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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About Stephen Wellings

I am a publishing and training professional with over 30 years' editorial and senior management experience in companies such as McGraw-Hill, Pan Books, International Thomson, The Open College, Butterworth-Heinemann and Pergamon Open Learning. During my career I have commissioned and published hundreds of books and learning materials in science, technology, social science, business and management. I have designed, developed and published major distance learning programmes, including one of the world’s largest for ACCA, the professional accounting body. I am accomplished at delivering sizeable publishing and training projects on time, within budget and to exacting quality standards. In my spare time I promote live modern jazz in the Thames Valley, under the Jazz in Reading brand. I am also Co-chair of Reading Borough Council's Learning Disabilities Partnership Board.
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