Proofreading 8: Further reading and resources

This is our final blog on proofreading for non-professionals. In it, we point the way to some other resources on proofreading which you might find helpful.

The resources are not exclusively on proofreading, since there is overlap with other topics, such as writing skills and style, editing, grammar, punctuation and spelling. The resources listed here cover further reading, websites and training.

Proofreading

A good book on the subject of proofreading — although it is aimed at professionals or people intending to become professional proofreaders — is Copyediting and Proofreading For Dummies by Suzanne Gilad (Wiley Publishing Inc, 2007). It’s very comprehensive on the subject of proofreading itself, explains the key differences between copy-editing and proofreading, and has useful and fairly up to date guidance on electronic proofreading (ie on-screen proofing). Slight drawbacks are the US orientation (for non-US readers, of course) and the omission of guidance on proofreading material that is destined for online publication as opposed to print.

The British Standards Institution (BSI) sets and publishes the standards for proof correction marks. Search on the BSI website for the standard on ‘Copy preparation and proof correction’. A handy laminated fold-out booklet, containing all proof correction marks, is available for a small fee. www.bsi-global.com

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) is the main UK professional organisation for editors and proofreaders. It has a directory of members (searchable by specific areas of expertise) which is very useful if you’re trying to find a professional proofreader, offers its own proofreading standards and qualifications, and provides courses on proofreading from beginner level upwards. www.sfep.org.uk

The Publishing Training Centre is the UK publishing industry’s main provider of training. It has several courses on proofreading, mainly for professionals but also at an introductory level, including an excellent distance learning course. www.train4publishing.co.uk

Writing skills and style

The Plain English Campaign’s mission is to encourage the use of clear and simple language in all written forms. The campaign’s website has free downloadable guides on such topics as using plain English, writing for websites and finding alternative words. www.plainenglish.co.uk

There are countless books on good writing style, effective writing and clear writing — and many of them are directed at specific users in fields such as business, education, science, and so on. There are far too many to try to list in this brief blog. Your best bet is to search online — on the Amazon website, for example — using such terms as ‘effective writing’, ‘persuasive writing’, ‘clear writing’, or whatever it is you’re interested in. Beware of buying books that are aimed at a particular geographical market, since the use of English does vary significantly if you compare US and UK usage, for example.

Copy-editing

If you’re looking for an authoritative work on copy-editing, designed for professionals in the book and journal publishing industry, the bible is Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders 4th edition, revised and updated with Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach (Cambridge University Press, 2006). It has a good chapter on proofreading too.

Another key reference work for professionals is the New Oxford Style Manual 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2011). It’s in two parts: the first is a guide to style designed for professional writers and editors; the second is an A-Z reference guide with advice on spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation, and so on. If you want to develop your own house style guide (see House styles guides), this would be an invaluable reference work.

Grammar, punctuation and spelling

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary 12th edition (Oxford University Press, 2011) would be most people’s choice for an authoritative dictionary, but there are many other good ones out there. Great for spelling, obviously, but if you’re not sure whether words should be hyphenated, or whether they normally need an initial capital, this can’t be beat. Appendix 10 ‘Guide to Good English’ is an excellent and very concise introduction to grammar.

A very thorough reference on all points grammatical can be found in John Seely’s Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation revised 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013).

You’ve probably heard of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003). It’s a humorous rant with mostly sound advice. And finally, a book that’s been around for a while, but is still full of timeless good advice and gentle humour, is G V Carey’s Mind the Stop: A Brief Guide to Punctuation with a Note on Proof-Correction (Penguin, 1971, but originally published in 1958). A personal favourite.

If you have any queries about any of the above suggestions, or are looking for something more specific, don’t hesitate to email me.

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The fewer the words, the greater the clarity

But it’s often much harder to write briefly than it is at length. As Blaise Pascal famously wrote in 1657: ‘I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.’

This blog covers similar ground to our blog of a few weeks ago on long sentences. However, here we’re looking specifically at unnecessary or redundant words or phrases. I’m talking about the sort of words or phrases that emerge naturally when you’re speaking or writing but which, if you take a little time to look back at what you’ve written, you would probably want to cut.

Here are some example words or phrases that could easily be replaced by one or two words, without affecting clarity:

  • within a comparatively short period — soon
  • in the immediate vicinity of — near
  • on a number of occasions — several times, or often
  • at this moment in time — now.

