around your manuscript and how you are going to treat unique elements from the beginning. Review it yourself. Make sure you are happy with it and give it to the next people in your proofreading line up. This will not solve all of your problems, but it will help a lot.

3) Expect to proof your own manuscript more times than you ever though possible or desirable:

You in the end, especially if you are self-publishing, but even if you are not, are the person who cares the most about this manuscript. You are the only person who knows exactly what you are trying to say and you are the only person who will read it more than twenty times (you will probably in the end read it at least fifty times – your proofreaders will not). Even though it is said that you cannot proofread your own work, you actually can, and you are one of the most important proofreaders of your own work. You must review and proofread it before you send it to a copyeditor, and you must review and proofread it after each round with a copyeditor or proofreader. They will miss things and make mistakes, just as you will. It is critical that you review your document with eagle eyes after each round of editing, and catch as much as you can. Reading your manuscript for the fifty-second time is an excruciating process, but it is necessary. Spend time with it. Do not rush it.

4) Reformat your manuscript and print it out to proofread it early in the process:

I like trees. I fancy myself an environmentalist. I resisted printing out my document to proofread it. The thought of wasting that much paper and ink horrified me. But there is no way around it. It has to be done. Better yet reformat it into book form (by either using columns or changing the paper size settings and changing the line spacing) and print it out. Mistakes your eyes have glossed over time and time again will be obvious. Do this after the copyedit before you submit it to the proofreader. You might need to do it a couple of times. You will save yourself a lot of headaches trying to get things fixed once it has already been formatted.

5) Expect mistakes:

You will make mistakes, and so will your copyeditor and your proofreader(s). There is no way around it. We are all human and there are so many moving parts (letters, words, punctuation marks, spaces) in your manuscript that it is impossible to catch everything. As Grammar Girl pointed out: “If I produce 1,000 words a day, and I let 1 typo slip by every week, that's actually a 99.986% success rate. If you think about it in terms of letters rather than words, since most typos happen at the level of letters, that 1 typo a week equates to about a 99.997% success rate.” That is actually pretty good when you think about it. According to an association of professional copyeditors, studies have indicated that the best a human can do—even a professional proofreader—is 95% error detection. So unless you have paid someone to review your manuscript again and again, or devote themselves to it for several weeks, and let’s face it, most of us cannot afford that, expect a few errors to slip through. It is your job as the writer to do a final sweep – but also to understand that you, too, will miss things.

6) The more eyes the better: 

Everyone is better at catching different things. My copyeditor was great at commas, capitals, spelling, general style and working with me to determine my goals around the manuscript. My first proofreader caught paragraphing issues, comma and consistency issues. My second proofreader helped me with hyphenating adjectives, identifying coordinate adjectives and doing the final sweep. All of those inputs were essential. But more eyes also resulted in conflicts and challenges that I had to resolve myself and sometimes take back to the preceding person in the line-up to ask their thinking or logic. As one of the professionals who worked with me pointed out: “I am more flexible Grammar Girl and she is more Chicago.”

7) Keep a list of your own bad habits and check them first the next time around:

I way overuse the words “Well” and “So” at the beginning of dialogue. I also overuse ellipses. I capitalize things like City and Mayor that do not need to be capitalized. I underutilize contractions. I would have saved myself a lot of irritation if I had sat down and printed out my manuscript (see number 4) and identified these problems at the beginning, so they could be dealt with, rather than at the end when I have to have them deleted from an already formatted document. You won’t catch all of your bad habits, but you will catch some. Now I have a running list of things to watch for in my next novel taped to my wall.

