Proofreading 4: Presenting your amendments

This is the fourth in our series of blogs about proofreading. This is an important topic: how to present the results of your proofreading efforts to your ‘client’.

You need to agree with your client, before you start work, how the end results are going to be presented. Depending on how he or she is going to handle your feedback, and bearing in mind that someone else might be proofreading it at the same time, your client might want you to:

  • Mark up a hard copy. If you feel comfortable using standard, professional proofreading symbols, you should use them — but make sure your client is comfortable with them too. And beware: using them correctly takes quite a bit of skill. One of the forthcoming blogs in this series will look at a scaled-down alternative to using professional proofreading symbols. Do also check whether the client has any preferences about you using, say, pencil or red ink for your mark up.
  • Amend the document using your word processor’s ‘change tracking’ feature. The ‘Track changes’ feature in Microsoft Word, for example, is a very powerful tool. You can see exactly what has been changed, by whom and when, and the document can be viewed in its final ‘clean’ form as well as with all mark ups showing. Not all word processing programmes have a change tracking feature but many do. It’s worth becoming familiar with your word processor’s version of it, if you’re not already. Don’t forget to check also whether your client wants you to give the document containing your amendments a new filename, so that it’s clear which version is which.
  • List out all your suggested changes in a separate document. This can be quite time-consuming, since you need to describe exactly what and where the errors are, and describe without any ambiguity the changes that need to be made. But, as with ‘Track changes’, it gives the client more freedom to decide whether or not to implement your changes.

These are the final considerations in your preparations for proofreading. The next blog in this series is going to suggest a process for carrying out your proofreading task. It is in the form of a checklist of the things you may need to do as you carry out your assignment.

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House style guides

No, this isn’t a blog about interior design. It’s a brief explanation — for those who are curious about it — of what a house style guide is and why it can be important.

A house style guide is a set of rules and requirements, drawn up by an organisation (or ‘house’) about how its written communications — whether in print or online — should be presented and edited. The idea is that the organisation can present a unified, consistent and professional front to the outside world. It can look very unprofessional, and even be confusing, if different people within an organisation spell or capitalise key terms differently. For example, if an IT company’s website refers to ‘desktop’, ‘desk-top’ and ‘desk top’ applications in one paragraph (as I have seen), are these referring to different products? The customer might think so.

At its simplest, a house style guide could be one sheet of A4 containing the key features of your organisation’s ‘rules’ on, for example, writing style or tone, formatting of dates and numbers, spellings, frequently occurring technical terms, or how to present the company name, products or services.

In contrast, most publishing companies and newspapers, as you would expect, will have a substantial manual describing or specifying their house style in great detail. This will be used by the company’s authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers and anyone else involved in producing or working with text, to ensure the company’s output is consistently presented. A few make their house guide commercially available, such as:

  • New Oxford Style Manual (Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Guardian Style (Guardian Books, 2010)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago University Press, 2010)
  • The Economist Style Guide (Profile Books, 2010).

Many organisations produce something in between. For example, the University of Manchester has a ‘House style guide’ which is designed for anyone who writes for the University. It is available to the public on their website at www.manchester.ac.uk (go to the home page and search for ‘house style guide’). Many other universities will have similar guides.

By the way, despite the use of the word ‘style’ in the name, a house style guide wouldn’t cover such things as design rules, use of colour, how to present company logos, and so on — these design issues would usually be covered by an organisation’s corporate branding guidelines.

Does your organisation have a house style? This will depend on:

  • management’s keenness to ensure clarity, accuracy and consistency in written communication
  • how big the organisation is
  • what volume of written communications it produces.

There are many companies out there, like Wordhouse, which will help you to produce your own tailor-made house style guide. I’ve tried to make that sound as little like a plug as possible, but we’d be delighted to help if you think you need a house style guide.

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Proofreading 3: Preparing yourself

This the third in our series of blogs on proofreading. The first two focused on the different kinds of proofreading, and the importance of knowing the audience for the document you’re proofreading. In this blog we’re going to focus on getting yourself ready for a particular proofreading task.

Incidentally, you may remember from the first blog that we use the term ‘client’ here as a shorthand way to refer to anyone for whom you are doing the proofreading task.

