What is proofreading? Editing step 3
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
In this final ‘what is’ mini-series, we’re taking a closer look at proofreading. This is probably the step that is most often skipped or rushed in an editorial process because of the pressure of deadlines. It's also a frequently misunderstood step in the process. As always, if you’re thinking of getting something edited you should talk to your proofreader in detail to find out how they’ll approach the work. Are they just applying a style sheet? Are they checking for consistency? It never hurts to double-check.
Proofreading should always be the very last step in an editorial process. By the time a proofreader is reviewing your work, the structure should be set and the style and tone finalised. This frees the proofreader up to focus entirely on the words on the page. It's not uncommon for clients we've worked with to poorly time a proofread of their work. To save money, they might skip the copy edit and go straight to proofreading. Or they’ll hire a proofreader so that a draft looks as professional as possible before getting someone to conduct a structural review of the document. Both can be tempting, especially to a writer who has never been published before. But it’s a gamble that usually ends with the client paying for a proofreader twice—the first time, and then again after all of the structural issues have been fixed and the rewrites have been made.
A proofread should only take place at the very end of a publication process to make sure absolutely nothing has been missed.
What does a proofreader consider?
All the fine-grained details of your writing get addressed by the proofreader. If a structural editor is looking at the whole piece of writing and a copy editor works at the level of paragraphs and sentences, then a proofreader is really focusing in on spelling, syntax, style and formatting. These are the little details that many people will miss, but when they are noticed they can be very embarrassing.
Worse than embarrassing, even these small errors can be damaging to credibility. We once had a client who was writing marketing emails to hundreds of school principals across Australia. In one email, which went out to at least a hundred recipients, the word ‘principal’ was misspelled: she had written ‘principle’ instead. None of the team picked up on it, and it was left to a recipient—a school principal—to point out the error. It might seem like anyone could do a proofread: isn't it just fixing typos? But in this example, three people had read and signed off on the email before it went out.
It takes an incredible patience and attention to detail to properly proofread a document. It’s time-consuming and if rushed will produce poor results. On top of this, publications usually use a whole range of stylistic conventions that most readers won’t be aware of. Does Australian standard publishing prefer an em dash or an en dash? What about legal publishing? Do US academics use the Oxford comma? When should numbers be spelled out and when should they be written as numerals? The answers to all these questions depend on the context, audience, publisher, and so on. In business writing, there might be a style guide to answer these questions, while in academic editing it might be a specific manual of style or referencing guide. Proofreaders come to understand these rules inside out, and if they don’t already know them they'll become deeply familiar with them by the time they’ve finished working on your document.
Proofreaders should not be making comments about bigger picture issues. Sentence structure, for example, is not something a proofreader should typically be concerned with and they’ll likely only make a comment about it if there's something very clearly wrong. They also should not be thinking about the overall flow of ideas and might not even have an opinion on the structure of your work by the end of their review. In short, proofreaders are correcting any mistakes they can find and making sure the writing conforms to any requirements set by the publisher, and that’s about it.
Is a proofread the same as a copy edit?
There is a lot of overlap with the types of issues a copy editor will fix and the issues a proofreader is looking out for. Like proofreaders, copy editors will also fix spelling, syntax, style, and formatting, while also looking out for bigger picture things like clarity. They also make sure the document conforms to whatever style requirements are set by a publisher. So, why bother getting a proofreader if you’ve had something copy edited?
It’s a mistake to assume these two roles are the same. They’re actually different in some really important ways.
First, if a copy editor has already looked at your work they will most likely suggest you make significant changes to your writing. These changes could even include entire rewrites of sentences and paragraphs. During these edits, errors are likely to creep into the text. A proofreader is the last opportunity for someone to review the text as a whole after all these changes have been made to pick up any last issues.
Second, a copy editor is thinking about a wider range of elements to your writing. As well as corrections, they’re making suggested improvements to your expression, to clarity, to tone. They’re trying to make sure your work is suited to its audience. The reality is a copy editor is much more likely to miss the fine-grained parts of your writing than you might think. This isn’t because they’re bad at their job, it’s because of the high levels of concentration needed to edit someone’s words. Just relying on a copy editor and skipping the proofread will most likely lead to some mistakes being left in.
By the time a proofreader reviews your work, they're really there as a final quality control rather than to make large scale changes. They should be picking up on places where necessary edits were previously missed, rather than applying major changes to the document. For this reason, proofreading should be the quickest and most affordable type of editing. But that isn’t the case if all the other steps have been skipped in the process.
How does a proofreader communicate their changes?
Editors make suggestions, rather than demands. In the end, the text belongs to the author and so the author has the final say on what changes are made. For this reason, all changes conducted by a proofreader should be as track changes so that you can see what corrections have been made. Editor comments, though less likely in a proofread than in a copy edit, may also accompany some changes, especially if the editor wants to clarify an important point.
Does this mean you can ignore these edits? You could, but it would be very unwise to do so. In these final stages, proofreaders are picking up on all the errors missed by everyone else; the work they do is invaluable. It’s highly recommended you take each change on board and seriously consider it carefully. They might only be ‘suggestions,’ but most of them shouldn't be easily ignored.
Equally, it’s unwise to assume the proofreader has got everything right. It's common for a proofreader to provide a version of your document with track changes and a 'clean' version, where all track changes have been accepted. Ignore the clean version. There’s a temptation—when deadlines are looming and editing fatigue is setting in—to receive a draft back with a proofreader’s changes, highlight all the text and except every change all at once. But everyone makes mistakes, including proofreaders, and you want to be sure you review the changes and understand them. It’s possible that a proofreader misunderstood the emphasis of a sentence, thought they were correcting something that you’d done intentionally, or misread a detail in your style guide. It’s a lot harder to pick up on these changes in a final review if you’ve already accepted them.