8) There is no escape from learning the rules – or trying to:

I am decent at punctuation and grammar. I know when something looks right or wrong. I know the difference between its and it’s, there and they’re and effect and affect. But before September, I did not know what a coordinate adjective was, or how it should be punctuated, the Oxford comma (even though I had heard of it) was a bit hazy to me, and I did not understand the difference between a restrictive versus a nonrestrictive sentence-ending participial phrase (even though I had by instinct been punctuating them correctly). I was even a bit uncertain around semi-colon use. I had thought I could hire a professional to know those things for me. I was wrong. Even if you hire a professional, you still have to know enough to check their work and you will be so much better off if you know the rules yourself (especially since you won’t have to ask your professional dumb questions). I spent a lot of time looking things up. I learned a lot. I will never be Grammar Girl (although I can aspire). I will forget some things and will have to revisit them the next time. But each time I do this, I think (hope) I will get better at it and for me, since I edit and proofread for my day job, the skills will transfer to my other work, so it is a win-win.

9) Sometimes there are no clear rules:

This was a hard one for me to wrap my head around and there was some disagreement on my copyedit/proofreading team regarding this. Most of us accept that sentence fragments and the occasional deliberate run-on in fiction are okay, but not everyone agrees. What do you do when a character Googles something? Put what they Googled in single quotes, double quotes, and/or italics. What about when they read something? Should what they read be in quotes and/or italics? Should there be a colon or comma after the word read as in “She read: … ” or nothing? Do very long numbers in dialogue get spelled out or indicated in numeral form? Should you put a comma every place where you can put a comma? I spent a lot of time searching for answers to these questions and scouring other books only to find that there were no clear rules (I really wanted rules).


That summarizes what I learned about the copyediting and proofreading process over the last two months. The other point I would make is that it cannot be rushed. While at times I was incredibly impatient (mostly with my own pace, not that of my professionals), and just wanted to be finished, the work had to be done. I can only hope that with the help of my list above, it will go faster next time. For another excellent resource on proofreading, check out this Instructional Solutions article on 17 Proofreading Techniques. It may be focused on business writing, but the rules apply to fiction as well. I would love to hear about the experiences of others in their editing/proofreading process.

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Trim Size and Your Novel

Or everything you thought you wanted to know about trim size but were afraid to ask

Who knew you could spend almost an entire day researching trim sizes? I didn’t. I didn’t even know what trim size was a month ago. And I certainly did not know how much variation there is in trim sizes in the publishing world.

So what is trim size? Trim size is basically the size of the book. It is called trim size because that is where the book is trimmed at the end of production.


Trim size affects a lot of things including (obviously) the size of the book, the number of pages in the book, how the book looks and feels, and the cost to produce the book. These are important things to keep in mind as you make choices about trim size.

There are industry standard trim sizes, there are certain trim sizes offered by self-publishers (usually industry standard) and there are certain trim sizes that are customarily used for certain kinds of books, such as children’s books or graphic novels, but there are no set rules.

The only real rule is that mass market paperbacks – the ones you can usually buy in grocery stores – must be 4.25” x 7”. Most other books, other than hardcover books, manuals and workbooks and photography or art books, fall under the general category of trade paperbacks. Trade paperback novels, memoirs and non-fiction can range in size from 5.06” x 7.81” to 6” x 9”, although some non-fiction can be larger at 7” x 10”.

The most common/popular trim sizes are:

5 x 8 inches (203 x 127mm)
5.06 x 7.81 inches (198 x 129mm)
5.25 x 8 inches (203 x 133mm)
5.5 x 8.5 inches (216 x 140mm)
6 x 9 inches (229 x 152mm)

Joel Friedlander is really the guru on trim size (and many other aspects of book design) so check out his posts in this regard.

Certain trim sizes are favoured for certain types of books. Children’s books are often smaller at 5.06” x 7.81”. Longish literary fiction is often 6” x 9” to accommodate longer word counts.

Trim Sizes and Types of Book

Despite reading all of this, I still was not sure what trim size was best for my novels given their word counts and genres. My middle-grade novel is 79,000 words and thus may be too long for a 5.06” x 7.81” trim size. My adult action-adventure is a hefty 138,000 words. Is that going to be a tome in a 6” x 9” trim size? How are they going to look and feel?

I needed some data. The best place for that of course was my bookshelf. Armed with my very irritating metric-only ruler, I started pulling books off my shelf. I made the following interesting observations.

