What is Proofreading? Beginner's Guide to an Essential Edit
Whether you’re a student, a mechanic, a doctor, or a professional writer, you’ve probably come across proofreading in some form or another — though you might not be aware of it. So much of the work people do these days revolves around the written word. Mistakes in their writing can have a massive impact on their success — which is where proofreading comes in!
In this post, we’ll have a look at the ins and outs of proofreading, from the perspective of experienced proofreaders in the publishing trade.
What is proofreading?
Proofreading is the act of reading written work and marking any errors. These mistakes most commonly involve spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistency.
What is a proof?
The ‘proof’ in ‘proofreader’ comes from the publishing term describing an early printed copy. Traditionally, typesetters would arrange letters tiles onto large plates that are then used to print pages of a book. But before they started churning out thousands of copies, a ‘proof’ version was sent to the publisher for a final check.
With modern digital publishing (and computerized printing methods), proofreading is now usually done on a computer — though some proofreaders still prefer marking up physical copies.
What is the difference between proofreading and editing?
In publishing, proofreading comes into play at the very end of the editorial process, after a manuscript has been corrected by a copy or line editor. The proofreader’s job is to comb through the document and look for any mistakes that may have slipped through the cracks. Regardless of how meticulous the writer and editor have been, there will almost always be errors when you’re dealing with a book of 80,000 words or more.
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Why is proofreading important?
You might remember, in early 2019, the television hit series Game of Thrones was coming to an end. Devoted and casual fans alike sat in front of screens to devour every moment of the final season. So it’s no surprise that when a Starbucks cup made an accidental cameo during one of the episodes, viewers were pointing out the gaff on social media in a heartbeat.
The show’s producers were quick to act, and 48 hours later the disposable cup had been edited out of the show. Yet there’s no denying that hundreds, if not thousands, of viewers were yanked from the medieval realm of Westeros because of this tiny appearance of a modern artefact. Suddenly, the focus is on the error, and not the story.
Do you see where we’re going with this? A manuscript peppered with typos, grammatical errors, or contextual inconsistencies will jolt a reader out of the narrative the book is meant to tell. Instead of getting caught up in the story or thesis, they’re suddenly forced to mentally rectify the work’s mechanical mistakes. So proofreading is partly important because it allows your narrative to shine through uninterrupted.
What’s more, it adds a level of professionalism that is absolutely necessary if you’re looking to get publishers or readers on your side. When confronted with an obviously un-proofed book, both audiences will likely assume the author couldn’t be bothered to truly invest in their work. And if the author didn’t seem bothered to invest, why should they?
So whether you’re planning to seek out traditional representation for your book or to publish on your own, editing and proofreading is a vital part of the publishing process.
Working with a professional proofreader
A professional proofreader does more than just look out for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. They will also look for consistency issues that could hamper the reading experience. This would include:
- Ensuring that any web links go to the right webpage
- Checking that the index matches the content
- Confirming that the layout doesn’t fluctuate throughout the work
- Making sure that the images have correct captions
- Verifying that the copy adheres to the author’s chosen style guide
Proofreaders will not usually copy-edit, meaning that they won't make changes directly to the manuscript. Their primary job is highlighting potential mistakes, allowing the writer or editor to make the final decision.
Who should use professional proofreading?
In traditional publishing, every book will be proofed before it’s released to the public. If a reader were to find more than a handful of typos or grammatical mistakes in a novel, for example, it could negatively color their reading experience (and damage the publisher’s reputation).
In self-publishing, proofreading is becoming a non-negotiable part of the editorial process. Independent authors often look for ways to reduce their costs, so they’re often tempted to proofread by themselves. But as the indie book market grows and its products improve in quality, getting a professional proofread is fast becoming common practice.
Outside of trade publishing, proofreaders will often find work in areas such as academia, journalism, and even advertising. In some corporate settings, they can even be hired to check through slide decks before presentations.
How much does a professional proofreader cost?
Based on statistics from Reedsy’s marketplace, proofreading services cost $10 per thousand words, on average.
Of course, this is only a ballpark figure and the final rate will depend on a number of other factors. For example, if the proofreader needs to cross-check the index, this would naturally escalate the cost.
In non-publishing industries, costs may also vary. A proofreader with a deep background in technical writing may choose to charge extra for their expertise and fact-checking, for example. But whatever the cost, you can be sure that getting a professional proofreader is worth it.
Tips for finding a professional proofreader
There are a lot of proofreaders advertising their services out there — where do you begin to find the right one for your project? We’ve got some pointers down below.
- Ask your editor. If you’re already working with an editor, it’s worth asking if they offer proofreading services. If not, they probably know other professionals that they trust will be good for your project.
- Specify your preferences. Do you like to work digitally or do you focus better reading a printed manuscript? The proofreading process is a two-way street, and when both you and the professional agree on a method, everything will be much smoother and more efficient.
- Search niche marketplaces. If you’re writing a book, it’s better to go straight to editing societies' directories or publishing marketplaces, where the proofreaders’ credentials are checked, than to browse Upwork or Fiverr. That way you don't have to spend hours sifting through portfolios of proofreaders who aren't equipped with the right knowledge to advise you, not just on your writing but also on formatting your manuscript.
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Proofreading your own work
When it comes to a longer piece of writing meant for wider consumption — like, say, a book — there’s still nothing that can beat a trained professional.
For other types of content, however, writers can and do proofread their own work. Simply reading back something you’ve written will usually reveal typos and ungainly passages. In situations where your writing isn’t intended for a massive audience (for example, in an email to your boss), you can usually rely on an online spelling and grammar checker such as Grammarly to catch any major mistakes.
Let’s cover a couple of DIY proofreading tips to help you ensure your work is as polished as can be.
- Start with self-awareness. There are certain bad grammatical habits we’re all prone to, or particular typos that tend to crop up frequently in our work. Before you get started, take a moment to determine your own "bad writing habits." Then do a sweep of your work, concentrating just on those. For example, perhaps there's a word you know you overuse? Search for just that word and really consider whether it needs to be there.
- Read out loud. The truth is, your eyes can deceive you — and this is especially true if you're reading on a screen, where your eyes are quick to tire. You'd be surprised at how many mistakes you can spot reading something out loud vs. reading it silently in your head. A bonus tip here is to read your manuscript out loud with someone else. Take turns reading a set number of pages each, and you'll ensure you catch any awkward-sounding phrases.
- Do one thing at a time. The worst way to proofread your own work is to read through it and try to get it perfect by the end. Effective proofreading requires multiple rounds, and each round should be focused on just one task. Don't look for spelling errors at the same time as you check for homonyms, as you'll likely end up letting stuff fall through the cracks.
[updated: 08/26/2020 UTC]
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