Proofreading: All the Tricks for Producing a Polished Novel

Abi Wurdeman
April 23, 2024

You’ve written a whole entire novel. You’ve revised it, edited it, welcomed feedback from alpha readers, beta readers, critique partners, and maybe even a professional editor or two. You’ve invested hours, energy, and a chunk of your soul into making this story as strong as it can be.

Now it’s time for the very last step: proofreading.

For most creative types, proofreading is the least engaging phase of the writing process. At this point, the big challenge is no longer finding the most emotionally resonant way to express yourself on the page. It’s painstakingly combing through a lengthy document to make sure you haven’t broken any rules.

But what proofreading lacks in interestingness, it makes up for in extreme importance. This is the phase where you make sure your manuscript is error-free.

“Error-free” means agents will take your work seriously. Readers will trust you as a legit professional. And you don’t have to worry about typos, inconsistencies, and punctuation errors distracting your audience from the story you worked so hard to polish.

So let’s bite the proverbial bullet and get this proofreading thing done, shall we? You’re about to learn what proofreading is and isn’t, what this process looks like, and how to handle it on your own or with a pro. 

I can’t promise this will be fun. But it’s all crucial for ensuring your masterpiece is the best it can be. So let’s get to it.

What is Proofreading?

Black-framed glasses sit on the pages of an open book.

Proofreading is a form of mechanical editing focused on details like spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, and formatting. This is the very last step before you either start querying agents, start submitting your manuscript to publishers, or release your book yourself. 

To put it another way, if you’ve named your manuscript file “Final_Final_FINAL_Draft.docx” and really believe it’s true, you’ve finished the proofreading phase.  

What Proofreading is Not

If proofreading is the last stage of the editing process, that implies something else comes before it, right?

Yep. There are actually a few different types of editing that come first, and it’s easy to get them tangled up with one another. So here’s a little clarity:

Developmental editing - Also called content or structural editing, this is when you and/or a professional editor look for opportunities to improve the story itself. Content editors look at things like plot structure, character development, and theme.

Line editing - Now you turn your attention to the prose itself. Are you using the best words to help the reader envision the scene? How’s your pacing? Do the characters all have distinctive voices and engaging dialogue

Copy editing - This is the bridge between creative revisions and mechanical editing. A copy editor reviews a written work to make sure the prose is technically correct and clearly communicates the author’s voice and intended message. 

Copy editing is very similar to proofreading. The difference is that a proofreader doesn’t concern themselves as much with questions of creative intention. And while some copy editors will deal with formatting, it’s not an assumed responsibility of their job. 

The Proofreading Process

Hands type on a laptop sitting on a desk between a cup of coffee and a small houseplant.

So how does proofreading work, exactly?

As we’ve established, this is the last step after you’ve completed developmental, line, and copy editing. You don’t need to proofread—at least not thoroughly—until you’re happy with your story and prose.

At that point, you can choose to either tackle this step yourself or hire a professional proofreader. Working with a pro is usually the best option. 

For one thing, they’ll spot errors your own eyes gloss over. Sometimes our brains see what we meant to write, not what we actually wrote. Plus, a professional proofreader is likely to have a deeper knowledge of grammar and style rules than the average writer. 

In most cases, a proofreader will either indicate mistakes using proofreading marks or add suggested edits to your document in a writing program. That way, you can review and understand their changes before incorporating them.

Some proofreaders will even compare the marked-up copy with your revised draft to make sure the changes were made and nothing slipped through the cracks.

Common Errors to Look Out For

A person holds red-framed glasses on their face and looks at a computer screen with a shocked expression.

Now, let’s say you decide to proofread your novel yourself. What errors should you be looking for in your manuscript?

At this point, you’ll have dialed in all the artful aspects of your prose—word choice, voice, flow, and all that. So now it really just comes down to consistency and correctness. You’ll be looking for things like:

Spelling Errors

Letter tiles lined up in alphabetical order on a white background.

This one seems obvious enough, but keep in mind that even a technically correct spelling can be incorrect in the context of your book.

For example, the UK and US spell certain words differently. Humour and humor. Cancelled and canceled. Analyse and analyze. If you write in English, pick one version and use it consistently.

You’ll also want to be mindful of any terms or names you made up. Consider keeping a running list of words harvested from your imagination so you can easily double-check your spelling as you proofread.

Pro tip: You can create a style sheet for your writing in Dabble that has unique names, spelling, capitalization, and whatever else you (and your editor) will want to know while reviewing your manuscript. The best part? It’s only ever a click away when you’re writing or editing.

Punctuation Mistakes

A cluster of four brown and pink paper question marks on top of a brown background.

It’s important to pay close attention to all your punctuation marks, but I especially recommend keeping a close eye on those commas. I don’t know you, but I know commas. Those bad boys fulfill multiple functions, are widely misunderstood, and are easy to absentmindedly misplace.

Also make sure you fully understand trickier punctuation marks like colons, semicolons, and ellipses. For a quick-and-to-the-point rundown of punctuation in general, check out this article.

Grammatical Errors

When it comes to grammar, you’re looking for subject/verb (dis)agreement, poorly structured clauses, inconsistent verb tense, unintentional sentence fragments… that kind of stuff.

Your grammar doesn’t always have to be perfect. Sometimes it’s necessary to break classic writing rules for the sake of realistic dialogue, an informal narrative voice, or an engaging rhythm.

But if you break the rules, you have to know why you’re doing it. You also want to be confident that any deliberately incorrect grammar will make it easier for the reader to disappear inside your story, not distract them from it. 


Several red candy hearts with one green candy heart in the middle.

If you write out “thirty-three” on one page, you probably want to avoid using “51” on another. The same goes for the way you title chapters and format scene breaks.

