Proofreading the Public Domain

by Suw on April 1, 2009

For the last few months I’ve been working with Book Oven, a Canadian start-up whose aim is to make it easier to prepare long texts for publishing by making it a simple, collaborative process.

The first thing we’ve focused on is how to proofread a manuscript for typos. The problem with reading a whole book all at once and looking for typos is that you can get so caught up in reading that your brain starts to skip the mistakes, seeing what it thinks should be there instead of what actually is. But what if you were presented with just one sentence at a time? You’d lack some context, it’s true, but you don’t really need a lot of context to know if “teh” is a misspelling of “the” or that “their” should be “there”.

That’s what we’ve built at Book Oven, and we’ve called it “Bite-Size Edits”. It presents you with a random snippet of text, with a sentence above and below for limited context, and if you spot a typo you can suggest a correction by editing the sentence and clicking “Suggest changes” (click on the images for a closer look or visit our complete How To).

You can also tell us that the snippet is OK as it is by clicking “No changes”, or that there’s something confusing about it by clicking “Skip”.

If our calculations are correct, it will take 100 people just 10 minutes to proofread a 100,000 word book, and we want to bring that collaborative power to bear on on the public domain. Thousands of texts have been uploaded to Project Gutenberg, but although they have been very carefully proofread some still have a small number of errors. Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg’s founder, called for help in removing these errors, so we’ve set up a version of Bite-Size Edits, which we’ve called the Gutenberg Rally, to focus just on texts from Project Gutenberg and Distributed Proofreaders (Gutenberg’s proofreading site).

If you’d like to pitch in, all you need to do is pick an invitation code from the list below and visit the Book Oven Gutenberg Rally site to create a new account. When you’ve successfully signed up, please leave a comment with the code you used and I’ll cross it off the list.
Now, just a little word of warning. The site is in alpha, which means that you will almost certainly find things that are broken! We have a feedback form that you can use to let us know and a forum to discuss things (which, is itself something that’s not entirely finished, as it’s not yet fully integrated – just sign in with the same username and password that you create when you join the main site). We’d love your feedback, so don’t spare the horses!

If you explore the site, you’ll find that you can start your own projects, upload your own text (.txt files only at the moment) and can send it to Bite-Size for the community to proof. Please feel free to experiment, but be aware we’re still ironing out bugs and that we have a lot more social functionality still to unveil!

So, for the love proof-reading, get cracking! Oh, but be warned. Bite-Size Edits has been described by one usability tester as “evilly addictive”. Don’t say we didn’t tell you…

(I’ve added some more codes, but obviously can’t update the list whilst I’m asleep! If you pick one that doesn’t work, list it in the comments and try another!)

Invite Codes

Greg April 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

This is a really cool idea!
(I took VwZZj2pI)

Tanya April 1, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Great idea – I’ve used oTVgJSOs

Emma April 1, 2009 at 2:32 pm

I can believe this is addictive. I’ve taken EO7iT12w

Chris Mear April 1, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for taking what remained of my life away from me.

I’ve used IK0JLaVa.

Melissa April 1, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Well, you can count on me to break it. I used code mCUwe8P7, and it allowed me to enter my information but then gave me a KeyError. I tried to re-use that code and it said it was invalid; so I used BdNmA6Rh and again, it allowed me to enter my information, but got the KeyError again. I’m sorry – let me know if there’s someone I can email the error page to!

Suw April 1, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Chris, dreadfully sorry about that. You didn’t really want it though, did you?

Melissa, sorry it’s playing silly buggers. I’ve emailed you about it, and will talk to the developers to try and find out what’s going on and fix it! Thanks for letting me know there was a problem.

aquafortis April 1, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Very cool! When I get some spare time to breathe I definitely will try it out.

Pascale Soleil April 1, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I signed up: qOIWqvsS

Carl Morris April 1, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Proofreading you say? You’re talking to a guy who can get his relaxed evening totally ruined by a typo on a restaurant menu.

