Would you go on a first date without checking yourself from every angle before leaving the house? No, you wouldn’t – and copy needs the same treatment, says proofreader and editor Liz Jones.
Imagine you’ve got yourself a date, by whatever means this happens in the twenty-first century. You want to make a good impression, so every detail must be right: new outfit, sharp haircut, shiny shoes. You’ve even flossed. Twice. You call your flatmate to give you a quick once-over. The last thing you want to be told is to take everything off, right down to your lucky pants, and start again. No, you trust they’ll suggest a tweak to a detail here or there: spot that you’ve put on odd socks in your excitement, or that you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.
When proofreading for a client, I imagine I’m the helpful flatmate summoned at the last minute, pre-date, to avert potential disasters. I assess the raw materials I have to work with, and the limitations (my friend is no oil painting and her bus leaves in seven minutes), and I do all I can to send things out in the best possible state. It’s not about stripping everything down and starting again, or imposing my own ideas. It’s about making careful adjustments for a result that is fit to be seen.
Proofreading is not as simple as spotting the odd typo – it’s surprising how smart presentation can trick us into thinking that a piece of writing is ready to be published, until we delve deeper. Copy that is ‘final’ might still be riddled with any of the following:
Proofreading requires a particular frame of mind, which is quite different from that needed to write, and it can be difficult to proofread something you wrote yourself. It is too easy for your eye to skip over an error in a piece you know well. This is why a proofreader is sometimes described as ‘another set of eyes’ – their objectivity is crucial. Time away from the piece of writing can provide this objectivity, or it might be that a completely different person needs to look at the text.
As a talented writer with exacting standards, you’ll understand the importance of the proofreading stage. If allowed to remain, even seemingly minor oversights will erode the credibility of a piece of writing. The reader will register them, perhaps subconsciously, and they will feel let down. They might even stop reading.
There’s no single right way to proofread, but you should bear the following in mind.
Meanwhile, back to the analogy … What if it turns out that my flatmate needs a complete makeover – more of a rewrite or restructure than a proofread? Proofreaders and editors can quite happily while away days debating the definitions attached to levels of editing, but in all honesty their discussions are never likely to be commissioned for primetime TV. (The Great British Proofread? You’re welcome.) They are all on a continuum – what it comes down to is how much intervention a piece of text needs to make it publishable. A good proofreader knows what to do, and what not to do – and how to communicate this to their client.
If you want to find out more about what professional proofreaders look for, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders has some useful proofreading FAQs. It also offers proofreading and editing training (online and workshops). And if you want to find a professional proofreader, it has a searchable directory of trained and experienced members who have proved their competence.
The Publishing Training Centre also offers in-depth distance learning courses in proofreading, editing and other publishing skills.
The text in the image above clearly isn’t the most finely crafted bit of copy ever written. But the point is that it has an important message to convey, obscured – at least to off-duty proofreaders out shopping for kitchen furniture – by its messy and inaccurate punctuation. (And yes, I very nearly did forget to buy my hinge’s as a result.)