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Blog > Understanding Publishing – Posted on January 31, 2020

What is Proofreading? And Can You Do It Yourself?

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.

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.

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. These plates would then be used to print pages of a book. But before they would start churning out thousands of copies, a ‘proof’ version would be sent to the publisher — who would then read it, looking for mistakes.

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.

Why is proofreading so important?

Earlier in 2019, one of the most popular shows in television history, Game of Thrones, came to an end. It was a highly anticipated TV event, and both the series’ most devoted and casual fans alike were ready to devour every moment.

So it’s no surprise that when a Starbucks cup made an accidental cameo during one of the episodes, viewers jumped on social media within seconds to point out the gaff. The show’s producers were just as fast to act, and 48 hours later the disposable cup had been edited out of the show.

In a show like Friends, for instance, such a cup would have made virtually zero impact — whether or not it was placed on set intentionally. But because Game of Thrones takes place in a medieval setting, a to-go beverage is centuries out of place. Seeing such a modern item immediately yanks viewers out of their suspension of disbelief, and 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 or grammatical errors 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 errors. 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 self-publish on your own, proofreading is a vital part of the publishing process.

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, where independent authors often look for ways to reduce their costs, proofreading is becoming a non-negotiable part of the editorial process. As indie authors become more professional in their approach, the specter of the “poorly edited self-pub book” is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

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.

Working with a professional proofreader

A professional proofreader does more than just look out for spelling and grammar 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.

How much does a professional proofreader cost?

Based on statistics from Reedsy’s marketplace, proofreading a book costs $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, for example. But whatever the cost, you can be sure that getting a professional proofreader is worth it. They might just be the difference between a few frustrating typos and a perfectly polished piece.

Reading proofreading marks

If you decide to hire a professional proofreader to work on your manuscript, in all likelihood the proofing process will take place digitally, using a “track changes” tool to address issues. For this reason, learning the meaning of proofreading marks might feel as impractical as learning to speak Latin — especially for self-publishing authors.

That being said, proofreading marks aren't all that complicated to learn. Maybe you’re old school and prefer editing with pen and paper. Or perhaps you’re concerned about screen fatigue. Either way, if you’d prefer your proofreader to make their notes in a more analog fashion, you can get a thorough understanding of proofreading marks in this blog post.

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.

Proofreading tips

  • 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 errors 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.

Looking for a proofreader? Sign up for a free Reedsy account and browse through the best freelancers in the business.