Proofreading 101

It’s happened to me many times over the years, and to many other editors I know: Someone calls, or emails, or comes up to me at a social gathering and asks, “How much would it cost to proofread my novel?”

Or “my [fill-in-the-blank]”: memoir, thesis, dissertation, résumé, website, whatever.

I quickly learned that what the writer invariably wants is editing, not proofreading.

Proofreading is the last step before publication. As I wrote in “Editing? What’s Editing?,” of all the levels of editing, proofreading “is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts.”

To proofread something that hasn’t been adequately edited is an exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Of the gazillion things that need fixing, I can only fix the ones that are flat-out mortifyingly wrong. I learned long ago to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t proofread your manuscript. I think what you’re really looking for is an editor.”

typoAt the moment, though, I’m in the middle of a proofreading job. Five papers that will be published in an economics journal. They’ve been edited. They’re dense, technical, but clearly written. I’m no economics expert. I don’t know the jargon. I’m looking for typos and grammatical errors. Since the journal publisher wants consistency across the five papers, I’m also looking to apply the journal’s house style. Taylor Rule or Taylor rule? Macroprudential or macro-prudential? Either option is correct, but the journal prefers “Taylor rule” and “macroprudential.”

When I started editing and proofreading in the 1970s, every copyedited manuscript had to be typeset from scratch. So proofreading meant reading the proofs — the typeset copy that would be laid out to produce the print-ready pages — against the manuscript. This could be a two-person job: one would read the ms. aloud and the other would mark the proofs. We’d read the punctuation and stylings as well as the words: “Jack pos S” meant “Jack apostrophe S” or “Jack’s.”

Proofreaders who worked solo developed the knack of reading proof against ms. and noting all discrepancies. I got to be pretty good at it, but I’m not sure I could do it now. Thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, I haven’t had to for a long time. These days the writer turns in an electronic file — usually in Microsoft Word, the editor works in Word, the copyeditor works in Word, the author reviews the edited file in Word, and eventually the Word file becomes the raw material for the proofs. Each version is cleaner than the one before it.

As a result, much proofreading these days is “cold” or “blind” proofreading. This is what I’m doing with the economics papers: reading the proofs without comparing them to any previous version. In effect, there’s no previous version to compare them to: the previous versions have all been incorporated into the proofs I’m reading.

prooffreadingWhen I’m proofreading, I don’t read the same way as I do when I’m copyediting, or editing, or critiquing, reviewing, or reading for pleasure. The biggest difference is focus. I’m excruciatingly focused on the text letter by letter, word by word. It’s exhausting. When my attention shifts into phrase-by-phrase or sentence-by-sentence mode, I have to pull it back. Otherwise I’ll miss the misspelled word, the double “the,” the semicolon cheek-by-jowl with a comma where only one is needed.

If you’re a crackerjack speller and know your punctuation cold, you can learn to proofread, but it’s going to take plenty of practice before you can do a creditable job. And the usual caveats apply to proofreading your own work: if you can possibly avoid it, do; but if you can’t, leave a week or two between the editing and the proofreading. What makes copyediting or proofreading your own work such a challenge is that you know what it’s supposed to say. If your character is named Jack, you’re going to see “Jack” on the page — even when it says “Jcak.” If you’ve been misusing a word all your life, you’re not going to be able to call the error to your attention.

If you’re not a crackerjack speller and if your punctuation skills are less than stellar, you do need a good proofreader. Trust me on this.

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8 thoughts on “Proofreading 101

    • At the proofreading stage? Not much. Decisions about dialect should have been made upstream by the author and editor(s) — the big question with dialect is usually “how much is too much?” and that depends in part on the intended audience. As a proofreader, I’d be looking for some consistency in spelling and punctuation (this is primarily the copyeditor’s job, but the proofreader is the CE’s safety net). I’d also flag anything I couldn’t figure out, on the theory that if I don’t understand it, plenty of other readers won’t either. Dialect is hard to do well. How to strike a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility? How to avoid turning the dialect-speakers into caricatures? And so on. But those choices should have been made before the proofreader is called in.

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    • Funny you should mention that: I’ve got a post on style sheets in the works. Ideally the proofreader has a style sheet to work from that’s been prepared by the copyeditor, There may be a house style involved too, especially if the job is for a periodical or newspaper, where consistency is desired both from one issue to the next and across the multiple authors who contribute to a single issue. The style guide should specify a preferred dictionary and, if appropriate, a preferred style guide, especially for nonfiction. More about that later!

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  1. I love your description of proofreading, Susanna. I find this stage of the process very challenging. It’s difficult to focus on the text letter by letter, and it tends to give me a headache. I have great respect for anyone who does this task full time – I think it would drive me crazy! Great post as always. 🙂

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    • Back when reading proofs against the manuscript was the norm, I used to hear of proofreaders who would start at the bottom of a proof page and read backwards in order to focus on the letters rather than the words. I was a little bit awed by this, but I never tried to do it. The risk is that all the letters will be correct, but they’ll spell out the wrong word or no word at all. These days, when it’s a rare ms. that has to be completely reset, I think it’s best to keep an eye on the words as well as the letters and punctuation marks. When I’m proofreading, the letters are in the foreground and the words are in the background. When I’m copyediting, it’s the reverse.

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