Preparation is everything, so here’s our checklist

  • Make sure you’ve got the correct or latest version of the document you’re checking. If you’re meant to be checking something that will appear on screen, you might need both a printed version or ‘hard’ copy, and an on-screen version. Do you need to check the colours? If so, don’t forget that colour in printouts can be different from on-screen colours.
  • Check whether anyone else is working on the document at the same time as you. If several people are making changes to a document simultaneously (especially if it’s an electronic document), make sure you all understand how the various changes will be merged or collated after the work is done, and who is responsible for doing this.
  • Check what deadline you’re working to. There’s no point in providing perfectly crafted feedback on a document that’s already been published or distributed!
  • Ask your client how the results of your proofreading should be presented. A marked-up hard copy? An amended, wordprocessed document, using ‘track changes’ perhaps? In our next blog we’ll cover ‘Presenting the results’ of your proofreading, in which we’ll offer more guidance on how to present your proofreading feedback.
  • Make sure you’ve got all the practical things you might need around you before you start. Things you might need include: pens (in different colours), pencil, rubber, ruler, card to mask text, dictionary (agree with your client which one) and guidance on house style or corporate branding guidelines if such a thing exists.
  • If you feel that your own writing skills are weak, or you need a quick refresher on such topics as punctuation or grammar, use one of the brief guides that you can easily find  online from a reputable organisation, such as the Plain English Campaign: plainenglish.co.uk (look for the ‘free guides’ section of their website). My favourite dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, has a great little appendix called ‘Guide to Good English’, which can’t be beat for brevity and clarity. In a later blog, we’ll provide a further list of recommended books and websites where you can quickly get up to speed or check specific points.
  • Finally, make sure that the place where you’re working is conducive to concentration. Most professional proofreaders insist on complete quiet and a minimum of distractions. A majority of proofreading errors slip through when the proofreader has been momentarily distracted.

In the next blog we’ll be looking at how to present the results of your proofreading, so that you can be sure you’re giving your client the result he or she is looking for.

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Proofreading 2: Know your audience

This is the second in our series of blogs on proofreading. This brief blog encourages you to think about the target audience for the document you’re going to be proofreading.

It may seem obvious, but before you start you really do need to know who the ultimate readers of the document will be. If you start making suggestions for changes or improvements that are based on a wrong assumption about readership, then you may be taking the document away from its main purpose.

Here are some key questions for you to consider, with brief examples showing why they might be important:

  • What level of communication skills are the readers likely to possess? Example: a handout for primary school children would not be written in the same style as a manual of instructions for engineers (although you’ve probably read a few that are).
  • Is English their first or mother-tongue language? Example: using any of our rich heritage of idioms (such as ‘you’re pulling my leg’ or ‘he’s at sixes and sevens’) can leave non-mother-tongue speakers completely confused — and most dictionaries won’t help them.
  • What prior knowledge of the subject matter will they have? Example: technical jargon, abbreviations, and so on, should not be used if the readership is a general, non-specialist audience.
  • Might they have any disabilities – such as sight impairment? Example: is the printed version likely to be large enough to be easily read?
  • How long will they have to read the document, and where will they be reading it? Example: if — to take an extreme case — a sign or notice is meant to be read by passing pedestrians or drivers, you wouldn’t want to have key information buried deep in a dense paragraph of text.

All of these factors should have had an impact on how the document has been structured, written and designed. If you’re not sure about any of them, check with your client.

This knowledge will help you to confirm whether the document is appropriate for its target audience, which is one of the golden rules of good writing. Your role as proofreader can be vital in making sure it meets the need.

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Proofreading 1: Why am I doing this?

This is the first of a short series of blogs on proofreading. (Hey, someone’s got to do it!)

The blogs have been designed for people who are proofreading any kind of material – whether in print or on screen. They can be used when proofreading your own material or the material of other writers. They do not try to make you a professional proofreader. Proofreading is very specialised work and to do it professionally and well requires extensive training and experience.

The blogs should help you to focus on the key elements of a proofreading task, to ensure the finished document is produced to the highest standard. They are suitable for proofreading most kinds of material – from letters and emails (well, why not?), legal documents and promotional flyers, through  to complete books, catalogues or websites — oh, and blogs (absolutely).

The remainder of this first blog asks you to consider the many different possible reasons why you’re doing the proofreading in the first place. If you’re proofreading something you’ve written yourself, then you’re probably clear about why you’re doing it. (If not, go somewhere quiet and give yourself a good telling off.) If you’re doing it for someone else, then you need to confirm with that person (let’s call him or her your ‘client’) why you’re doing it before you start. Otherwise, if you’ve misunderstood, someone’s going to be disappointed.

