What is proofreading?

Ah, the eternal question. To which there is no single correct answer. However, in this post we’ll have a look at what proofreading can be, and what it cannot be, which will at least take us forward a bit.

When I type ‘what is proofreading’ into Google, I get lots of answers that say something like, ‘proofreading involves reading through a piece of writing and amending any errors’. Which is true, but it’s only part of the story (at least, it is when it’s me doing the proofing).

So yes, when somebody buys my proofreading services I do indeed go through their work and mark up any errors. But depending on the client’s requirements, I might also proof to comply with a specific style guide or template (in which case I will proofread for layout and style elements as well as frank errors).

Consistency is another vital aspect of proofreading. I go through the document carefully to make sure that all relevant rules – UK vs US English, use of double or single speech marks, paragraph style, header style and use, italics for given types of word, formatting of references, etc. – are used not only correctly, but also in the same way throughout.

Perhaps more surprisingly, I often highlight and suggest alternatives to parts of the text that don’t work well – even though they may be, strictly speaking, correct. Because, to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, while some writers use all of the right words, they don’t necessarily always put them in the right order.

Proofreading vs. copy editing

People are increasingly unsure of the differences between copy editing and proofreading. This is perhaps because, in my experience, these two skills are converging.

When I started in publishing, it was very simple. You took a raw manuscript, copy edited that and sent it to the typesetter. The typesetter typeset the paper – clue’s in the name, folks 🙂 – then sent you a proof and also sent proofs to whomever that text had to go for comment (usually the author and sometimes also an editor). A week or so later, the marked up proofs came back from the author and whomever else had to see them. Those amends would be transferred onto the master proof and the whole thing proofread against the original manuscript. Sometimes we ever proofed them again, when the second proof came back. Crazy days.

Things are different now. Some of the book publishers I work with still operate that system, not least because it works really well. If you are working on materials that are going to be around for a long time, I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the gold standard. You will catch more of your errors and get maximum product quality this way.

But it’s time consuming and the vast majority of what I proofread now never goes to a third-party typesetter. I am rarely sent anything on paper. Instead of seeing traditional proofs, I see screenshots, Word docs and PDFs.

And this is why proofreading and copy editing are merging. Because many organisations now do their layout and drafting in-house, bypassing the copy editing stage altogether. So when I am asked to proofread, very often I am the first person reading that document in its [almost] final form. Hence my increasing need to mark up in ways that would previously have been described as copy editing.

This is not a complaint, by the way: unless the copy is in a really bad state, in which case I may inwardly grumble about the lack of a previous edit. But most of my clients have been with me for a good long time, so it’s not a problem I meet too much and where I do, I have plenty of editing experience so I can deal with it.

However, I’m not convinced that everyone who calls themselves a proofreader is in the same position (some of the proofreading courses available don’t require any particular qualifications, for example, and I have been asked to correct some pretty worrying examples of other people’s work in my time). Anyone who has not published or used proofreading services before should therefore make sure that a proofreader is what they actually need.

What tasks fall outside the scope of proofreading?

First and foremost, poor quality or incomplete drafts. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t have at least 85% certainty that you can publish your current draft without being mocked or denting your reputation, your copy needs an editor or copy editor, not a proofreader.

If you are writing in English and it’s not your first language (and you think you’ve probably made mistakes due to that), then you need an editor (me!) who is experienced enough to take that into account and – crucially – will ask you the questions that ensure your writing accurately reflects what you actually want to say. This is really important! It is very, very easy for a proofreader to overlook words that, strictly speaking, make sense but when taken in context, are actually not correct at all (we’re back to Eric Morecambe territory here. Maybe he should be the patron saint of proofreaders and editors :-)).

So, how do I know if I need a proofreader?

You need proofreading services if you have copy of any size and importance, regardless of format, that you think is ready for publication (see my 85% rule, above). A good proofreader will help to safeguard your reputation (occasionally we can even keep you out of legal trouble) and get your message over well.

If you cannot say, with your hand on your heart, that you have that 85% certainty, then you probably need an editor.

Either way, you should now send me an email at hello@catebickmore.co.uk, to talk about prices and timescales. 🙂

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