Is proofreading ability innate or learned?

To proofread at the high level needed for publications, the proofreader:

  • must have been trained as an editor or proofreader (theoretically and/or on-the-job); i.e. must have learned an excellent knowledge of sentence structure, spelling, punctuation and grammar, and how to proofread in fine detail, and
  • experience in professional proofreading; that is, on-the-job training as a proofreader, or experience proofreading people’s reports or  publications.

Note: ‘proofreading’ is not editing. For more on this, go to ‘For more information about proofreading and editing’ at the end of this article.

Regardless of any ‘innate’ talent, you need to be a word lover

I used to think that a good proofreader also needed ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ talent in proofreading – an innate eye for detail, a natural ability to see tiny errors. I’d thought this ‘natural’ talent might be  inherited and/or a result of exposure during childhood to literature, writing, editing etc.

But now I’m older (and more experienced) I am sure this is not the case.

Rather, the key to being a good proofreader is a love of words.

Regardless of your ‘innate’ or ‘natural’ talent, you’ve really got to love looking and thinking about how words go together, and punctuation, the look of text on a page, and how to perfect words (and books). Because you love words you will be an avid reader and widely read, which  means your vocabulary will be broader than the average person. 

Editors and proofreaders are usually drawn to the editing profession by the fact that they love words, enjoy correcting others’ text, and/or have a natural talent for noticing small errors in their own, or others’ work. With the right training and experience, anyone who is passionate about these things can become an excellent proofreader.

Experience in professional proofreading

As well as training in editing and proofreading, you need experience to be a good proofreader, and to choose the genres in which you want to specialise.

Experience as a professional proofreader gives you:

  • knowledge about the different proofreading requirements of different types of texts (e.g. non-fiction – academic, reports, histories, memoirs; fiction – novels, anthologies, poetry) – so you can choose the genres you want to work in,
  • the ability to proofread a publication, including ensuring consistency across publications or suites of publications (e.g. policies, reports, a series of books),
  • efficiency when proofreading texts, i.e. an ability to quickly make all the corrections needed to ensure the text is clear, so you are a reasonably fast proofreader (which means your clients get better value for money, and once you are time-efficient you can make a decent living), and
  • the sort of knowledge you can only gain by experience; e.g. you cannot know what you don’t know, until you discover that you don’t know it.

Note: some (but not all) editing courses offer on-the-job training as part of the course, enabling you to get first-hand experience in editing and proofreading publications by the time you graduate. For editing courses go to: On site editing courses in Australia.

More information about proofreading and editing

Proofreading is one thing. Editing is another. For more information go to:

  1. ‘Proofreading’ resumes and reports
  2. Proofreading hardcopy publications
  3. Proofreading the ‘final proof’ (of a publication)
  4. Getting started on your editing career
  5. Recommended online editing courses

Image: Coal (cat) by Kane


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