There is a lot more variation in book sizes than I expected. I thought all the children’s books would be 5.06” x 7.81” and all the adult books would be 6” x 9” but in fact, some of the children’s books were bigger than 5.06” x 7.81”, and many of the adult books were smaller than 6” x 9”.

Middle-grade Fiction Books

The middle-grade fiction books on my shelves tended to be more “square” at 5.25” x 7.55” (?? – I don’t see that on the list of industry standard sizes) with a few, such as The BFG, clocking in at the standard 5.06” x 7.81” and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series measuring 5.5” x 8” (again I can’t find that on the standard size list… maybe my ruler is broken). I also had one that was 5.06” x 7.55”.

Young Adult Fiction Books

The YA books tended to be slightly larger, but still smaller than the adult books, with the smallest at 5” x 8” and the largest at 5.5” x 8.25”(again not on the standard list) and one in the middle at 5.25” x 8”. These books tended to be much longer – all over 480 pages with lots of front and back matter.

Adult Fiction Books

These also ranged. Many of the books on my shelf, including, notably, all the self-published ones were in fact 6” x 9”. But there was also significant variation and some were 5.25” x 8.25” and some were 5” x 8”. When She Woke measures a strange 6” x 9.1”

To be clear here, I held the books up to each other to compare sizes after I measured to make sure the non-standard sizes were not a result of bad ruler use – they weren’t.

All of these books look fine. In some respects, the 6” x 9” ones border on feeling too big, but are fine. I would not go any bigger, and if your word count allows it, I would consider going smaller. As Friedlander observes, smaller sizes can make for a more intimate reading experience.

Trim Sizes and Word Counts

So what word counts work for what trim sizes anyway? Obviously with longer word counts, you want to consider bigger trim sizes so your book is not massively thick. Font size and line spacing are going to play a key role here in determining page length, but it is still good to know (vaguely) what word counts work for what trim sizes, as nobody wants to read 8 point font. Font sizes in printed novels tend to range from 10 point font to 11 point font with line spacing set at 120% to 125% of the font size. But there is a lot of variation in how much space different 11 point fonts take up.

I found the following rules of thumb, in terms of calculating number of pages based on word count and trim size, from Fiona Raven:

For 5.5” x 8.5” trim size, divide your word count by 390 to determine number of pages. So for my middle-grade novel, that would be 79,000/390 = 202 pages.

For 6” x 9” trim size, divide your word count by 475 to determine number of pages. So for my adult action-adventure, that would be 137,000/475 = 288 pages. Sounds like a positively slim volume!

But there seems to be a wide variation in these guides. I have also read from reasonable that you should assume 300 to 350 words per page no matter what the trim size (?). At 300 words per page, my adult action-adventure will be a more unwieldy 457 pages. Ack!

My formatter has just informed me that for 5.25” x 8” my 79,000 middle-grade novel will be about 300 pages. So that is about 263 words per page. I sincerely hope that if I choose 6” x 9” for my adult novel that I will get more than 263 words per page.

Update: I chose to make my adult novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation a 6" by 9" and had it set in 11 point font with 16 point spacing. It clocked in at a tidy 394 pages including all the front and back matter. Very relieved. One thing I did discover after originally having it set too small and too tight (10.5 font and 13 point spacing) and the doing line counts on many of the novels on my shelf is that most 6" by 9" novels have 32 to 34 lines of text per page. This is another good thing to check if you are in doubt with regard to your font size and spacing. But I will do another separate post on this sometime soon.

Word Counts and Printing Costs

My calculations started to panic me a bit. What if my action-adventure novel is too long? We’ve all heard that rule that novels should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. I’ve been told by agents that they won’t consider anything over 100,000 words. Is this the ideal size of a novel? If so, my 139,000 word behemoth is way over the mark.

But, still, the books that I grabbed from my shelves to do my measurement exercise seemed to suggest otherwise. Not one of the adult novels was under 390 pages. I’m not sure what word count they are but surely they are over 100,000.

