Proofreading Books Without the Manuscript: The Cold Read

In April 2016, I was lucky enough to be the cold reader of Liane Moriarty's Truly Madly Guilty. The Aussie writer hadn't been on my radar, but in 2017, she gained notoriety when HBO produced a miniseries based on her bestseller, Big Little Lies.

Cold reading Truly Madly Guilty was like puppy sitting: sure, you're getting paid, but can you really call it work? I liked the book so much that I asked the production editor for an advance copy and sent it to a friend in Illinois. (My mother even read it before I popped it in the mail.)

So, what's a cold read? Let's take a look.

Proofreading versus Cold Reading

Proofreading is the process of comparing, word for word, a copyedited manuscript against page proofs, or the typeset pages. The proofreader not only catches typos and spelling and punctuation mistakes, but also sees the copyeditor's edits and can point out inconsistencies in style, author queries that weren't answered, spots where the editor made a mistake, or errors the author or production editor introduced after the copyedit.

Proofreading is frosting on a cupcake. A cupcake without frosting can taste just fine, but you likely won't remember it affectionately. Maybe you won't even think of it as a "real" cupcake. (Unless you hate frosting, in which case — really?) When you read a book that hasn't been proofed, you can follow its plot and enjoy the language, but you'll be caught short by distracting peeks behind the curtain. Your experience will be tarnished. It won't be a "real" cupcake. 

Cold reading is the process of reading proofs straight up, without the manuscript for comparison. Any book that's gone through a solid editorial process should carry only a few errors at this stage.

If proofreading is the frosting on a cupcake, cold reading is the sprinkles, swirls, and ganache on top of that. Cold reading takes the book from a 9 to a 10 on the error-free scale. (Of course, if the ingredients in the cupcake are off — double the baking powder or not enough flour — it doesn't matter how spectacular the toppings are. In other words, if a book is poorly written in whatever way, getting through it without any spelling, punctuation, or continuity errors won't qualify as a great reading experience.)

Here are the types of mistakes I normally find in a cold read: 

  • Misspellings: "gravely" instead of "gravelly"
  • Ending quotes that have been left off: "I'm sick to my stomach," Edgar said with a groan. "I can't walk.
  • Missing periods; double periods: The chair hit before he could get his hands up, and he slipped on the slick wooden desktop and fell flat on his back..
  • Words that have been broken at the wrong place at the end of a line: "domic-ile"

Occasionally I'll find more serious mistakes, like name changes or, heaven forfend, timeline or continuity problems. Finding a blip in the timeline — Nadia going to dinner twice in one night, for example — is akin to peeling back the paper liner on your exquisite cupcake only to discover worms. At that point, it's cold-sweat time, never mind cold read.

Proofreading IS Cold Reading for Independent Authors

Cold reading is usually scheduled for a traditionally published book either when it's from a bestselling author, like Liane Moriarty, or when the proofs were messy after the proofread and editorial wants to take one more pass.

But independent authors don't create proofs in the same way publishers do; they just work with revised versions of a Word document. This means they're not likely to give the copyedited manuscript to the proofreader to compare against the next iteration. For an indie author, the proofread is the same as the cold read: a chance to go through the manuscript one last time to apply all the frosting and other scrumptious final touches. 

Of all the stages of the editorial process, cold reading is the most like being paid to read. Truly Madly Guilty was light on mistakes, as I recall, and it was one of the many projects that cause me to shake my head and wonder, does it get any better than this?