FAQs: What is proofreading?

Page owner: Standards director

Click any of the frequently asked questions below to see the corresponding answer.

What is proofreading?

After material has been copy-edited, the publisher sends it to a designer or typesetter. Their work is then displayed or printed, and that is the proof – proof that it is ready for publication. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up. However, some clients expect more than that.

Many proofreaders find they spot more errors on paper than on screen, but proofs may be read and marked in either medium. Proofreading is now often 'blind' – the proof is read on its own merits, without seeing the edited version.

A proofreader looks for consistency in usage and presentation, and accuracy in text, images and layout, but cannot be responsible for the author's or copy-editor's work. The proofreader's terms of reference should be agreed before work starts.

What is proof-editing?

Many organisations publish: local councils, businesses, charities, schools. If their staff have no editorial expertise, they cannot specify what they need, nor exactly what they want. The text may be a team effort, so no one has looked at the whole, or it may be the chairman's and Not To Be Altered. It may not have reached the proof stage, or it may be so heavily designed that few changes are possible.

Such clients need and expect more than proofreading, but do not yet realise what a difference a copy-editor can make. This is the world of 'proof-editing'. The proofreader has to explore what is required and negotiate a budget and schedule that allow for more editorial decisions and intervention.

What does a proofreader do?

Page proofs or draft web pages are usually the last chance to see everything – words, footnotes, images, graphs, tables – integrated with the design before going public. Now the work is largely fixed and changes have to be limited.

The proofreader uses care, judgement, skill, knowledge and experience in checking that the work of author, editor and designer/typesetter is satisfactory, marking amendments and advising the client of problems, all with the aim of optimising the result while minimising cost of production and delay to publication.

Professional proofreaders will:

  • Compare the proofs to the edited copy line by line or read 'blind'.
  • Check page numbers and page headings.
  • Check the table of contents against chapter titles, page numbers and endmatter – appendices, index, etc.
  • Ensure consistent styles – of spellings and hyphenation particularly – by following a style guide, if supplied, or compiling their own.
  • Watch out for omissions and inconsistencies in typography, layout and content.
  • Judge the need for changes in view of the budget and schedule. Changing just one word can have drastic knock-on effects.
  • Identify necessary changes and mark the proof (on paper or screen) using British Standards Institution (BSI) marks or another agreed method.
  • Check or insert cross-references where appropriate.
  • Eliminate inelegant or confusing word, column and page breaks, including 'widows' and 'orphans' – short last or first lines of a paragraph at the top or the bottom of a page, respectively.
  • Ensure that illustrations, captions and labels correspond with each other and with the text.
  • Check that content looks right and is logically arranged.
  • Liaise with the author(s) to resolve queries or advise the client.
  • Collate the author's changes with others, including their own, rationalising or querying conflicting instructions.

Part of the job is light editing within tight limits, but professional proofreaders do not re-edit the material. They intervene only with good reason.

What does a proofreader not do?

  • Copy-editing – changes on proof are costly. If extensive changes are needed, the proofreader will first discuss the situation with the client.
  • Indexing – the Society of Indexers can refer you to qualified indexers.
  • Page layout/design – this too is a specialist skill.
  • Seeking permission(s) – permissions to use copyright quotations or images should be obtained before typesetting.

Many professional proofreaders have the skills to perform these services, but they require separate negotiation and briefing.

Could I be a proofreader?

Many people think proofreaders just check spelling, punctuation and grammar. These are quite basic elements of the job so, if you are vague about grammar or your spelling is poor, or you are simply a slow reader (rather than choosing to read slowly), proofreading is almost certainly not for you.

It takes good general knowledge, a wide vocabulary and the ability to express ideas concisely. You need to be tactful, disciplined and reliable. If there isn't time or money to do a perfect job, you make sure it's good enough. You don't have to like what the author wants to say, or their style, but you still do your best for them. It helps to be a saint. For a taster of what it's like to be a proofreader, try the SfEP course Proofreading 1: Introduction.