Monday 14 November 2011


It's done. Over the last week I've been proofreading the 500-plus pages of Blue Remembered Earth, and a couple of hours ago I was able to email my notes back to my publisher. That, barring the small business of promotion, is where my obligations to the book end. It should be a time for celebration, but as always it feels faintly anti-climactic. This is my last chance to make any changes to the text, but since the typesetting has already been done, such changes cannot be substantial. My approach has always been to resist the urge to make wholesale alterations (which would be neither welcome nor economic at this point) but I will allow myself the odd word change here and there, and perhaps the recasting of a sentence or short paragraph provided those changes have no consequences to the rest of the text. What that means, obviously, is that a sentence can only be trimmed if it is clear that in doing so, the next sentence doesn't jump forward a line. By the same token, a sentence can only be lengthened if it doesn't spill over onto a new line. The only minor relaxation to this rule (in my eyes) is at the end of the chapter, where the effects of any changes will be confined to one page only, some part of which is already blank. But even so, you don't want to go around making extensive changes. They'll cost money, and perhaps more germanely, time. It certainly won't make you popular.

Besides, at this point the last person with any objectivity on the book is the writer. By the time I get to proofreading, the story is all but dead to me. It's a piece of timber and plywood stage scenery that I've walked around too often, kicked too much, and seen from entirely the wrong side. I've lost any real sense of what works and what doesn't; I can't judge pace or tone because all I can see are paragraphs and paragraphs of words that I know all too well. It ought not to matter, either, because ideally there shouldn't be much to debate, after all the drafts and rounds of editing that the book has gone through. It doesn't work like that, of course. A book like Blue Remembered Earth is 200,000 contingent decisions lined up one after the other. I think I might have managed to write one or two pieces of short fiction where at the time of submission I was happy with every word, but a novel is an order of magnitude more complex. At this stage in the process all one can do is accept that this is the finished product, and another year or two wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference.

If there's one crumb of consolation to be extracted from all this, I've found it really helpful to be forced back into BRE while in the middle of writing the follow-up. As much as I resented the interruption in my flow of work when it arrived, it's been good to be reminded of characters and themes that might profitably be referenced or developed in the new book.

My method of proofreading, incidentally - in the remote event that it might be of interest - is roughly the following. I get a large bundle of typeset pages through the post. I sit and read them, as carefully as I can, in chunks of no more than 20 - 30 pages at one go. Any longer, and my eye starts skating over the page, no longer attentive to missing words, typos and so on. When I find an error, wish to make an alteration, or flag a query, I mark up the change in green felt-tip and then add a mark to the top right corner of the page. I then continue reading, until I'm done with the book. Only then will I go back through the manuscript, noting these changes back into a document on my PC. Reading the book takes about a week, since for obvious reasons it can't be rushed. Compiling the changes into a file takes about a day; I then email it back to Charlie at Orion. No one but me gets to see the annotated manuscript, and on the second pass I'll generally decide that some of my changes are merely changes for the sake of it, and bring nothing to the novel. One of the running queries in the current book was to check that I'd spelled "Oort" correctly; I had, but it's good to be sure.

And that's it - job done. Until the next one.


  1. It may sound boring, but I've always wondered how proofreading works in mainstream publishing. I've read books by authors whom I'm quite sure don't do any proofreading, and wondered how they got published. But most of the books I read have good spelling and are syntactically correct. I've mostly wondered if it's the author or someone else (or many people) that proof the manuscript. Thanks for the insight!

  2. Thank goodness you're done. It seems like such a long time since Terminal World came out. Being a fan can be hard sometimes.

    And yep, I really appreciate that you shared your method for proofreading. I think your novels have always looked pretty clean to me when I've read them. So, good work.

  3. Can't wait till it hits the bookstores.

    I know what you mean with proof reading. I didn't leave science. Every paper is just like the thesis, by the time its finished i don't want to look at it again. Ever.

  4. I, too, have often wondered about the proofreading process. As quite a slow reader who tends to read every word I'm always spotting missing or incorrect words and missing punctuation. I always thought I'd make a good proofreader except that I'm so slow. :-(

    Your books are pretty good as far as errors go, though. :-)

  5. Proofreading is a skill, of course - I'm not (never have been) particularly good at it. I used to hate proofreading papers too, Bob. Mine's not the only pair of eyes looking at the ms, either - although inevitably mistakes will slip through. We're all only human.

  6. Thanks for the sharing, it s interesting to learn about the process behind the creation of a book.

    I work in video game industry, and we have a big stage gate process here too, with our kind of proofreading step too.

    Do you manage to do a kind of panel test, make read the book by families and friends, and even a selected group of peoples ?

    now waiting for the release of the book, will certainly order it twice : one ebook to read it asap, and one paper to keep it with all the others :)

  7. Echo Rusty. Its feels like ages since Terminal World can't wait to read BRE.

    Even better to hear your already "in the middle" of writing the next one.

  8. Just finished proof reading my first book (a boring business one) and your technique is the one recommended by my co-author. I still expect that the first time I open a finished copy I will see an obvious error (I did with my thesis). Looking forward to your book - no one is looking forward to mine.

  9. Congrats on finishing the job, Al! Can't wait to read it. Thanks, also, for the proofreading behind-the-scenes info. My dream job has always been to be a proofreader for a publisher, but I've never seemed to live in the right area to pursue it. In almost every book I've ever read I've found at least a small error or two here & there and thought: Gee, if they'd only hired ME none of this would have made it into the final product! :-) But as you said, none of us are infallible. I'd sure relish the opportunity to try, though!

  10. Just finished reading House of Suns for the second time... for a second time, left with a breathtaking and somewhat haunting sense of scale in time and distance.
    Can't wait for BRE, and thanks for sharing.

  11. Interesting to hear about your work routine. Am sorry to hear that you do not enjoy the books much at this late stage in your process. I can only imagine my reaction to anyone who is not you who openly said that they did not like titles such as Terminal World.