I did a quick check of word counts on popular novels and was stunned to find that a huge number of them are well over 139,000 words. All this time spent writhing in shame that I am way out of the ballpark!! Look at these numbers (from

138,098 – Snow Falling on Cedars – Guterson, David
143,436 – The Two Towers – J. R. R. Tolkien
144,523 – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
145,469 – Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
156,154 – Watership Down – Richard Adams
157,665 – Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

186,418 – Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
190,858 – Goblet of Fire – JK Rowling
196,774 – The Corrections – Franzen, Jonathan
216,020 – The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay – Chabon, Michael
225,395 – East of Eden – John Steinbeck
257,154 – Order of the Phoenix – JK Rowling
349,736 – Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
418,053 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
455,125 – The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
561,996 – Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
587,287 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
591,554 – A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

Check out the list at Indefeasible as well as it includes some analysis of award winners too.

This list tells me there is no ideal novel size in terms of reader preference – at least it is not necessarily under 100,000 words. There is an ideal novel size in terms of printing costs though and, according to Novel Writing Help, for many publishers, that ideal size is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. This is because it costs a lot more to print a longer novel, but you cannot increase the price of a longer novel to match the printing costs (we don’t pay twice as much for a 600 page novel as we do for a 300 page one). As a result, publishers must sell more units in order to make a profit. Thus, they tend not to take chances on first time novelists with long novels.

However, as ebooks are on the rise, length may not be as critical, as obviously they do not have to be printed. That said, I think I better investigate the costs of printing my not-quite-a-behemoth adult novel before I proceed. That will be the subject of one of my future blog posts.

As with all my posts, this is just an overview of what I have learned through a little bit of research. Please feel free to add or clarify, I would love to learn more and hear your thoughts!

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Why do we Stigmatize Self-Publishing?

Why do we Stigmatize Self-Publishing?

Why do we stigmatize writers who self-publish? Other kinds of artists  – painters, musicians and filmmakers – are respected for their efforts to sell their work on their own. Artists sell paintings out of their house and in local galleries. Musicians put out indie records and tour around local clubs and restaurants to promote their work. They have  local followings and fans. We do not refuse to go see a band because a big label has not signed it. We recognize and respect it either as an up-and-coming band learning their art and building a fan base, or a band with decent talent that we like to listen to that might never make it big. Indie filmmakers are totally respected by both those in the film industry and the public for having the guts, talent and perseverance to put their work out there.

Why then can writers not do the same? What about writing requires curation and gatekeeping in a way that other art does not?

There is a lot of terrible self-published work out there, but surely there are terrible paintings, garage bands and indie films. Yet we still respect these other artists for putting their work out there for the public to decide on what it likes. Even if they fail, we have the attitude that at least they tried and followed their dreams. It is okay for a band to make a living doing small gigs and weddings.


Self-published writers, however, are often rejected by the traditionally published world and the public unless they make it big. There is limited respect for selling a decent number of self-published  novels or appealing to a small fan base. Self-publish and your neighbours and friends (especially your writing friends) will whisper “she self-published” as if you were caught sending photos of your  privates to everyone in town. We in general refuse to treat writers like we treat other creators. This is changing of course, and many self-published writers indicate they have had a very positive reception and experience.

I think the stigma associated with self-publishing is wrong. Let’s look at some of the reasons why it should go away altogether.

1)   Many famous writers in history self-published. According to Melissa Donovan of Writing Forward, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, and L. Frank Baum all self-published before they were traditionally published. 

2)   Many great books were rejected multiple times. Books like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Animal Farm and Lolita were all rejected over and over. While the authors of these three books persisted and eventually received publication, their repeated rejection indicates traditional publishers cannot always identify what will  resonate with the public. We expect writers to persist through rejections that would bring people in other professions to their knees. What if these writers had not persisted? How many great novels sit in  drawers because their authors did not send it out one more time to just that right publisher or agent who could see the merit in their work. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was rejected over 60 times. I went to a conference once and a writer who was an invited speaker indicated his first effort had been rejected 127 times. 127!!

