There are so many misconceptions around proofreading, so I thought I’d do a post about what a proofreader can do for you. I’ve been proofreading and editing professionally since 2017, for both publishers and authors, and I’ve got proofreading training under my belt. I’ve also been on the other side, and hired a proofreader for my own books. So I speak from experience when I say it’s much more than just looking for a few typos or giving something a quick glance-over.
Misconceptions about proofreaders
Lots of authors assume that proofreading is a quick and easy job, where you read something and pick out a few typos. This isn’t the case!
Many people also assume that anyone with a good command of English (such as a teacher or someone who reads a lot) can do the job of a professional proofreader. These things are a great start for launching a career in proofreading or other editorial jobs (I have an English degree too). If you’re an author and don’t have the budget to hire a proofreader, these people can help you out. That said, there are certain tasks involved in proofreading that you can only learn from training and publishing experience, and a lot of authors don’t realise how much goes into proofreading!
First, it’s probably helpful to understand the stages of publication, especially when it comes to editorial.
The publishing editorial stages
Let’s assume you’ve written a book, self-edited it as best you can, and you’ve landed a book deal or decided to self-publish. The editorial process will probably go something like this:
- Developmental editing (also known as big-picture editing), where you work on broader things like plot, structure, characterisation, and so on
- Copy or line editing, which involves polishing your work at a sentence-by-sentence level
- Formatting or typesetting, where the book is laid out out for print and the different elements are designed (depending on the publisher, this could come either before proofreading, or after)
- Proofreading, which tends to be the final stage to check for errors before a book is published
Proofreading is so important, because it’s the last chance you have to catch errors! If a proofreader is working on a fully formatted, designed proof (a copy of the manuscript with all the design elements in place, in PDF format), they’ll have lots of design elements to check over.
If you think about the formatting or typesetting stage, where a book is laid out for print, you’ll begin to understand why a proofreader does more than just checking for typos! They often have to check for any design errors that may impact the book when it’s printed, such as problems with fonts or images.
Proofreading is a different type of reading
Another thing to bear in mind is that proofreading is a very different type of reading. Proofreaders are trained to read much more slowly than they would when reading for pleasure, because they have to be eagle-eyed and spot nitpicky mistakes that a regular reader might not (such as a single letter or punctuation mark being in the wrong font).
Proofreaders also have to carefully weigh up their decisions and whether to make a change, because the proofreader’s job is to interfere as little as possible. Too many changes might risk introducing more errors, especially on a designed PDF.
So what does a professional proofreader do?
A proofreader does so many different things depending on the nature of the job! Here’s a list of all the tasks a proofreader could potentially do.
Design and layout
- Making sure all the design elements are there, and that nothing is missing
- Checking and flagging widows and orphans
- Checking page numbers for consistency
- Checking chapter headers for consistency
- Making sure design elements are consistent (such as ornamental decorations on chapter headers or scene breaks)
- Comparing illustrations or maps to the text to ensure correctness
- Marking up incorrect paragraph indents
- Checking for awkward word breaks (such as the word therapist breaking over a line as the | rapist)
- Checking for word “stacks” (too many lines at the end of a page ending in the same word)
- Flagging incorrectly placed design elements
- Making sure all fonts are correct and consistent, including italics, bold type, etc
- Making sure all text is justified correctly
- Checking footnotes and endnotes
- Checking running heads are correct and consistent (these are what you see along the top of the page when you read a book: the author name and the book title)
- Flagging any lines that are too tightly packed, or too spaced-out
Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word choice
- Correcting typos and misspelt words
- Correcting incorrect grammar
- Correcting punctuation
- Deleting any duplicate letters or words
- Ensuring consistency of word choice (such as toward or towards)
- Enforcing US or UK word variants (for example, making sure a book in UK English hasn’t slipped into using US spelling)
- Making sure dashes and hyphens are used correctly and consistently
- Checking abbreviations and acronyms
Front matter and endmatter
- Checking contents page matches chapter headings and page numbers
- Proofreading the copyright page
- Making sure any clickable links in a ebook work correctly
- Checking ISBN numbers are correct
- Checking the author’s social media handles are correct, if given
- Proofreading additional matter such as acknowledgements, author bio, references, etc
- Spotting any missing scenes or chapters
- Making sure characters have the same names (and that they’re not spelt multiple different ways), and that their physical appearance is the same – hair colours, eye colours, etc
- Flagging any glaring continuity problems
- Checking that timelines, numbers, dates, and measurements are correct
- Ensuring house style is applied (a set of guidelines a publisher has for their publications)
- Writing queries to the author
- Creating checklists to keep track of tasks
- Creating a style sheet to track editorial decisions (a copyeditor usually does this, but sometimes a proofreader will be asked to create one if the copyeditor didn’t)
- Communicating with the author and possibly inputting their preferences
- Checking over an author’s corrections, if required
- Using proof-correction marks, also known as BSI symbols, to make corrections, if required (this is rare these days – I’ve never been asked to use them, despite being trained in how to do it!) – you can see an example of them here
- Proofreading “against” a copyedit if required (i.e. checking the proof against the copyedited version of the text)
- Looking for and flagging any ambiguity or confusing sentences
There are so many tasks involved that I might have even missed a few, but hopefully this post has given you a solid idea of what a proofreader can do, and why proofreading is so important!
For more resources on writing and publishing, check out my resource library.