A proof is a typeset version of copy or a manuscript page. They often contain typos introduced through human error. Traditionally, a proofreader looks at an increment of text on the copy and then compares it to the corresponding typeset increment, and then marks any errors (sometimes called 'line edits') using standard proofreaders' marks. Unlike copy editing, proofreading'services defining procedure is to work directly with two sets of information at the same time. Proofs are then returned to the typesetter for correction. Correction-cycle proofs will typically have one descriptive term, such as 'bounce', 'bump', or 'revise' unique to the department or organization and used for clarity to the strict exclusion of any other. It is a common practice for 'all' such corrections, no matter how slight, to be sent again to a proofreader to be checked and initialed, thus establishing the principle of higher responsibility for proofreaders as compared to their typesetters or artists.
'Copy holding' or 'copy reading' employs two readers per proof. The first reads the text aloud literally as it appears, usually at a comparatively fast but uniform rate. The second reader follows along and marks any pertinent differences between what is read and what was typeset. This method is appropriate for large quantities of boilerplate text where it is assumed that the number of errors will be comparatively small.
Experienced copy holders employ various codes and verbal short-cuts that accompany their reading. The spoken word 'digits', for example, means that the numbers about to be read are not words spelled out; and 'in a hole' can mean that the upcoming segment of text is within parentheses. 'Bang' means an exclamation point. A 'thump' or 'screamer' made with a finger on the table represents the initial cap, comma, period, or similar obvious attribute being read simultaneously. Thus the line of text (He said the address was 1234 Central Blvd., and to hurry!) would be read aloud as "in a hole [thump] he said the address was digits 1 2 3 4 [thump] central [thump] buluhvuhd [thump] comma and to hurry bang". Mutual understanding is the only guiding principle, so codes evolve as opportunity permits. In the above example, two thumps after 'buluhvuhd' might be acceptable to proofreaders familiar with the text.
'Double reading'. A single proofreader checks a proof in the traditional manner but then passes it on to a second reader who repeats the process. Both initial the proof. Note that with both copy holding and double reading, responsibility for a given proof is necessarily shared by two individuals.
'Scanning', used to check a proof without reading it word for word, has become common with computerization of typesetting and the popularization of word processing. Many publishers have their own proprietary typesetting systems, while their customers use commercial programs such as Word. Before the data in a Word file can be published, it must be converted into a format used by the publisher. The end product is usually called a conversion. If a customer has already proofread the contents of a file before submitting it to a publisher, there will be no reason for another proofreader to re-read it from the copy (although this additional service may be requested and paid for). Instead, the publisher is held responsible only for formatting errors, such as typeface, page width, and alignment of columns in tables; and production errors such as text inadvertently deleted. To simplify matters further, a given conversion will usually be assigned a specific template. Given typesetters of sufficient skill, experienced proofreaders familiar with their typesetters' work can accurately scan their pages without reading the text for errors that neither they nor their typesetters are responsible for.
Style guides and checklists
Proofreaders are expected to be consistently accurate by default because they occupy the last stage of typographic production before publication.
Before it is typeset, copy is often marked up by an editor or customer with various instructions as to typefaces, art, and layout. Often these individuals will consult a style guide of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Such guides are usually produced in-house by the staff or supplied by the customer, and should be distinguished from professional references such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, The Elements of Style, or Gregg Reference Manual. When appropriate, proofreaders may mark errors in accordance with their house guide instead of the copy when the two conflict. Where this is the case, the proofreader may justifiably be considered a copy editor.
Checklists are commonly employed in proof-rooms where there is sufficient uniformity of product to distill some or all of its components to a list format. They may also act as a training tool for new hires. Checklists are never comprehensive, however: proofreaders still have to find all errors not mentioned or described on them, thus limiting their usefulness.
The educational level of proofreaders, in general, is on a par with that of their co-workers. Typesetters, graphic artists, and word processors rarely need to have a college degree, and a perusal of online job listings for proofreaders will show that although listings may specify a degree for proofreaders, many do not. Those same listings will also show a tendency for degree-only positions to be in firms in commercial fields such as retail, medicine, or insurance, where the data to be read is internal documentation not intended for public consumption per se. Such listings, specifying a single proofreader to fill a single position, are more likely to require a degree as a method of reducing the candidate pool but also because the degree is perceived as a requirement for any potentially promotable white-collar applicant. Experience is discounted at the outset in preference to a credential, indicating a relatively low starting wage appropriate for younger applicants. In these kinds of multitasking desktop-publishing environments, human resources departments may even classify proofreading as a clerical skill generic to literacy itself. Where this occurs, it is not unusual for proofreaders to find themselves guaranteeing the accuracy of higher-paid co-workers.
