5 tips from a proofreading pro

A few years ago, I heard Sarah Price talk about proofreading on Copyediting.com’s monthly audioconference.

Sarah’s a freelance proofreader in the UK. She has taught proofreading to audiences as varied as the UK Parliament’s House of Lords and House of Commons, Wiley–Blackwell, and L’Oréal.

Sarah told us that in the “good old days,” proofreaders worked on paper, using standard proofreading marks. Today, she explained, proofreading is nearly always done on screen. It may be done in Word, Acrobat, or a content management system like Dictera.

But the bottom line is that the proofreader is staring at a monitor.

Now, I’m all for efficiency. But any working editor can tell you that it’s often easier to spot mistakes on paper than on screen—particularly when you’re working on a designed file. Inconsistencies in running heads, justification, and leading don’t jump out on screen in the way they seem to on paper.

I asked Sarah to give some tips on how to maintain quality proofreading even when she’s working on screen. Here’s her response.

  • I think some of it is practice—the more you proof on screen, the better you get at spotting things (although, as I mentioned today, the likelihood is still that you’ll spot different things in different media).
  • Zooming in to make the text bigger is a good idea—just don’t make it so big that it feels as if it’s jumping off the page at you.
  • Also, try to make yourself slow right down—often not as easy on screen, but you can force yourself to do it.
  • I make a lot of use of “search” to make sure that things like spelling and hyphenation are consistent. That’s much easier on screen than on paper.
  • And for small documents, particularly high-profile ones like brochures, I do tend to print out and proof both on paper and on screen. Unfortunately, timescales and budgets don’t allow that on bigger publications.

During her session, Price also reminded listeners that good proofreading is as much about what you don’t change as what you do.

Proofreaders (just like copyeditors) need to recognize the difference between errors and preferences and make sure that they’re changing only true errors. They also need to pay attention to where a manuscript is in the publishing process. If they’re proofing early on, they have more leeway in making changes. If they’re proofing close to deadline, they should hold back.

Price notes, “Whenever a change is made, there is an opportunity for error to creep in and cause delay, so the fewer changes the better at the end of the publishing process.”

As editors and proofreaders, it’s hard for us to admit that we can create errors in a document. That’s what we’re here to fix! But it does happen. Taking Price’s advice can help us do it less often … if we’re lucky, maybe even never.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. This post was originally published in 2013.

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