And here are some example words and phrases which could simply be removed because they duplicate the meaning of the word which remains :

  • means of, as in ‘by means of’
  • due to, as in ‘the reason for…[something was]…due to…’
  • potential, as in ‘potential hazard’
  • together, as in ‘collaborate together’
  • first and, as in ‘first and foremost’
  • completely, when paired with absolutes, such as ‘redundant’, ’empty’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘unanimous’.

As with long words and long sentences, allowing your writing to become peppered with unnecessary or redundant words hinders your reader’s understanding. So try to get into the habit of looking back quickly over what you have written, to see what you can cut. Treat it like a game, with a point scored for every word you can remove without affecting the meaning. Soon enough, you’ll start cutting these words while you’re writing, and not only when in ‘editing mode’.

Blaise Pascal had the excuse that he was writing in longhand. Editing or rewriting his letter would have been very laborious. But thanks to the wonders of word processing technologies we have no excuse for not writing concisely.

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Proofreading 7: Common errors to watch out for

This is the penultimate blog in our eight-part series on proofreading for non-professionals. The final blog will offer some suggestions for further reading, training or information on proofreading. In the meantime, here’s a brief list of some very common errors that a good proofreader should always be alert for:

  • Putting the wrong word in the wrong place – especially when using homophones (eg ‘their’ and ‘there’).
  • Leaving out letters, especially in the middle of words (eg ‘lisen’ instead of ‘listen’).
  • Mistakes when adding an ending – or suffix – to a root word (eg ‘swiming’, ‘makeing’, ‘budgetted’).
  • Missing out words altogether (especially small words like ‘it’ or ‘in’).
  • Getting letters the wrong way round – especially ‘i’ and ‘e’ (remember ‘i before e except after c’).
  • Leaving out apostrophes (eg ‘dont’) or including them where you shouldn’t (eg ‘cyclist’s only’).
  • Mistakes with subject-verb agreement (eg ‘she were late’ or ‘we was going’).
  • Using ‘should of’ where ‘should have’ should be used (eg ‘You should of told me sooner.’).
  • Problems coming from scanned text (eg using ‘1’ where ‘I’ should be used).
  • Problems which may not be picked up by spell checkers (eg ‘sells’ for ‘cells’, or ‘form’ instead of ‘from’).
  • Using ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’, and vice versa.

Finally, it can be very difficult to spot words repeated at the beginning of
of a new line. Can’t it?

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Do you have a sesquipedalian writing style?

If so, you are prone to confusing people, and generally not impressing them, by using long words — like ‘sesquipedalian’ possibly**.

When we use long and unfamiliar words it affects the readability of our writing. Long words tend to have many syllables. They are used less often than short words, and therefore are less well understood by many people. When we read a sentence containing a long word, it tends to make us pause very briefly, even if we do understand it, and we strain a little bit harder to understand or decode the sentence. When several long words are sprinkled throughout a given sentence or paragraph, the cumulative effect means that it can feel like a struggle to make sense of it.

Why do people use long words? Usually we use them to impress our readers (‘I must be clever. Look at all these rare and difficult words I know!’),  or to confuse them deliberately (‘If you don’t understand what I’m saying, you can’t contradict me, can you?’). Although the generally accepted view is that they do not impress — we’re not taken in by the writer’s ploy, and just feel irritated by it.

If you want to improve your writing, or ensure that it is as readable as possible, check it for long words. A list of long words that we should avoid could go on for ever, but here’s a brief selection of some of my ‘favourites’, with a preferred alternative in italics:

  • commence or commencement — start
  • consequently — so
  • enumerate — count
  • desist — stop
  • expenditure — cost
  • facilitate – help
  • location — place
  • magnitude — size
  • optimum — best
  • purchase — buy
  • remunerate — pay
  • subsequently — after
  • termination – end
  • utilise – use.

As you might have spotted, most of the words on the left are ‘Latinate’ — in other words they are Latin in origin and were introduced into the language during the Middle Ages, when Latin was the preferred language for discussing intellectual matters among the educated elite. The others tend to have an Anglo-Saxon origin.

The phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often used as a description for ‘vulgar slang’. But there may be times when a four-letter word is best.

