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What is proofreading?

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Saturday, April 30, 2016 . Comments
What is proofreading?

Proofreading is one of the final stages of producing a report, manuscript, submission, policy, manual or any other type of document or publication.

The proofreader's role

The role of the editor is to edit the document to proofreading stage; that is, to correct all the errors in the document as far as the editor can see, bearing in mind that they will miss some punctuation, spelling or other minor errors. It is the proofreader's role to correct those remaining minor mistakes and ensure the document is accurate, error-free and ready for submission or publication.

If the proofreader has their own business or is a freelancer, they are probably providing their services and reporting to a client such as a writer, editor or publisher. If the proofreader is working for an organisation they will probably be reporting to a supervisor or manager.

This article is about the task of proofreading a document to the stage where it can be:

  • Submitted to an agency, individual or the public; for example, proofreading a client's website (online), a suite of policy documents, or a tender submission, or
  • Submitted to a printer or e-publisher; noting that the printer/e-publisher usually then needs to convert the document into a different format which means that it will then need to be proofread again prior to the actual print-run or publication. (See the last heading in this article: Proofreading a publication.)

'Fresh eyes'

Ideally, the proofreader will not have seen the document before. Being unfamiliar with the material - or having a pair of 'fresh eyes' - helps people notice minor errors such as missing commas, lower-case letters that should be upper-case (and vice versa) and other minor typos that the writer and editors have failed to notice because (a) they have been busy writing or editing, and (b) noticing and correcting those minor errors is the proofreader's task.

The proofreader's first task

The proofreader's first task is glancing through, and possibly proofreading, a small sample of the document to determine the level of proofreading required. They will then be able to discuss, with their client/supervisor:

  • Whether the document needs to be edited again. No matter how many times the document has been edited, if it is poorly designed, or contains a lot of grammatical errors or poorly worded passages, it has not been edited properly and will need to be edited again prior to being proofread.
  • Whether the document needs to be 'proof-edited'. Proof-editing is, more or less, proofreading with a little bit of editing thrown in. It is correcting the sorts of errors that would usually be the editor's role to correct, at the same time as proofreading the document. If the document contains errors that should have been corrected during the editing stage - such more grammatical errors than usual, or a section or image that need to be moved to a different place - but not so many errors that the whole document needs to be edited again, it may be able to be proof-edited instead of being proofread.
  • Whether the document is ready for proofreading. If there are few grammatical errors and no major flaws in the document, but only spelling, punctuation and other  minor errors, it is ready to be proofread.

The main task of proofreading

Assuming the document has been edited properly and it is ready to be proofread, the proofreader's task is to correct the document so that every word and the placement of every image is correct. The proofreader must ensure that:

  • The style and formatting are consistent with the instructions in any relevant manuals, and the style sheet produced by the editor.
  • Spelling, punctuation, fonts and formatting are correct, consistent and according to the required style.
  • All images are placed and formatted correctly and all the information, including page numbering, footnotes, tables, references, captions and other aspects are accurate. If appropriate, the proofreader should compare the document to the original draft to ensure that no text has been omitted or changed and that all details are correct.

How the proofreader carries out the task of proofreading depends on their preferences which may include:

  • Correcting the electronic document only (that is, not using or correcting a hardcopy document at all during the process).
  • Correcting the document in hardcopy then transferring their hardcopy corrections onto the electronic document; some proofreaders prefer this method because it requires them to 'double-check' the text and their corrections, when correcting the e-document.
  • Proofreading the document twice, in two separate stages; this may be appropriate if there are a large number of corrections to be made, or if proof-editing rather than simply proofreading is required. In this case, the proofreader first proof-edits or proofreads the document, and then carefully proofreads the document again to correct any remaining errors.

Proofreading publications

When a document is going to be published, either electronically or in hardcopy, after being proofread and sent to the printer or e-publisher, it needs to be proofread again prior to the actual print-run or publication. This is because the printer/e-publisher usually converts the document into a different format which can cause all sorts of errors. I will be discussing the task of proofreading publications in a future article.

This article is based on my own experience over the past 20 years, editing and proofreading reports, policy documents, and my own and others' publications; self-publishing mainly non-fiction hardcopy publications; and publishing my website and articles online. Keep posted for future articles about editors and editing, proofreaders and proofreading.

Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!

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