3)   Many writers like the control and the financial returns  associated with self-publishing and do not want to be traditionally  published. The traditional view is that self-published writers are  those who have been rejected by every publisher under the sun because  their work basically sucks. However some writers now, such as Hugh  Howey, never considered a traditional publisher, while others, such as Polly Courtney, returned to self-publishing after being signed by a traditional publisher. There are many such examples of writers who like the control of self-publishing. When you self-publish, you get to select  your editor, choose your cover design and decide how you want to market  your book. When you traditionally publish, you do not. Self-published writers also receive a much higher share of the sale of their books – up to 70% of the cover price, compared to the 10% commonly associated with traditional publishing. It is simply no longer true to say that self-publishers are those who could not make it in the traditional publishing world.

4)   Some self-published books are good and sell well. The idea that all self-published work is crap is simply incorrect and self-published novels are selling. In 2012, according to CNN, Amazon indicated that 27 of the top 100 Kindle ebooks were self-published. Self-published books are regularly making the New York Times bestseller list and the number of self-published writers who have made it big is continuing to grow with names like Hugh Howey, John Locke  and Colleen Hoover. There are also many self-published writers who are not famous but who are making a living. Detractors will point out that  most self-published writers sell fewer than 100 books, but there is also  a high percentage of failures in traditional publishing, so it is not clear why this failure-to-sell stigma should attach itself to self-publishing.

5)   Traditional publishing can lead to a stigma too. Being selected by a traditional publisher is not the windfall that many  believe it is. It works out wonderfully for some writers, but they give up control over how their book is marketed and where it is  sold. Traditional publishers generally focus much of their effort on their best-sellers and established writers. New writers whose books do not sell well during the first six weeks can find their books pulled by booksellers and their chances of future publication diminished, which leads to a stigma of its own. The publishing world is simply not kind to writers who have only fair to middling success, or who have limited  success on their first time out. Stories abound of writers whose books were just not given a chance on the shelves and find their books wallowing in the warehouse while they struggle to find a publisher for  their second novel. Sometimes (often?) it takes more than six weeks for a   book to get noticed and become a success, or more than one book for a writer to become a success. In many other careers, we allow people to  grow and develop in their profession. For some reason, in writing, we often do not provide that opportunity.

6)   The whole stigma just does not make sense. Going back to the story about the man whose book was rejected 127 times. We laud a writer whose work was not good enough for 127 publishers or agents and invite him to a conference as a success story (and receive no actual  information regarding the number of books he has sold – just that he  ultimately was ‘approved’ by the industry), but we snub a writer whose  self-published work sells reasonably well. We admire indie films and bands and allow them to distribute their work through a variety of  traditional channels such as radio stations and movie theatres, but we mock self-publishing (calling it vanity publishing) and many bookstores still refuse to put self-published books on their shelves.

If you read any articles on the stigma of self-publishing (and there are lots), check the comment sections at the bottom. The level of  disagreement over self-publishing is significant, with some commenters staunchly defending the traditional publishing industry, decrying the  crap that is self-published and emphasizing the need for curation in  books, while others point out that they are making a decent living as a self-published writer and noting that perhaps it should be up to the  public to curate. I am still not clear why the debate rages in  self-published writing more than in other areas of art. Are there more self-published authors than there are garage bands, artisans and indie film-makers and, in particular, are there more bad self-published  authors? Maybe, but that still does not mean that they should be mocked so derisively. Those who are not good enough or don’t have some sort of appeal will simply fail to find an audience and will likely eventually channel their efforts into some other pursuit. Those who are good enough and find an audience, even if it is a small audience, deserve the  same respect that other artists receive.

I am not suggesting that the traditional publishing world sucks  (indeed, it routinely selects and publishes a multitude of brilliant books), or that writers should not consider the many potential benefits associated with traditional publishing. I just do not understand why traditional publishing and self-publishing cannot co-exist and why there has to be such a stigma associated with self-publishing. It is hard enough for writers of all types (traditional or self-published) to be successful and build a career that none of us (especially those of us who are writers) should look down our noses at those who try their hand at getting their work out there through other means – whether they succeed or fail.

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