Here are some possible purposes:

  • Critiquing or evaluating the material. This is the top level of proofreading. In some ways it’s not really proofreading at all, but it’s what some people mean when they ask you to ‘proofread’ something they’ve written. They want you to say whether the material covers the right ground, makes the right arguments, takes the right approach, is the right length and so on.
  • Providing feedback on style and readability. Again this is more than just proofreading, but your client may be seeking improvements to general readability, level, sense, tone and so on. This is really the territory of an editor (and we’ll be describing the various types of editors in future blogs) but a proofreader should certainly be alert to any weaknesses that may have slipped through the writing and editing process.
  • Checking conformity to specific requirements. This might include government or international legislation, regulations covering your area of work, company conventions and procedures, and so on. This is sometimes regarded as part of the professional proofreader’s job, but is often a job for a specialist.
  • Checking technical and factual accuracy. Again this might sometimes be a job for a specialist (eg an accountant to check the financial parts of a business plan) but a good proofreader should be constantly alert for errors in statements, figures, references, proper names and so on.
  • Checking detail and accuracy. We are now in mainstream proofreading territory here. Your client might be looking for improvements to grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalisation, consistency, omissions, layout, typography and so on. Another key purpose may be to check the latest version against a previous version, following layout or formatting by a designer.

The important point in all of this is to clarify with your client exactly why they want you to read through something. The real reasons may be a combination of the above, or there may be other reasons not covered here. Check with your client before you start, otherwise a lot of time could be wasted, and you just might lose a good client or even a friend. That’s why this point comes first in our series of blogs.

Subsequent blogs will cover:

  • preparing yourself
  • identifying the audience
  • presenting the results
  • carrying out the task
  • using proof correction marks
  • common errors
  • further help and information.

We’re aiming to post them at the rate of one a week over the next two months or so. Assuming we can get them proofread in time, that is. Any offers?

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Problems using apostrophe’s correctly?

Apostrophes seem to get us very agitated. Some people omit them altogether, for fear of committing a ‘grave’ punctuation error, and some insert them willy-nilly because they think they look good. Some people even put them incorrectly in blog headings just to catch attention. (Quotation marks also get us in a tizzy — but that’s another blog, another day.) Here’s a quick guide to how to use apostrophes properly, and avoid the commonest errors.

The most common error with apostrophes occurs when people are dealing with plurals. This is the ‘grocer’s apostrophe’ ( the apostrophe was used correctly there, by the way), so-called because of the frequency with which grocers are deemed to deploy them when labelling vegetables and other products in their shop windows or market stalls. If you want to convert any of the following terms to the plural, by way of a few common examples, they do not need an apostrophe:

MBA, DVD, 100, pizza, tomato, apple, taxi.

So we should never see:

MBA’s, DVD’s, 100’s, pizza’s, tomato’s, apple’s, taxi’s.

Instead,

MBAs, DVDs, 100s, pizzas, tomatoes, apples and taxis

all work perfectly fine as plurals. Don’t be tempted to use unwanted apostrophes when setting out your stall. It won’t make you look good.

The two main correct uses of the apostrophe are for missing letters and to show possession.

The apostrophes used in the following words or phrases, for example, tell us that there is a letter missing from the original:

don’t (for ‘do not’), he’s (for ‘he has’ or ‘he is’), it’s (for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’) and so on.

For more guidance on whether these kinds of contractions are acceptable usage or good style, see Should we use ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’, etc … or ‘do not’, ‘cannot’, etc?.

Apostrophes also indicate possession. The cat’s mat is a mat that should not be used by anyone other than the cat. Kevin’s beer will only be taken from him by subterfuge or force. The neighbour’s garden should not be strayed into — and if there is more than one person living there, the neighbours’ garden should be avoided.

And then there is the nightmarish ‘its’, as used in the possessive sense for example in:

The book has lost its cover.

This little word cranks the anxiety level up to 11 (on a scale of 1 to 10) for some people. Along with ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘yours’, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ — all possessives ending in ‘s’ — ‘its’ does not need an apostrophe. Only when used in the sense of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ (in other words, when there is an omission of some letters) should the apostrophe be used, as for example in:

It’s got nothing to do with me.

The apostrophe is such an innocent little punctuation mark. But hopefully it’s going to be easier for you to remember its correct use now?

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What’s the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’?

The words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ each have several different meanings, but they are also often used interchangeably to mean ‘the state of being male or female’. However, there is a subtle — and some say important — difference between them when used in this context.

‘Sex’ tends to be used in reference to biological and physiological differences. For example, it could be appropriate to say: ‘A person’s sex will usually determine the presence of facial hair.’

On the other hand, ‘gender’ usually refers to behavioural, psychological, social or cultural differences. So we could say, for example, ‘In that country, gender has a significant impact on salary earning potential.’

The usage of the two terms becomes a little more complicated when you consider that not all biological differences are clear-cut. Many men have feminine physical features, and many women have physical characteristics we associate with masculinity. Furthermore, some behavioural or psychological traits have their origins in biological factors, which might mean that the above distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ doesn’t help. But that gets us into the nature versus nurture debate, which is beyond the scope of this blog.

For most purposes, however, if you simply remember the ‘sex/biology’ and ‘gender/sociology’ pairings, you shouldn’t go far wrong.

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