What is a proofreader?

What is a proofreader?

What is a proofreader?

You know that feeling of embarrassment you get when you smile, and then someone points out there is something stuck between your teeth? My job as a proofreader is to save you from the equivalent when your text goes out to the world, whether in print or electronically.

A proofreader helps you put your best pen forward so your text can shine for all the right reasons.

 

Traditionally, and strictly speaking, the proofreader is the very last person to check a proof before it goes to print in the publishing workflow. To avoid unnecessary delays and introducing additional cost (not to mention potential new errors) so late in the process, the rule of thumb is: ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ – in other words, leave well enough alone. (It’s harder than you think!)

However, in today’s digital age the line between proofreading and copyediting often gets blurred and proofreaders can be asked to help ‘make the text better’ by improving style and sentences beyond simply making them correct.

 

What does a proofreader do?

If you think we only check grammar, spelling and punctuation, think again! We also look at formatting, layout, tone of voice, tables, pictures and illustrations, and adherence to house style and/or brand guidelines. It means checking that:

    • Your document is complete and in the right order.
    • Style, formatting and layout are correct, consistent and in line with your style/brand guidelines, if applicable.
    • Your text is clear and free of ambiguity.
    • Grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct and there aren’t any words missing.
    • The tone and style of your text are suited to its audience and purpose.
    • Lists are correctly numbered or alphabetised.
    • Illustrations, tables and graphs are correct, in the right place and coincide with their captions and the text.
    • Illustrations are the right way up (you’d be surprised!).
    • Numbering sequences are correct.
    • Notes and references are correctly placed and formatted, match their cues and the cues are correctly numbered.

All of which, of course, has to be done gently and diplomatically. Cue David Crystal in ‘Imagine … an editor’:

I don’t take it kindly when someone refers to me, or to any editor, using the language of crime protection, when the reality is so different. The language of the caring or advisory professions would be far more appropriate, for the aim of an editor is simply stated: to let nothing interfere with the goal of achieving total communicative rapport between writer and reader.

 

The in-depth description

As one of my Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) colleagues, Stephen Pigney, once wrote:

I discovered that there is more to proofreading than meets the eye. I had been mistaken to think only of a proofreader’s relationship with a text, for I had missed how the proofreader stands at a crucial intersection between different people. The eyes of a hawk are not enough; the proofreader needs to see a text as an author, a typesetter, a publisher or a reader sees it. Proofreading is a delicate art of facilitating communication; it consists of honouring and respecting an author’s voice, a typesetter’s skills, a publisher’s vision and a reader’s needs; it requires precision, judgment, tact and informed understanding.

So, the proofreader occupies a unique position at the crossroads between the text and everyone involved with it and, as Stephen continues:

… this too must be learned – the ideal proofreader must strive for invisibility: proofreading is noticed not when it is done well, but when it is done ineptly or badly.

 

What is the difference between editing and proofreading?

I like the way this post on the Writers for Hire’s blog describes editing as more of a creative function and proofreading as more of a technical discipline:

It is often said that editing is an art, and proofreading is a science. Both require proficiency and command of the English language, but just in different ways.

If writing were the process of getting dressed, editing would be the equivalent of a friend critiquing your outfit to ensure that it works for the activity you have in mind, you’re not dressed like someone else (plagiarism) and you’re striking the right tone – you don’t dress the same to deliver a lecture or to do DIY. You might need to wear something shorter, trainers or wellies, change your tie or scarf colour, remove your jewellery, etc … The proofreader would be the other friend you ask, before going out, to iron the creases out of your outfit and check that your fly is done up, there’s nothing stuck in your teeth and you’re wearing matching socks.

 

What is the difference between the different types of editing?

Editing covers a range of specialisms from developmental editing to proofreading. There is debate among editors about the differences between line editing and copyediting but, as a proofreader, I get to sit on the sidelines of that debate.

Developmental editing

A developmental editor takes a holistic view of a fiction or non-fiction manuscript and provides detailed feedback on big-picture issues such as your ideas, book structure and flow, the behaviour and motivations of your characters, how well the book makes its point, etc.

Then it’s time to call in a line editor or copyeditor. If you decide to use both, line editing comes first.

Line editing and copyediting

There are editors who see line editing as part of copyediting, while others see them as clearly distinct. According to the NY Book Editors’ blog:

    • line editing focuses on ‘the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level’ – not spelling, grammar, punctuation or syntax (unless something glaring jumps at the line editor, this is left to the proofreader), while
    • copyediting addresses ‘flaws on a very technical level – to make sure the writing that appears on the page is in accordance with industry standards. This is like an incredibly high-end proofread’, so not suitable if you are looking for input on your style or arguments.

Proofreading

Traditionally, the proofreader goes through the finalised, formatted version of the text with a fine-tooth comb to ensure everything is precisely as, and where, it should be before it gets published (whether in print or electronically). The idea is to check for errors that may have been introduced or overlooked during editing or typesetting.

Nowadays, proofreaders are sometimes asked to check text before it is typeset and formatted rather than at the very end of the process in an attempt to cut cost. However, doing away with a professional pair of eyes at that crucial stage is a risk because we look for so much more than typos, grammatical errors and punctuation issues, and we are trained to see things others don’t.