** Note: ‘Sesquipedalian’ is an adjective, meaning ‘polysyllabic’ or ‘characterised by long words’.

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Proofreading 6: Using proof correction marks

Most people who do occasional proofreading tasks will not want to spend their valuable time learning how to use professional proof correction marks. And quite possibly the people who need to understand or act on the corrections won’t know what they mean anyway. However it is important for your marks to be crystal clear in meaning, otherwise your efforts as a diligent proofreader might be wasted.

There are a few key proof correction marks which most people can learn to use and understand easily, and which will certainly improve results if used properly. So we have produced an easy-to-use, one-page guide to them. The guide is available as a free PDF document, which can be requested from us by completing and submitting the following form:

You should only use the suggested marks if you are confident your client will be able to follow them.

Professional proof correction marks were designed to remove all possible ambiguity out of marking up texts in professional publishing, but it takes a lot of training and practice to use them properly. The British Standards Institution (BSI) sets and publishes the standards for proof correction marks. If you’re interested in seeing them for yourself, search on the BSI website — www.bsigroup.com — for the standard on ‘Copy preparation and proof correction’.  A handy laminated fold-out booklet, containing all proof correction marks, is available for a small fee.

Incidentally, the same marks are used by copy-editors, for preparing copy prior to typesetting, which is why the standard is called ‘Copy preparation and…’. If you want to know what the difference between copy-editing and proofreading is, keep your eyes open for one of our forthcoming blogs on that subject.

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Proofreading 5: Getting down to it

Now that all your preparation is done, you can start the actual proofreading. This is the fifth in our series of proofreading tips. The series is aimed at people whose job title doesn’t include the word ‘proofreader’, but who nevertheless find themselves being asked to do some proofreading.

Here’s a checklist of the things you may need to do as you carry out your proofreading assignment:

