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What makes an effective proofreader?

Someone once said that I could spot a bold full stop at 10 paces. That kind of attention to detail is what you need to be an effective proofreader.

Many people think that reading a text through and checking it for spelling, grammatical and typographical errors is all it takes to be a proofreader. But if that were the case, it would imply that any electronic spelling and grammar checker could do the job of a proofreader flawlessly.

Dictionary.com defines proofreading as follows:

‘to read (printers’ proofs, copy, etc.) in order to detect and mark errors to be corrected.’

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

First let’s deal with the ‘detect’ part of that definition. A good proofreader should comb not one, but two documents: The job of a proofreader is to verify that the original document (text, tables, charts and graphics) matches the new ‘proof’ or ‘copy’ (usually laid out by designers or printers prior to publication) exactly. In brief, the proofreader must check that nothing has been omitted, nothing has been added, nothing repeated or changed, and that the formats and styles applied to the text, tables and graphics are consistent throughout the copy prior to publishing. And yes, they need to check the spelling and grammar too.

Returning to the definition above, a proofreader must also mark up the revised copy to show a designer or printer what needs to be amended before publication. This involves learning all sorts of strange marks and signs. First, the relevant code, symbol, or squiggle is written in the margin close to the text to be corrected, and then the text itself is highlighted or marked in some way to show what has to be done, where. To the uninitiated, the signs may look unintelligible, but a trained eye will know exactly what is meant by every little mark. Below is a link with some examples of British Standard Institution proof correction marks. The wonderful thing about proof marks is the sheer lack of words required to make a point clear: this makes those little squiggly marks truly international.

British Standard Proof Correction Marks

In the past, publishing meant in hard copy, print form. Proofreading, therefore, was an essential part of the process and the use of proofreading symbols ensured that everyone involved in the publishing process understood what changes needed to be made to copy before publication. Now, however, copy can be published in any number of electronic formats or hard copy print form, or both. A proofreader is much more likely to work electronically now than on hard copy and instead of marking up hard copy proofs with proof correction marks, they will simply make changes themselves directly in the electronic document they are reviewing. Microsoft Word’s ‘Track changes’ tool effortlessly records all the changes made by a proofreader and allows either the author or someone in a production role, to review, accept or reject those changes, all of which greatly speeds up what can be a time-consuming process.

Proofreading certainly isn’t just a quick read through. If it is, you’re doing it all wrong. An effective proofreader has an exceptional eye for detail, is meticulous in their work, and must have oodles of patience. They must either understand how to mark up texts using standard proofreading marks or be an expert in electronic systems in order to perfect a document themselves. Do you think you’ve got what it takes? Did you spot the bold full stop?!

Written by: Jacqui Hewitt