Tag Archives: style

Things to look out for when proofreading

A good proofreader looks out for a huge range of things when reviewing a document. Some proofreaders read copy through, often several times, trying to spot everything at once; others also take several read-throughs, but each time they focus on a different element. Some proofreaders only ever review their copy electronically; whereas some will be comfortable reviewing only hard copy; and others are happy to do both. It doesn’t really matter how you choose to work, as long as you reach the same end result. You need to find out what works for you and stick to it: a tried a tested routine helps the mind focus on the job in hand.

The following list is not exhaustive by any means, but highlights some of the things that a proofreader will review across the whole document to ensure consistency in the final copy. One thing to remember: proofreading is not just about the text. Everything must go through the same rigorous examination: text, tables, charts and graphics alike.

Templates, style, formats and page layout

  • Quickly scan each page of the original document to check that all the information is included in the new document:
    • Check all logos, stamps, titles, headers, footers, graphics, tables, charts, appendices, etc. etc.
    • If you do a quick basic scan of these items at the start of your first read through, you can contact the author or production person to track down any missing items early on.
  • Designers and printers will often use a template to ensure consistency of the published material for a given company, brand, or department for example. A proofreader needs to confirm that the correct template has been used and that the styles and formats within the template have been applied correctly.
  • If your document will be printed in book form, check that all the elements of the page layout are correct for each page.
    • Check for widows/orphans (odd small pieces of text that appear at the top or bottom of a page and need to be tidied up).
  • Think about the fonts, font styles, font sizes, colours, or other effects (bold/italics/underline etc.) that are applied to the different headings or body text: are they consistent; has anything been styled incorrectly?
  • Headings need to be looked at particularly carefully. There is usually more than one level of heading in a document and often each level is formatted/styled differently to make it stand out. Make sure that the levels are clear and the correct style is applied to each.
    • Look at the capitalisation of headings: CAPITALS, Small Capitals, Initial Capitals, Standard sentence case, or Are they Written in a Different Format Entirely, are they consistent at each level?
    • Do headings have end punctuation or not?
    • Don’t allow a heading to sit on its own at the bottom of the page, force it onto the next page to keep it with the relevant text.
  • In addition to headings, pay particular attention to the starts of paragraphs and sections; they are notorious accident black spots.
  • Scan the document for footnote symbols or numbers and their corresponding explanations. Ensure that an appropriate footnote is contained in the document for every footnote symbol or number within it. Likewise if a footnote is provided make sure it has a corresponding footnote symbol or number somewhere in the text. Ensure the footnote symbols or numbers are placed consistently within the text: i.e. is the symbol/number placed immediately after the specific word it relates to or at the end of the sentence or the end of the paragraph? Before or after the punctuation? Are the footnotes placed at the bottom of the relevant page, are they compiled at the end of a section or chapter, or should all footnotes appear at the end of the document? Ensure that the footnote symbols or numbering is consistent across the text, tables, charts and graphics.
  • The same recommendations apply to any other references, bookmarks or comments within the document. For example, if there is a textual reference ‘See below’, ‘See Risk Management section’ or ‘See chapter 5’ – check that the appropriate reference is included where specified. When a document is revised several times, often by different people, it is very easy for references in text to change, be renamed, or move and you may find that what was once referenced in Chapter 5, now in fact appears in Chapter 6 or has been deleted entirely, for example.

Words and numbers

  • Proofreaders are often provided with a company’s in-house Style Guide to refer to as they read a document. Such a document explains the preferred templates, styles and formats to be used. It covers things like capitalisation, how to style numbers and headings, whether foreign words should be set apart by the use of italics or single quote marks, which spellings or formats to adopt, in-house jargon, abbreviations and acronyms etc. etc. If you don’t have a Style Guide, it pays to write one for yourself as you go through a document. It helps you remember what stylistic or formatting decisions you have made and ensures that you remain consistent throughout.
    • For example, if the document contains words that can be written in different ways, adopt the author’s primary format and find and replace all other versions. Make a note of the words or phrases in your Style Guide as you come across them: on-line or online, web site or website, twentieth century or 20th Century etc.
  • I was once given the tip of reading a document backwards the first time you proofread it. Because you are reading the words out of context, you’re more likely to spot typos and other anomalies. When we read ‘normally’ it’s very easy for our clever eyes and brain to read what we expect to see and to gloss over what is actually written on the page. That’s why we can quite easily read and understand whole paragraphs of text with no vowels or an sms text message where words are abbreviated or otherwise gr8ly transformed, for example.
  • It is quite easy to delete words, sentences or paragraphs accidentally, so everything must be checked word by word, for sense as well as spelling. Pay particular attention to the start and end of each page. Make sure the text flows from the end of the page to the top of the next and that nothing has been deleted in the production process.
  • Similarly, it is very easy to duplicate information. It’s surprising how often a sentence or paragraph of text appears in a document twice. It’s very easy to copy and paste instead of cutting and pasting a section of text, so always look for duplication too.
  • Spelling and grammar should be checked throughout a document obviously, but a proofreader shouldn’t rely on an electronic spell checker alone. A spell checker wouldn’t pick up a typo such as ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ for example, or the inconsistent use of he/she/it/one throughout the text.
    • Always run specific searches for specialist or important terms. This is crucial if your eye is so used to reading the term that it might just miss a blatant error and vital if a misspelt word will not be picked up by your spell checker and could be embarrassing if published.
      For example, I’ve seen the title of a magazine for Professional Plumbers (which was published every month under the same brand name), spelt ‘Plumers’ – no-one spotted such a glaring mistake and it was published on the front cover. I’ve also seen ‘public finance’ spelt without an ‘l’ many a time and spell checker won’t highlight that one.
  • If your copy has already been edited, you shouldn’t need to check facts at this point, but always point something out if you think it is wrong or misleading.
  • If a URL is mentioned, check that it is correct and that any hyperlinks work.
  • Pay particular attention to titles – of books or films, people, committees etc – check they are correct and consistent throughout.
  • It is always good practice to write out a phrase or company name in full the first time it is used in your document and to follow it with the abbreviation or acronym in brackets that will be used in the rest of the document, for example: London interbank offered rate (LIBOR). Try not to swamp your document in acronyms or it will be very hard to read.
  • Pay attention to the numbering styles in your document. If sections or chapters are used, is the numbering consistent, has paragraph 4.31 been deleted or repeated? If headings include numbers as well as text, ensure that any punctuation is consistent following the number and the text:

1. Risk Management.

2 – Project Management

3: Business Management

4                    Business Development

5)         Business Opportunities

  • Decide how to write numbers in text: one standard that is frequently used is to write out numbers zero to nine in text but to use Arabic numbers for 10 and above.
  • Adopt a standard format for symbols or units of measurement (percentages, kilometres and currencies etc.). Are they written out in full on every reference or on the first reference only when the standard symbol or abbreviation is inserted in brackets afterwards? Is the symbol or abbreviation so widely understood that it isn’t necessary to write it out in full at all? Is a space required between the figure and the unit or text? For example: 3%, 3 %, or 3 per cent, 5.5km, 5.5 km, or 5.5 kilometres, 202 JPY, JPY 202, ¥202, 202¥, 202 Japanese yen etc.
    • If ever you want to keep a space between two things (a number and a percentage sign or currency symbol, for example: 3 % or JPY 202), but you want to make sure that the two items always stay together and don’t get split up if they move onto different lines of text, insert the ‘nonbreaking space’ symbol in Word.

Tables, charts and graphics

  • It is quite easy to delete a table, chart or graphic accidentally, or to forget to insert it in the first place. Check any textual references to a table, chart or graphic to make sure the corresponding item actually exists. Likewise, if references are generally inserted in the text (i.e. ‘See table 3’), but you can’t find a table 3, highlight the inconsistency.
  • Similarly, it is very easy to duplicate information. It’s surprising how often a chart or table appears in a document twice unnecessarily.
  • Don’t forget that authors and production people are fallible. You can easily find entirely the wrong table, graphic or chart uploaded into a document – your job is to spot when something doesn’t belong. With this in mind, always confirm that the actual table, chart or graphic provided corresponds with the title it is given.
  • Review the format of any tables, charts or graphics, paying particular attention to titles, subtitles, numbering, sources, references and footnotes.
  • Make the number of decimal points used in tables and charts consistent. But make sure you confirm the correct figures with the author if the decimal points are missing rather than simply adding a zero or two for consistency. If figures are in millions or billions, you need to be accurate!
  • Remove unnecessary repetition: if your table header row states that figures are in £s or %, you don’t need to repeat the £ or % sign next to every figure in that column.

Punctuation among other things

  • Punctuation needs to be checked throughout your document:
    • Are bulleted lists punctuated, if so, how and is it consistent?
    • If a phrase begins with a bracket (, {, or [, is there an equivalent closing bracket and vice versa?
    • Does the author have a habit of entering more than one space between words or sentences?
    • Check that your dashes are consistent:
      • hyphen/minus sign (-)
      • en-dash (–) is roughly the width of an n (a little longer than a hyphen). It is used for periods of time instead of ‘to’.
        The years 2001–2003
        Or it can be used instead of a hyphen when combining open compounds.
        The German–France border
      • em-dash (—) is the width of an m. Em dashes are used sparingly in formal writing. In informal writing, em dashes often replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.
        The head teacher—Mrs Bellows—is not known for her patience.
    • Does the author generally, but not always, insert a space before a colon or before and after an en-dash for example? Make it consistent.
  • Check that line spacing is consistent throughout the document.
  • Check odd little things like smart quotes or superscript characters like m2. Make sure the formatting hasn’t been lost or changed. Find out if there is a preference for single or double smart quotes (the ones that hug the text like ‘sixes and nines’) or straight quote marks (‘straight up and down no matter where they are placed’)? Smart quotes can be reproduced incorrectly when published electronically. Use ‘find and replace’ to be sure you find all the examples, including apostrophes.
  • Apply the appropriate alignment to the text across the document – some writers prefer all text to be left aligned, others prefer text to be justified left and right. Many don’t notice when the alignment changes from one paragraph to the next, but a good proofreader will.
  • Ensure parallel structure in bulleted or numbered lists. If bullets are introduced by the preceding sentence, make sure that each bullet is grammatically correct and starts with the correct verb form, tense or noun format. It is incorrect to:
    • Lead into a bulleted list like that,
    • Changing to a different format in the next bullet,
    • Revert to the correct format,
    • The format must be consistent, and
    • You must make sure the bullet symbols are the same at each level.

The final document

  • When your document is close to final, ensure that all page numbers flow consecutively.
  • Check the table of contents if there is one. Ensure that it has been updated to reflect any amendments made to the order of the contents, the spelling, capitalization or punctuation of the section headings listed, and above all, always check that each section heading does indeed appear on the actual page number given.
  • If your document has an Index, it is unlikely that you would be required to check that every entry listed appears on the correct page. Standard practice is generally to check a small percentage of the items listed.
  • Always recheck your cover page – just one last time.

 Written by: Jacqui Hewitt 

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