courtesy of flickr.com

After last week’s post, I had many comments giving me advice on how to reduce the costs associated with self-publishing. One suggestion was that in time, I might be able to miss out the final professional edit but that I should never miss out the final professional proofread. I have pondered this over the past week and concluded that for the time being, I’m going to have to pay for all the professional help I can afford because as a new writer, I just don’t know enough yet to be sure of my writing.

However, I did recently start a course of training with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Admittedly, it is only the beginners’ course in Proofreading that I’ve been doing but what I know for sure as a result of doing this course, is that I would make a very good proofreader (if you will allow me to blow my own trumpet just this once 😉 ) As a teacher in my day job, I already feel like I spend a lot of my time proofreading anyway when I’m marking children’s books and I have always been good at SPAG (that’s Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar to the uninitiated!) My husband’s advice has been that maybe in time, I might feel confident enough to do the proofreading myself, although I know there will be loads of you out there saying ‘No! You can’t do your own proofreading!’ I hear you and I understand.

Anyway, it got me thinking about some of the grammatical things I still find hard after all these years and I thought they would make a good blog post for today. These are a few things that you can do to improve your own manuscript before you send it off to the proofreader, making their job easier and maybe saving you a few pennies along the way.

1. When to use a colon
According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are three main uses of a colon:

  • Between two main clauses, where the second explains or follows on from the first.

By running the marathon, he achieved his goal: to raise £500 for Cancer Research.

  • To introduce a list:

You will need the following ingredients to make your cake: butter, flour, sugar and eggs.

  • Before a quotation and sometimes before direct speech.

The poster stated: ‘Your country needs you!’

2. When to use a semi-colon
The main job of a semi-colon is to show a break that is stronger than a comma but not as strong as a full-stop. It is used between two main clauses that are too closely related to be made into separate sentences but would still make sense on their own:

France is my favourite holiday destination; the weather is reliable and the food is delicious.

You can also use a semi-colon instead of commas in a more complex list:

Our holiday itinerary is as follows: three days in Memphis, including a visit to Graceland; three days in Nashville, seeing all the sights, especially The Country Music Hall of Fame; three days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a final day in Gatlinburg.

3. Punctuating Direct Speech
In the UK, we usually teach children to use double inverted commas around speech. However, many style guides recommend using single inverted commas for direct speech. Either is acceptable but you must choose one style or the other and stick to it:

‘I find all these punctuation rules so confusing,’ she said.

‘Me too!’ he cried.

“I find all these punctuation rules so confusing,” she said.

“Me too!” he cried.

You must always start a new line for each new speaker and the final piece of punctuation at the end of the speech, for example, a comma, full stop, question or exclamation mark, must come inside the inverted commas.

4. The Oxford or serial comma
Before I started writing, I had never come across this and I’m not sure whether I should feel ashamed about that or not! I’ve probably seen it in lots of writing over the years but just not noticed it. Anyway, if you’ve never come across it either, let me explain. The Oxford comma is an optional comma used for clarification before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

I went to the shops and I bought apples for my apple crumble, pears for the tart I want to make tomorrow, and raspberries.

One of the things a proofreader will want to know when they start working with you is what your style preferences are and they may ask you if you have a style sheet for them to work with. If you don’t, most will create one for you and check your preferences before they get started. This will allow them to maintain consistency throughout your document.

I have only touched on a few points today and of course, there are many other things a proofreader will look at for you but I hope you find these useful in your writing. I find the Oxford Dictionaries website very easy to understand for grammar issues if there is anything else you want to check up on. Happy writing and please do leave me a message in the comments about your grammar concerns. Thanks for reading as always 🙂


17 Comments on A few proofreading tips to improve your manuscript

  1. Very clear, Julie. I’ve been using a colon before direct speech, but it’s not so commonly used this way and was considering swapping back. And I found it helpful here that you’ve clarified when to use a comma and when a semi-colon in a list.
    It all makes perfect sense.

    • Thanks for reading, Anne. I’m glad it was useful. I must say that I don’t use a colon before direct speech but it is apparently acceptable to do so! If only there were no exceptions 😉

  2. I’ve decided not to use the Oxford comma but pro writing aid gives me the opportunity to review that. You don’t need a proof reader except that it’s easy to miss your own mistakes. Someone told me they read from the end up by paragraphs so that they don’t get lost in the sense of the story.
    X thanks for the article. It is always useful to have a reminder.

    • Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment, Ros. I went and had a look at Pro Writing Aid which does look really good, except that it’s not yet available for Scrivener or for Word on a Mac 🙁 Maybe that will come in time.

  3. Hi Julie,
    This is lovely clear advice. Thank you. I do use the Oxford comma but hadn’t realised that it was identified as anything special. It definitely adds clarity in situations such as you have identified in the example.
    As far as indicating direct speech goes, recently I read some advice which I thought was very useful. The suggestion was to use double, rather than single, inverted commas because, if a request is made by an editor to use single inverted commas, it is easy to change all incidences using find and replace. However it is not so easy to change single to double because of the use of apostrophes as well.

    • Thanks for reading and for such a great comment as well, Norah. That’s great advice. I used double inverted commas in my book and then worried that they should be single and it was easy to change them. I just hope that my proofreader agrees with that when she comes to look at it!

  4. Thank you for this post! I often find myself explaining the difference between a colon and a semi-colon. For a completely unsought piece of advice, I do find that reading a manuscript aloud to a captive audience (a.k.a. spouse) can be an excellent way to proofread. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and for commenting, Caroline 🙂 I agree with you about reading your manuscript out loud, although I’ve not yet tried reading it to anyone else!

      • Even better is to get someone else to read it out loud to you because they don’t know what you have written and the meaning you are trying to convey so when you read your own work you put the correct inflections and punctuation in without realising it. To listen to someone else read a clumsy passage is telling.

        • Thanks for reading and commenting, Irene. You’re right. Mind you, there aren’t many volunteers around here 😉 I found it worked for me to read it aloud though.

  5. Great post Julie! Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who will ever be able to proofread my own work. At least I can admit it. I’m terrible … and I do mean terrible! Half of the time, I look something up, only to change something that’s correct to begin with. Semi colons are such a pest to me. You’ve outlined these few things simply and easy to understand. Thank you!

    • Yes, I know what you mean. When I’m trying to teach grammar to kids at school, I get so frustrated because there is always an exception to every rule and it only confuses them more. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment 🙂

  6. Don’t feel bad Julie about not knowing about the Oxford comma. It is mandatory for writers in the United States but is seldom used in British English. In Australia we follow British grammar rules. I did an online grammar course through an American University and heard of it for the first time. As the world gets smaller due to the internet the two forms of English are converging to the point we are using a combination of the two. I think as with your inverted commas as long as you use the same throughout the book it is acceptable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.