Consistency can even be an issue with dialogue. Like when the character who always says, “Well, what you gonna do?” suddenly says, “Well, what can you do?”

You make a million tiny choices during the writing process. When you proofread, your job is to affirm those choices by making sure they’re consistent throughout your manuscript.

Formatting Errors

Ugh. Proper format. Font size, margins, line spacing, headers… these are very boring things to have rules about. But mistakes in this area are distracting at best. At worst, they can actually make it difficult to read your novel. (Keep those fingers away from Papyrus.)

How you format your manuscript depends on what you write—article, short story, novel, etc.—and what you plan to do with it—query agents, submit to literary magazines, self-publish, etc.

You may have to track down a formatting guide and adjust all these settings manually. However, some writing tools (*cough* Dabble *cough*) format for you. Even then, it’s your responsibility as the proofreader to triple-check that everything is as it should be.

Tech Tools for Proofreading

A person types on a laptop.

AI proofreading assistants are getting smarter all the time. And these tools don’t just speed up your editing process; they can also reduce the amount of proofreading that needs to be done by catching errors as you make them.

Both ProWritingAid and Grammarly call you out for misspelled words, grammar mistakes, and style issues like wordiness and passive voice. They’ll even tailor their feedback to your goals and genre.

For a free online proofreading tool, check out Cliché Finder. It’s pretty bare bones and doesn’t proofread at the level of ProWritingAid and Grammarly, but it’s still helpful for catching clichés, spelling errors, and opportunities to improve your word choice.

You can even save a step by using a writing program with an integrated proofreading assistant. For example, Dabble comes with ProWritingAid built-in. And, if you already have a ProWritingAid or Grammarly subscription, you can use it with Dabble.

Tech definitely has your back when it’s time to proofread your novel. But keep in mind that the smartest AI tool still isn’t a replacement for a human being. A flesh-and-blood proofreader understands grammatical nuance in a way the robots can’t. For now, anyway.

Proofreading Tips

Small doll hands arrange Scrabble tiles to spell "TIPS."

Now that we have some clarity about what the proofreading process involves, we should probably discuss what it takes to knock out this tedious task successfully.

It seems like it shouldn’t be that mentally exhausting to remove the occasional punctuation mark. But this is tiring work. It takes a lot of focus and patience to spot all those itty-bitty errors. 

Here are a few tips for ensuring nothing gets by you: 

Step Away

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when you proofread your own work is the fact that you know what you intended to write. That makes it really easy to miss all the little typos and spelling mistakes.

So give yourself a break from the manuscript. Maybe spend a week or two writing the next project, preparing your query letter, or getting your marketing in order for the book launch.

Then come back to your novel and proofread with fresh eyes.

Take Your Time

An hourglass with red sand sits on top of a newspaper.

This will take longer than you think it should. At least, that’s always the case for me. It feels like it should just be a matter of reading the manuscript and making the occasional adjustment as I go.

But I’m not just reading. My job is not to enjoy the story. It’s to examine the technical details and flush out the errors. That’s a word-by-word job.

So mentally prepare for this to take a while. Don’t expect to knock it out in an afternoon. Give yourself breaks and take your time.

Read Aloud

Read your manuscript out loud. That’s going to help you notice a ton of errors your mind would otherwise glaze right over.

It also happens to be a solid strategy for reviewing your pacing, flow, and dialogue. Bonus points if you actually print your manuscript. For whatever reason, most of us see mistakes better on paper than we do on our computer screens.

If you use Dabble, you can take this idea even further by using the Read to Me feature. That function allows you to listen while a disembodied voice reads your novel to you. Hence the name.

Keep a List

Hands with pink fingernails write in a notebook.

As you proofread, you might realize that you’ve made the same mistake multiple times or have some specific style inconsistencies throughout your manuscript. That is to say, you begin to anticipate errors you haven’t come across yet.

You might also think of something you want to double-check. Is the font the same on that section you pasted in from your notes app? Do you want to make sure all the chapters of your print book start on a right-hand page? 

As these issues occur to you, keep a running list so you don’t forget to look out for them as you proofread. You can also use your list to do a final search, making sure you’ve addressed every instance of those mistakes.

Closing Out the Final Stage

A smiling person throws paper in the air.

Once you and/or your proofreader have successfully smoked out every issue with your manuscript, what’s next?

Oh, just everything you’ve been anticipating since you started the complicated and thrilling process of writing a novel.

If you’re self-publishing, it’s time to release your book into the world (assuming your book cover is also finalized). If you hope to publish traditionally, you’re ready to start querying agents or submitting to publishers.

It’s also time to celebrate. Take yourself out to dinner. Make dinner for the friends who’ve been patiently waiting for you to emerge from your writing cave. Enjoy a little weekend away with the family. Whatever celebration means to you.

The publishing process is a whole other beast, so give yourself a moment to revel in the incredible thing you’ve already done.

How to Make Everything a Little Bit Easier

A person holding binders smiles and gestures with their free hand.

Before we part ways, I’d like to offer one final tip for making your proofreading journey easier:

Write your novel with Dabble.

In addition to having a whole bunch of super-fun planning and productivity tools, this writing program is loaded with features that make it way easier to write a clean-and-tidy draft.

There’s the built-in grammar, spelling, and style check. There’s the Read to Me feature. There are highlighting, comments, and sticky notes, which aren’t just handy for working with a co-author or editor—they also make it a breeze to note any punctuation questions or style choices that arise as you write.

If you’re not already a Dabbler, don’t worry. Click this link to start a free trial and get two weeks to test every last feature. You don’t even have to enter your credit card information to get started.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.