And proof pages – what are those?

As I’ve mentioned before, my most popular post on this blog is something I wrote way back in 2010, called And what is line editing exactly? It’s all about palimpsests, and it describes my experiences of getting close to the end of editing my first two books.

I was discovering then, and have since become more certain, that everyone’s experience of the editing process is different. It depends on the book, the publishing house, the way your editor (or editors) like to work, and you … Much like the writing itself, it helps to know how other people do it and see it, but eventually you just have to go your own way and work it out for yourself.

I’ve just finished book 6, The Castle, which comes out in August. So far it has been through edit 1, with editor Imogen, then edits 2 and 3 (both fairly major) with editor Bella. Edit 3 was so detailed that it effectively became the line edit. Hugely painful at the time, revisiting every sentence, testing each one for the pace of the plot and the depth and development of the main character’s emotional journey – but brilliant when it came to the next stage, the copy edit (which I normally dread), because there was very little to do.

The copy editor gets the manuscript once you’ve nailed down the story and characters and, as far as you and your editor are concerned, every paragraph is nigh-on as perfect as it’s going to get. She’s there to check the manuscript objectively for internal inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, grammatical oddities, and deviation from house style in grammar or spelling. It can be a nightmare (‘She was outside. Now she’s inside. How did she get through the door?’ ‘How can she know [insert character’s name] when she’s never met him?) But this time was different.  In fact, if you took out the copy editor’s preference for italics over apostrophes, which I was fine with, there were only about a dozen changes. Unheard of for me! I took the opportunity to make lots of fine-tuning textual changes of my own. And then the text was ‘finished’. Which meant it was ready for the typesetters. And then, a few weeks later, came the proofs.

Proof pages tend to come as a print-out – the first time, these days, that you get a paper package in the post, rather than an email – of the pages as they will look in the book. It set out in landscape, with two book pages to each side of A4 and it’s thrilling. You finally get to see the text as the reader will see it: so many words to a page, the chapter headings in that font, in that position … and the idea is to change as little as possible: only any mistakes that may have crept in.

My memories of other proof edits are dim, because by then I’m always onto the next book and this is something that has to be done quite quickly (the typesetters are waiting!), and hopefully without too much fuss. This one was fascinating.

I had expected to want to race through it as quickly as possible, then get back to the new book I’m writing, but in fact I enjoyed it. There had been a decent break between edits, whereas most of the others had been back to back, so I’d had a breathing space and could come to the text fresh. Several sentences that hadn’t flowed properly and had bothered me throughout the long writing process suddenly resolved themselves. Because the lines are much shorter in a printed book than they are in a Word document, I could spot repetitions I hadn’t noticed before. There were a few places where mistakes had crept in in the last edit – missing words, plural verbs with single subjects – but they were rare. Sharpened pencil at the ready, I hope I caught them all.

It wasn’t all criticism. There were a couple of places where I felt the writing actually flowed as I had always wanted it to, and where I was quite proud of it. But on the whole, wherever I looked, there was something I could tweak to make it better. Often a word, occasionally only a paragraph break, or a comma. (I tried to limit myself with comma changes. When you get to that level of detail, you know it’s time to step away.)

The last page was only two and a half lines long. That had to change. What reader wants to turn to the final page and discover she’s only got half a sentence to go? We agreed to format the chapter slightly differently so it would work. And at the very last minute, I took out the penultimate chapter completely. It was only two pages long, so not complicated to do from a typesetting point of view. And I realised, coming to it fresh, that much to my surprise it was totally redundant. Everything important it had to say was captured, better, in the chapter that followed. So out it’s gone.

The book is done now. I won’t see it again until it’s printed. And strange to think, having read the text hundreds and hundreds of times, I will probably never read it straight through again. I’ll read bits, to find appropriate extracts for readings in school visits, but never from cover to cover. For now, it’s on to book 7 …