Last updated 15 June 2023
The basics of proofreading are easy, right? You read through the text and mark errors to be corrected. Simple. But of course, as any experienced proofreader knows, that’s not the whole story. A proofreader has to carry out numerous tasks to do with technical aspects, style and sense – not just spot where a crucial name is misspelled. As a result, a great deal of finesse is needed to pull off a truly professional proofreading job.
I’ve worked in publishing since 2007, both in-house and freelance, and I’ve seen and done a lot of proofreading. As well as proofreading for other project managers, I manage millions of words per year as a project manager of academic encyclopedias and books. Most of those words have to be proofread, so I spend a lot of my time briefing proofreaders, answering their questions, and checking and collating their corrections.
That’s a lot of textual changes – and a lot of potential for confusion, omissions, and other difficulties to arise.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common pitfalls I’ve encountered (both in the work of other proofreaders and from things I’ve learned in my own proofreading) and how to avoid them. I’ll focus here on the macro (the broader, overarching issues) rather than the micro (details of style and how to deal with specific types of error). This is because the micro will tend to vary from project to project whereas the macro concerns ideas that can be borne in mind in any proofreading job.
Traditional vs other workflows
In this post, I particularly have in mind the traditional publishing workflow, where the text has already been copy-edited and has subsequently been laid out on the page for a final check by the proofreader. However, these points will certainly apply to varying degrees in other workflows too. In all cases, your client’s brief should be your guiding light.
1 Omitting the basics
Once a book reaches proofreading stage, the priorities shift a little. It’s extremely important that, if the table of contents states that Chapter 4 begins on page 78, Chapter 4 does actually begin on page 78. In contrast, it’s slightly less important to identify that ‘Ottoman empire’ is capitalised thus 49 times across the book but twice as ‘Ottoman Empire’.
It is vitally important for the reader’s impression of a published work that the ‘nuts and bolts’ are correct, and as the proofreader you may be the primary (and sometimes only) person to be checking that this is the case. This means methodically checking that all of the basics (page numbers, exact wording of titles, exact spellings of author names, presentation of running headers, and treatment of any other repeated content and design elements) are correct and consistent wherever they appear.
2 Focusing too much on certain types of error…
We all have our little bugbears: things that jump screaming out of the screen at us, begging to be corrected. One of mine is the missing parenthetical comma after the first ‘that’ in constructions such as ‘It’s a common fact that if a comma is missing after “that” in this sentence, many people won’t think it’s wrong.’ But, if you find yourself zealously correcting the same issue over and over again, consider querying it with your client. Maybe it’s been done intentionally, or maybe it will just be too much trouble to fix it at this stage and your client would rather it were left alone.
3 … to the exclusion of other errors
Sometimes I’ll find a proofreader has eliminated all instances of a particular error with ninja-like precision but missed other glaring errors in their vicinity. Worse, sometimes the missed errors are far more serious than the ones that were fixed. Beware of becoming blinkered by your own personal vexations or being distracted by recurring issues. If possible, do multiple passes through the proofs so that a distracting persistent issue is removed in one fell swoop, freeing up your brain to focus on the more sporadic oddities.
4 Prioritising design over content or vice versa
Unless briefed to do otherwise, you should be checking both design/layout and content/language equally. If you have an eye for design, make sure you’re not getting distracted from reading each word carefully. Conversely, if you tend to get bogged down in seas of text, remind yourself to sit back and look at the design too. In both cases, multiple passes can be very effective, enabling you to only think about one aspect at once.
5 Introducing an error
Typos and other slips happen to all of us on occasion (we’re only human), but it never feels any less melt-into-a-puddle-of-mortification awful when we realise our mistake. There’s no fail-safe solution, but allowing enough time for a job so you’re not rushing, having a clear and methodical workflow, and quickly re-reading text you’ve marked for correction (if the budget allows) should help you to catch your own lapses.
6 Blind panic in the face of tables
Rather often, I find that proofreaders’ skills seem to desert them in the face of tables. Either they miss blatant layout issues or they just don’t seem to have checked the table properly, leaving errors in data, style, or consistency uncorrected. Tables need to be proofread just like all other aspects of the text. Sometimes they take a little unpicking to fully understand, but that’s part of your job as the proofreader.
7 Missing something on the brief
I wrote a bit about this in my post The seven deadly sins of freelance editors. Everyone misses something on a brief occasionally (some of my combined briefs and style sheets for encyclopedias stretch to over 20,000 words, which is a lot to take in!). But it’s a key part of proofreading to develop your own system for thoroughly absorbing and implementing a brief and style sheet, no matter the size and no matter how unfamiliar the content is to you.
8 Not leaving ‘good enough’ alone
One of the first things I learned when I began my training with the Publishing Training Centre way back when as a fledgling proofreader was to ‘leave good enough alone’. This is a phrase that’s bandied around in the proofreading and editing community a lot. It applies at copyediting stage too, but particularly at proofreading stage, where making corrections is more costly and time-consuming and carries an increased chance of errors being introduced. What is ‘good enough’ will vary between publications and publishers. However, broadly it refers to only making changes if there is a strong justification (grounded in professional proofreading standards, which are different from copyediting standards) to do so. This is a skill that can only really be learned through experience – both general proofreading experience and experience with specific clients’ practices and preferences – but it is crucial for a professional proofreader to get a feel for what it means and how to put it into practice.
You can get an idea of whether you’re making too many corrections by looking at the average number of corrections per page – although this is complex, as I’ve discussed in my post looking at how many corrections per page are acceptable on proofs.
9 Marking corrections in a way that makes life difficult for the client
Check in advance how your client wants you to mark corrections (PDF stamps? Adobe Reader’s tools? A hybrid system? Or even on paper?). As I found out talking to two major typesetters, designers and typesetters can have strong preferences on which system is used, and each project manager will have their preferences based on their proof-collation method too.
Once you know the system your client wants you to use, be clear and consistent, especially if you’re using a PDF reader’s tools (which have no generally agreed standard) rather than PDF stamps (which tend to mimic long-established proofreading systems, such as the BSI Marks for Copy Preparation and Proof Correction). Consider supplying a glossary or explanation of your mark-up practices.
Professional proofreading combines sound knowledge with a great deal of flexibility – what’s right for one set of proofs will not be right for all. Getting it ‘right’ can seem overwhelming, particularly early on in your career as a proofreader. However, with a methodical approach, the true complexities of a project will naturally rise to the surface, allowing you to deal with them appropriately.
What other pitfalls have you experienced in your career? How have you learned to handle them? Let me know in the comments.