 

How do I choose?

If you’re unsure whether you need a proofreader or editor, the CIEP has produced a fact sheet to help you decide. And if you want to know why it’s worth paying for proofreading, have a look at my blog.

Why pay for proofreading?

Why pay for proofreading?

Why pay for proofreading?

That’s a fair question. Why would you pay for proofreading?

Well, I know how to use a pair of scissors, and so does my other half. But would I trust him to cut my hair, or consider doing it myself? Not in a million years! I go to a hairdresser and pay to get my hair cut because I want it done by a professional.

The same goes for proofreading. Of course you should always run spellcheck before sending or publishing anything (I do!)! And asking someone else to cast a fresh pair of eyes over your text is always a good idea. But spellcheck has its limitations and most people speed read, making assumptions and therefore missing important things.

 

Don’t believe me?

How many Fs are in the following sentence? You’re only supposed to count once, by the way:

Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.

How did you do? (The answer is at the bottom of this page.)

And have a look at this:

HI THERE, WE’VE TAKEN GRATE CARE IN CREATING YOUR NEW GARMENT!

WE HOPE YOU LOVE & ENJOY IT!

THANK YOU!

Did the error jump at you? (Again, the answer is at the bottom.) It may seem harmless enough, but let’s put it into a business context.

Let’s say you sell personalised T-shirts and want to make your customers feel appreciated. Every item you send out comes with a little T-shirt-shaped tag with the above thank you message printed on it.

Spot the error T shirt
Image credit: Mary Doggett, ETT Photography

How much damage can such a small error do? Not that much if the order is a one-off and everything goes smoothly. But let’s say this little tag goes out attached to a T-shirt that got printed back to front.

What if the customer needs 100 branded T-shirts for a company event (or several hundreds for a charity event) and ordered this one to get a feel for the quality of your product? That little mistake on the tag, combined with the misprint, now screams lack of attention to detail and is likely to cost you the balance of the order. You could be looking at a significant loss.

People are put off by poor text and ignoring that fact can be costly.

 

Proofreading is not a luxury, it’s an investment.

 

Spelling and poor grammar are not the only things that can turn people off. Presentation also plays an important part in building credibility, which is why formatting and layout are also part of a proofreader’s remit.

Remember Inspector Columbo with his shabby suit, raincoat and hair? Everyone constantly underestimates him because of his ramshackle appearance and tendency to misplace everything, when in fact he is as sharp as they come. You wouldn’t want people to write you off (no pun intended) based on the appearance of your text before they’ve even read your arguments, would you?

 

What does a trained proofreader check?

  • Your document is complete and in the right order.
  • Style, formatting and layout are correct, consistent and in line with your style/brand guidelines, if applicable.
  • Your text is clear and free of ambiguity.
  • Grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct and there aren’t any words missing.
  • The tone and style of your text are suited to its audience and purpose.
  • Lists are correctly numbered or alphabetised.
  • Illustrations, tables and graphs are correct, in the right place and coincide with their captions.
  • Illustrations are the right way up (you’d be surprised!).
  • Numbering sequences are correct.
  • Notes and references are correctly placed and formatted, match their cues and the cues are correctly numbered.

A proofreader also respects your voice and takes the time to understand your intent and, when necessary, explains the rationale behind a suggestion so you can make an informed decision to either accept or reject the change.

 

What do you gain by using a trained proofreader?

  • You know that:
            1. what you’ve written says what you meant to say (‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ is definitely not the same thing as ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’) and
            2. your message is clear and free of potentially distracting mistakes.
  • It enhances your credibility, which builds trust – first impressions (good or bad) always count.
  • It protects your reputation (a single typo can make you an object of ridicule and permanently damage your reputation).
  • It can save you money (reprints can be expensive) and/or time (if your message is unclear, people are more likely to contact you for clarification, taking up precious time that could be spent on generating income).

 

What can go wrong if proofreading is not done correctly?

To put it simply, it can cost you time, money, customers and even your reputation.

Even though there is a theory that it could have been the result of sabotage, one of the most famous and widely cited proofreading mistakes in history took place in 1631, when royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas released a thousand copies of the King James version of the Bible containing the Commandment ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.

When the mistake was discovered (after a year!), the consequences were dire for the publishers: Robert Barker lost his reputation, both men lost their publishing licenses and had to pay a fine of £300 (or $56,500 in today’s money) and Barker eventually died in debtors’ prison.

The copies containing the error were recalled, though a few have survived and are referred to as the ‘Wicked Bible’

Answers

The ‘F’ challenge answer.

Now back to the ‘F’ challenge at the start. How many did you spot: 2,3,4,5,6 or 7? The average is 3, but the answer is 6. Check it again, and I bet you still won’t see all 6 and will have to check again (slowly). And if you get 7, well … (Credit: https://www.davidpbrown.co.uk/psychology/smart-test.html).

The T-shirt example answer.

The word ‘grate’ should be ‘great’, which a spellchecker would not flag because ‘grate’ is a legitimate word and spelled correctly – it just happens to be wrongly used in this context.

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