In contrast, printers, publishers, advertising agencies and law firms tend not to require a degree specifically. In these professionally demanding single-tasking environments, the educational divide surrounds the production department instead of the company itself. Promotion is rare for these proofreaders because they tend to be valued more for their present skill set than for any potential leadership ability. They are often supervised by a typesetter also without a degree, or by an administrative manager with little or no production experience who delegates day-to-day responsibilities to a typesetter. It follows that such listings tend to stress experience, offer commensurately higher rates of pay, and include mention of a proofreading test.
Applicants. Although many commercial and college-level proofreading courses of varying quality can be found online, practical job training for proofreaders has declined along with its status as a craft. Numerous books are also available that instruct the basics to their readers. Such tools of self-preparation have by and large replaced formal workplace instruction.
Proofreader applicants are tested primarily on their spelling, speed, and skill in finding errors in the sample text. Toward that end, they may be given a list of ten or twenty classically difficult words and a proofreading test, both tightly timed. The proofreading test will often have a maximum number of errors per quantity of text and a minimum amount of time to find them. The goal of this approach is to identify those with the best skill set.
A contrasting approach to testing is to identify and reward persistence more than an arbitrarily high level of expertise. For the spelling portion of the test, that can be accomplished by providing a dictionary, lengthening the word list conspicuously, and making clear that the test is not timed. For the proofreading portion, a suitable language-usage reference book (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) can be provided. (Note that knowing where to find needed information in such specialized books is itself an effective component of the test.) Removing the pressure of what is essentially an ASAP deadline will identify those applicants with marginally greater reservoirs of persistence, stamina, and commitment. At the same time, by mooting the need for applicants to make use of a memorized list of difficult words and a studied knowledge of the more common grammatical traps (affect, effect, lay, lie), applicants learn that their success depends primarily on a quality at least theoretically available to anyone at any time without preparation.
Formal employee testing is usually planned and announced well in advance, and may have titles, such as Levels Testing, Skills Evaluation, etc. They are found in corporate or governmental environments with a large enough HR staff to devote to preparing and administering the tests.
Informal employee testing takes place whenever a manager feels the need to take a random sampling of a proofreader's work by double-reading selected pages. Usually, this is done without warning, and sometimes it will be done secretly. It can be highly effective, and there will certainly be times when such re-reading is justified, but care must be taken.
There are two basic approaches. The first is to re-read a proof within its deadline and in the department itself. Thus the manager will read from the same copy that the first reader saw, and be aware of any volume and deadline pressures the first reader was under, and can directly observe the individual in real time. This approach can also be followed as a matter of routine. The goal then is not to confirm a specific suspicion of poor job performance by a particular reader, but rather to confirm a general assumption that the proofreading staff needs ongoing monitoring.
The second approach to informal testing is to wait for some days or weeks and then, as time allows, randomly select proofs to re-read while outside the department. Such proofs may or may not be accompanied by the copy pages that the proofreader saw. Here the re-reader is examining the proof from the perspective of typographical and formatting accuracy alone, ignoring how many other pages the first reader had read that day, and had yet to read, and how many pages were successfully read and how many deadlines were met under a given day's specific conditions.
Proofreading cannot be fully cost-effective where volume or unpredictable workflow prevents proofreaders from managing their own time. Examples are newspapers, thermographic trade printing of business cards, and network hubs. The problem in each of these environments is that jobs cannot be put aside to be re-read as needed. In the first two cases, volumes and deadlines dictate that all jobs be finished as soon as possible; in the third case, jobs presently on-site at the hub are hurried, regardless of their formal deadline, in favor of possible future work that may arrive unpredictably. Where proofs can programmatically be read only once, the quality will randomly but persistently fall below expectations. Even the best and most experienced readers will not be able to be consistently accurate enough to justify premium pay.
Production technology can also moot the need to pay a premium for proofreading. In the example of thermographic business-card printing, even when there are no reprints, there is considerable wastage of paper and ink in preparing each of the press runs, which are separated by color. When (as often happens) there is unused space available on the plate, there is no increase in production cost for reprints that use that space. Only when reprints are so numerous that they push production staff into significant overtime would they increase costs. But significant overtime is usually the result of a high volume in new orders using up the eight-hour day. In such industries proofreading need only – and can only – make a marginal difference to be cost-effective. As for the customers, many will never return even when their jobs are perfect, and enough of those who do need a reprint will find the retailer's cost-saving price to be satisfactory enough to tolerate a late delivery.
