The senior teller handed the trainee a wrapper and said, “Make sure there are a hundred ones here.”
The trainee carefully slipped the wrapper off and started counting: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.” Then she stopped, rewrapped the bills and handed them back to the senior teller, saying, “It looks good so far.”
It’s tempting to treat page proofs that way, too. And it’s just as dumb. Don’t do it. Check every page.
But if you’ve never been asked to check page proofs before—whether by a compositor getting ready to send pages to the printer or by the printer getting ready to put your book on the press—you may not have a good idea of what to look out for. Here is a list to get you thinking. Not everything on this list applies to every book, and some books contain features that go beyond what I’ve listed here. I originally jotted this down in response to a question from a self-publishing author who had designed and typeset her own math book; so some of these points pertain specifically to books with equations. You can skip those parts if they don’t apply to you.
- RIP issues (uncommon these days, but possible)
The raster image processor (RIP) is the program that turns a PDF file into a visible image, on your monitor, in your desktop printer, and, most important, in the printing company’s filmsetter.
- The PDF should have had all fonts embedded, but verify this by looking closely at the pages. Sometimes a font refuses to be embedded, and you can’t know this until you look at the pages and find missing or wrong-font characters. Are you seeing what you expect to see? Are there any missing special characters or symbols in equations? Does the body text look, on close inspection, like the font you think it was set in or has a default font been substituted?
- Does the tracking and kerning look right? Do the justified margins line up straight?
- Are graphic curves smooth or are they noticeably faceted (approximated with a series of straight segments)?
- Images (halftones)
- With most presses, the image you see on the proof will be a little lighter than what prints. Is that how the images look? Can you see small halftone dots in the lightest areas (using a magnifier)? Can you see small white dots in the darkest areas? Does the picture look bright and clear rather than muddy and dark? If not, talk with the printer before going to press.
- Is the line screen what you expect? Are there moirés? Are all images visible, correctly positioned, correctly scaled, and with clean edges? I don’t think there’s much hand stripping going on these days, so I wouldn’t expect problems; but you do need to look.
Here you are looking for your own oversights, of which there may be none, but don’t bet on that.
- Are running heads/running feet/folios both present on every page where you expect them and correct? (Read them.) Check that fonts are consistent; if you have old style (hanging) figures on the chapter pages, do you also have them on the other pages? If you have small caps running heads, do you have them on every chapter?
- Are all pages present and accounted for, odd pages recto, blank pages where you expect them, correct total number of pages, including frontmatter, backmatter, and blanks? Does the first blank page count as page i? Are folios visible on pages where you expect blind folios?
- Do the table of contents entries have the correct page numbers, especially for the frontmatter? In the table of contents, are there still bogus numbers (zeroes) for the appendix and index?
- If something is supposed to be masked out, is the mask still there and covering as much as it’s supposed to or is there a tell-tale corner showing?
- Do facing pages balance? That is, are they the same depth?
- Are the margins consistent? Do bleeds actually bleed (you’ll need to check the PDF file to ensure there is a full eight of an inch available for every bleed).
- Do all paragraphs conform to the style you planned for them? Are most of the lists justified but somehow this one slipped by ragged right? Is there a paragraph that never got a style applied to it, leaving it in the wrong font, size, or leading? Are paragraph indents consistent with the design (lede paragraphs are usually flush, not indented).
- Are equation numbers present where you expect them and equations positioned consistently (horizontally)?
- Are figure legends spaced consistently from figures; credit lines positioned consistently?
- Glaring typos that you can’t believe you missed before
- Check the cover, title page, and copyright page thoroughly, word for word. This is when you're going to discover that the title or author is misspelled.
- Reread the acknowledgments (and ensure you spelled acknowledgments correctly). It is rude to thank someone profusely but call them Jean instead of Joan.
- Make sure running heads are the right ones for the chapters they’re in (yes, I’m repeating myself, but do it again anyway).
- Check every heading to ensure it is consistent with the spec for case—all caps, small caps, caps and lowercase (“title case”), initial cap only (“sentence case”). Check that, if title case is used, the correct words are capped.
- Skim every page for words that jump out at you—pubic for public, loose for lose, etc. It's not too late to do a complete proofreading if you find an unacceptable number of these on a quick skim.
- Check for straight quotes and straight apostrophes that never got converted to the typographic glyphs. Check for double hyphens or spaced single hyphens that were supposed to be converted to en or em dashes.
- If this is the first time you are seeing the index, proofread it thoroughly, verifying every page number and checking that the indexer included tables and figures.
- Turn the proof upside-down and go through the pages one more time. You will be amazed at how many errors leap off the page at you when you are reading upside-down.
- Stray marks
- With today’s digital technology, it is unlikely that small stray marks you see on the proof will actually print; they’re probably artifacts of the proofing process. Nonetheless, circle any marks you see, including white scratches across type. If you received a digital proof (looks like it came off a laser printer), don’t even bother with this. If you received a blueline (funky paper with the type in blue), then you should do this step.
- On the other hand, printers’ gremlins pad about at night. So do keep an eye out for strange blocks of type popping up in unexpected places, otherwise unexplained gaps in text, parts of an email you wrote to your mother some months back mysteriously interwoven with your narrative text, and other gremlin droppings.
Write your corrections legibly on the pages, in the color you’ve been asked to write in. If this means you have to run out to the drugstore for a red pen, do it. In fact, follow all of the directions that came with the proofs, especially the one that says when they’re due back. If you are responsible for providing a file with corrected pages, do so.
One more thing: Be nice. Whether you made the mistakes in the first place or someone else introduced them subsequently, nobody did so intentionally and nobody is out to make you look bad. Errors happen. The purpose of proofing is to find them so they can be corrected, not to point accusatory fingers. And if you’re unsure whether something is right or wrong, ask; don’t guess and don’t assume.