  • On-screen or hard copy: Decide whether you’re going to proofread on-screen or in hard copy — whichever is best for you, and for the job you’re doing. Professional proofreaders sometimes prefer to print out what they’re proofing – even if it’s destined for publication online. You’ve got to decide what works best for you. But bear in mind that what you see on-screen may not always appear the same in print. To be on the safe side you should usually read the piece in the specific format or formats in which it’s likely to appear – as well as in print.
  • Track changes: If you’re amending text on-screen, don’t forget to switch on your word processor’s ‘Track changes’ feature before you start. This is an easy one to forget. It can be frustrating to dive headlong into a task, and then to have to do it all again when you’ve realised that you haven’t been capturing the changes. Your client won’t want to search word by word through the document to find what you’ve changed.
  • Read the piece several times: Each time you do so, read with a different purpose. It’s very difficult to spot different types of errors or weaknesses on the same read-through. For example, read the piece once for technical errors and once for grammatical or punctuation errors. It’s usually best to start with the higher-order tasks you’ve got (such as critiquing or evaluating) and then gradually move on to the more mechanical tasks (such as checking figures or spelling) towards the end.
  • Skim before you start: Before you start amending text, skim the whole document and make notes about the kinds of things you want to change. There’s nothing worse than starting to change something you think needs changing, and then finding out part way through that the author deliberately wrote it that way.
  • Pen vs pencil: If you’re marking up hard copy, and feeling a little tentative, use pencil first. You could then move on to ink when you’re confident you’re making the right kind of changes (but don’t forget to go back over the earlier pencil marks in ink as well). It is always best to use a different coloured ink from the text you’re checking. For example, if the text is black use red ink for preference – but blue or green would do.
  • Spell check and grammar check: If you’re using your word processor’s spell check, grammar check or find-and-replace feature, make sure you understand their limitations before you start. For example, a spell checker won’t let you know if the word ‘from’ is used instead of ‘form’. Make sure that the settings for the grammar checker reflect your or your client’s needs — for example, will you allow split infinitives or the passive voice?
  • Check for completeness: Check that everything that should be in the document is actually there, in the correct format and place. For longer documents or websites, this might include any of the following:
    • title page or home page, with appropriate copyright, privacy or other formal statements
    • information about the writer, publisher or originator of the material
    • headings and subheadings
    • contents list or other navigational tools or menus
    • all text items (for example, parts, sections or chapters) that are mentioned in the contents list or menu
    • all non-text items (for example, tables, illustrations, graphs or photos) that are mentioned in the text
    • running headers and footers
    • page numbers
    • index, glossary, appendix, and so on.
  • Compile your own checklist: If you are proofreading a document which is issued on a regular basis, create your own personal checklist of items that need to be checked or included every time. This might apply, for example, to newsletters, flyers or brochures for a particular range of products, or a series of books. It’s surprising how easily such things as page numbers, dates, issue numbers, running headers, and so on, can be forgotten. You could use the above sub-list (under ‘Check for completeness’) to help you get started with your checklist.
  • House style guide: If your organisation doesn’t have a house style guide, consider compiling one yourself. Your house style guide might only be a page of A4, but it would focus on the elements of style that are important to your task, your client or the readership. See our blog on house style guides. Your guide might include ‘rulings’ on such things as:
    • capitalisation – eg do you use initial capitals for job titles like ‘Managing Director’?
    • punctuation – eg do you use full points after contractions such as ‘ie’, ‘eg’, ‘etc’, ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Dr’?
    • spelling – eg do you spell words ending in ‘ise’ with a ‘z’ or an ‘s’?
    • text inputting – eg do you have one space or two after full stops?
  • Mask the text: If you are proofreading hard copy, you might find it useful to use a piece of cardboard or paper to mask the text below the line you’re reading. This helps you to focus on one line at a time, and to avoid the temptation to skip forward or even miss out lines altogether.
  • Mark the margin: Always put a mark in the margin (if you’re marking up a hard copy), especially when the change you’re making might be hard to spot. This helps your client spot any changes that have been made. If, for example, you’re adding a comma, it can be very difficult to see this (even when red ink is used) and your client might miss it. A simple insertion mark or even a cross in the margin, for every change made, will help to ensure that this doesn’t happen. (Our next proofreading blog, number 6, will cover proof correction marks in more detail.)
  • Read out loud to yourself: This can help to highlight faulty sentence construction or poor grammar.
  • Take frequent breaks: If it’s a long piece of work you’re checking, this is especially important. If you’re checking your own work, it’s also advisable to leave a time gap between your first draft and your proof-checking. It’s amazing what you can spot when you come back to a piece of work after a break.
  • Common problems: Be alert to switches in font size, or similar errors that aren’t immediately obvious. Other common problems that are difficult to spot include changes in bullet point size, variations in the way that frequently occurring items (such as lists, for example) are punctuated, or items that are simply missing. We’ll cover a range of commonly occurring errors in our penultimate blog (number 7) in this series.
  • Read one word at a time: When reading for typographical errors and other fine detail, concentrate on reading one word at a time. This is not the way we read normally, but it’s the only safe way to catch all errors. Some proofreaders read one word at a time backwards (ie from right to left) as one way of catching elusive errors.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll suggest some simple text mark-up symbols, based on professional proof correction marks, which you could use.

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Long sentences, with no time off for good behaviour

The words are tumbling out beautifully for you. You are proud of that well-constructed, elegant and impressively long sentence. It’s sometimes even easier to write a long sentence than a short one. But if you want to be understood, beware: long sentences are much harder to read.

Readability research shows that long sentences make text more difficult for readers to absorb. If you’re finding a piece of writing hard to understand, or feeling increasingly tired reading it, the fault may not be yours. The writer might be making it more difficult for you.

Long sentences are difficult because of the way we read. Our short-term memory becomes over-filled with ideas, facts and images if a sentence is too long. Breaking a long sentence down into shorter sentences helps us to decode or process the writer’s meaning more easily — in bite-sized chunks, in fact.

If you realise that you’ve written a whole paragraph as one long sentence and decide to improve it, here are some pointers that might help:

  • Look out for connecting words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘if’ or ‘also’. They are usually the points at which new sentences can begin with a pronoun like ‘it’.
  • Try to vary the length of the shorter sentences, because the text can become monotonous otherwise. Variety tends to make text more interesting and readable.
  • For the same reason, don’t start all sentences with the same word, or use the same sentence structure.
  • Consider using a different layout or punctuation: if your long sentence is a list of similar items, use bullet points or a numbered list; add italics or bold (sparingly, please!) to emphasise certain key words or phrases; or use brackets to separate out less important bits of information or asides.

Try to avoid handing down long sentences to your readers — they won’t thank you for being forced to break those huge rocks into smaller ones.

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