An introduction to proofreading

Liz Jones

11 February 2016

Ikea sign with several typosWould 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.

The role of the proofreader

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.

What to look for when proofreading

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:

  • dodgy punctuation
  • grammatical flaws
  • factual errors
  • inconsistencies
  • repetition
  • style decisions that jar
  • layout problems
  • wrong numbering
  • inaccurate cross-references
  • problems with logic and flow.

How to approach a proofread

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.

Tips for proofreading

There’s no single right way to proofread, but you should bear the following in mind.

  • You need to read the text in greater detail than if you were reading it for pleasure, looking at the tiny details, but not losing sight of the bigger picture. This will take longer than simply reading it, and longer still if there are many corrections.
  • It is useful to make more than one pass when proofreading, looking at different aspects each time, as well as reading it through word by word from start to finish.
  • Some proofreaders find it helps them to print out the copy and read on paper. Others read aloud, or get their machine to do this for them. Or they read particular things backwards. The important thing is to find what works for you.
  • When making corrections to page proofs that have already been typeset, remember that there will be implications in terms of time and budget, and perhaps knock-on effects on the layout. All changes should be justifiable, even if in practice you don’t actually go through explaining each one to the client.
  • Consider how your client wants to receive their mark-up, and if in doubt, ask them. Many clients these days will be happy to receive PDFs marked up using the tools that come with Adobe Reader, for example. Some might prefer you to use BSI marks.
  • Get to know your personal blind spots, and the places where others commonly make mistakes, and watch out for these. For example, I know I have a tendency to miss clangers in headings if I don’t read the headings separately.

What if more than a proofread is needed?

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.

Where can I find out more about proofreading?

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.)


      What do you think?

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      Michael Birchmore

      February 11, 2016 at 7:19am

      As a proofreader in training I found this very helpful.

      John Espirian

      John Espirian

      February 11, 2016 at 8:14am

      Love this. A humorous and accessible intro to our field – thanks, Liz. And thanks also for the link to my blog!

      Jane Hammett

      February 11, 2016 at 9:11am

      Great article, Liz! Love the flatmate analogy. A clear, concise and amusing introduction to proofreading.

      Jenny Catton PRO

      Jenny Catton

      February 11, 2016 at 9:26am

      Great article and very useful tips. I always find proofreading is easier if I leave a good chunk of time between writing and proofreading. It’s easier to spot errors when your brain has had some time away from the piece.

      PS – put me down for a place on the Great British Proofread 🙂

      Carol Waterkeyn

      February 11, 2016 at 10:16am

      Great stuff, Liz and don’t forget to check your spelling, guys. Don’t rely on the spellchecker. It won’t pick up the wrong word used, for example stationery/stationary, compliment/complement. Also watch out for American versions of words!

      Kirsten Irving

      Kirsten Irving

      February 11, 2016 at 3:23pm

      Hear hear! Especially the part about needing a second pair of eyes. Even as a proofreader, I want fresh eyes on anything I’ve written.

      Valerie Spanswick

      February 12, 2016 at 12:42am

      Very good introduction to get the point across – proofreading helps you make a good impression. Also wearing lucky pants can’t hurt.

      Julie Hopkins

      February 12, 2016 at 12:51pm

      A really well-written, readable and humorous look at what we proofreaders do (and as importantly, what we don’t!) – well done Liz!

      Liz Jones PRO

      Liz Jones

      February 12, 2016 at 2:05pm

      Thanks very much for the positive comments! I’m glad the post has been useful.