Michal Migurski April 1, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Looks interesting, I grabbed mpo1NyjH.

Suw April 1, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Carl, I used to work with someone who carried a red pen around at all time, in case she had to do a bit of emergency editing. She once had to edit an entire theatre programme before she could settle down and enjoy the performance.

Everyone else, enjoy!!

Stuart Ian Burns April 1, 2009 at 8:41 pm

Mine is WXzzcRvp. Burp.

Noirin Shirley April 2, 2009 at 11:00 am

I’ve taken upCATfBL

Now I’ll be able to read Project Gutenberg books again! I’m definitely in the Carl class 🙂

Greg April 2, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I took 636FnTyv.


Will April 2, 2009 at 5:22 pm


I took 35nZhNYR.


Monique April 2, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Myb6krry is for me.

Alex Ingram April 3, 2009 at 8:22 am

Excellent, I’ve taken 3WDL3kQa

Rob Myers April 3, 2009 at 2:30 pm

I used vsjpQFPU

Suw April 3, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Cheers, everyone, for listing your codes here. Still have lots to post up, so don’t worry about us running out!

Travis April 3, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Cool approach. I took jlZO9eKy.

Tim April 4, 2009 at 7:12 am

Nice idea 🙂 I took aldPyxu1

It’s pretty addictive, but I started wondering whether there’s a bit of a divergence between the aims of the input, and the proofreaders. The aim of the input is to be as accurate and have as few mistakes as possible – but the proofreader is motivated to find as many as possible. When you’re working through the snippets, you’re geared up to find errors, so every time you report a correct one, subconsciously you’re being frustrated every time. I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t find any errors!

What about randomly throwing in a *bogus* error every so (not very) often? It would give the proofreader a “reward” when they find it, and also give you a rough way of judging an individual reader’s accuracy.

The other thing this is crying out for is a mobile interface – I could absolutely see myself whiling away an idle moment stood in a queue by proofreading a snippet or two on my iPhone. It’s about as addictive as Drop7, and far more worthwhile 😉

Suw April 4, 2009 at 10:14 am

Tim, thanks for giving it a look and your comment. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that I do feel really chuffed to find an error, and that the desire to find mistakes is one of the main drivers behind the Bite-Size editor.

We have discussed whether it would be possible to serve up a known error every so often, but for the moment we’re focusing on ironing out the bugs! That doesn’t mean we won’t figure out a way to do it in the future though. 😉

But also I think that when we have more people in the normal Bite-Size editor, adding in their own texts, there will probably be more errors for us to find. The Gutenberg texts have all been read and re-read so the percentage of errors is much lower than, say, the first draft of my novel!

We’ve had a mixed response to the idea of a mobile interface for the Bite-Size Edits, depending on what sort of phone people have, but we’ll certainly take a look at how easy it will be to experiment with, say, an iPhone client.

Do feel free to keep poking at it and giving us more feedback!

Rick Segal April 4, 2009 at 3:02 pm

I took iDnh4HFP

Janette Currie April 5, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Is this a way to get free proofreading? It is a profession and difficult to learn. You seem not to realise this with the typo in your repetition of ‘on’ (l. 20).

Suw April 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Janette, Book Oven is never going to, nor is it intending to, replace professional proofreaders. You’re right that it’s a skill that takes time and application to learn, and no web app will ever replace it.

But there are many writers out there who aren’t in a position to hire a professional proofreader and, as you pointed out, many of us really need a bit of help! The idea behind Book Oven is to create a community of writers that is willing t0 help each other catch the obvious errors. If members of that community then go on to be picked up by a traditional publishing house, then their usual proofreading processes will still apply – Book Oven won’t affect that.

There are many more books being written than will ever be in Book Oven, and I doubt the site will have any impact on professional proofreaders at all.

John Rochester April 10, 2009 at 4:15 pm

I used xxGPeC9P.

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