Only where workload volume does not compress all deadlines to ASAP and the workflow is reasonably predictable can proofreading be worth a premium wage. Inflexible deadlines mandate a delivery time, but in doing so they necessarily do not mandate delivery before that time. If deadlines are consistently maintained instead of arbitrarily moved up, proofreaders can manage their own time by putting proofs aside at their own discretion for re-reading later. Whether the interval is a few seconds or overnight, it enables proofs to be viewed as both familiar and new. Where this procedure is followed, managers can expect consistently superior performance. However, re-reading focuses responsibility instead of dividing it (as double-reading and copy holding, both described above, do) and obviously requires extra effort from proofreaders and a measure of independence from management. Instead of managers controlling deadlines, deadlines control managers, and leeway is passed to the proofreaders as well as commensurate pay.
Proofreading and copy-editing
The term proofreading is sometimes used to refer to copy-editing, and vice versa. Although there is necessarily some overlap, proofreaders typically lack any real editorial or managerial authority. What they can do is mark queries for typesetters, editors, or authors. To clarify matters at the outset, some advertised vacancies come with a notice that the job advertised is not a writing or editing position and will not become one. Creativity and critical thinking by their very nature conflict with the strict copy-following discipline that commercial and governmental proofreading requires. Thus proofreading and editing are fundamentally separate responsibilities. In contrast, copy editors focus on a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the text to "clean it up" by improving grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and structure. The copy editor is usually the last editor that an author will work with. Copy editing focuses intensely on style, content, punctuation, grammar, and consistency of usage.
Primary examples include job seekers' own résumés and student term papers. Proofreading this kind of material presents a special challenge, first because the proofreader/editor is usually the author; second because such authors are usually unaware of the inevitability of errors and the effort required to find them; and third, as finding any final errors often occurs just when stress levels are highest and time shortest, readers' minds resist identifying them as errors. Under these conditions, proofreaders tend to see only what they want to see.
Digital proofreading has taken many forms in recent years, such as assistive software and grammar checking tools that have made locating and correcting errors very convenient for writers of all kinds. These systems are at present unreliable. As well, new cloud computing developments such as Google doc editing services have allowed for real-time editing and proofreading that can be done for clients while they watch the process, thus helping them to improve their writing.
Examples of proofreaders in fiction include The History of the Siege of Lisbon (Historia do Cerco de Lisboa), a 1989 novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, the short story "Proofs" in George Steiner's Proofs and Three Parables (1992), and the short story "Evermore" in Cross Channel (1996) by Julian Barnes, in which the protagonist Miss Moss is a proofreader for a dictionary. Under the headline "Orthographical" in James Joyce's novel Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, watching the typesetter foreman Mr. Nannetti read over a "limp galleypage", thinks "Proof fever".
Demand for proof-editing
For documents that do not require a formal typesetting process, such as reports, journal articles and e-publications, the costs involved with making changes at the proofreading stage are no longer as relevant. This, along with the time and cost pressures felt by businesses, self-publishers and academics, has led to a demand for one-stage proofreading and copy-editing services where a professional proofreader/copy-editor – often a freelancer, sometimes now called an author editor – will be contracted to provide an agreed level of service to an agreed deadline and cost.
Proof-editing tends to exist outside of the traditional publishing realm, and usually involves a single stage of editing. It is considered preferable to have separate copy-editing and proofreading stages, so proof-editing is, by definition, a compromise but one that modern professional on-screen proofreaders and copy-editors are increasingly offering in order to meet the demand for flexible proofreading and editing services.
An example table of distinctions between different services: editing, copy-editing, proof-editing and proofreading
As this is such a new term (discussed in a guest blog on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders website) and tends to be offered by freelancers to individuals and companies rather than being a formal, industry-defined service, exactly what is included can vary. Below is an example of the distinctions between services for work on non-fiction.
|Heavy content re-writing||Y||N||N||N|
|Re-writing for style, clarity and tone||Y||Y||N||N|
|Implementing a style sheet/house style||Y||Y||N||N|
|Cross-checking in-text references to illustrations, graphs, equations, etc.||Y||Y||Y||N|
|Cross-checking in-text references with bibliography||Y||Y||Y||N|
|Checking that style sheet/house style is adhered to||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Ensuring consistency of formatting||Y||Y||Y||Y|
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press..
- "Proofreaders' Marks," Archived 2010-08-16 at the Wayback Machine Merriam Webster
- See 1983, http://www.bowne.com/about/timeline.asp Archived April 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
- ProofreadingCamp.com. "Copy That: The Categories and Classes of Editing". Retrieved August 25, 2014.
- Ulysses – James Joyce – Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
- Jones, Liz (16 July 2015). "Different types of editing – do the labels matter?". SfEP blog. Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
|Look up proofreading in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Proofreading.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Proof-Reading.|
- Importance of Editing and Proofreading by Enago
- The Importance of the Proof-reader by John Wilson
- Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders