Standards in proofreading

This page explains what to expect from proofreaders – what standards they work to, how they mark corrections, how long they need – and what not to expect (including copy-editing):

Note that, if you do not brief your proofreader clearly, you may not get what you expected.

How do proofreaders mark corrections?

Proofreaders mark corrections by using BS5261 – the set of standard symbols issued by the British Standards Institute – or using ISO5776, the international standard closely based on BS5261. Most of the marks are self-explanatory, but the proofreader will explain if you ask.

Here are some frequently used British Standard (BS) marks:

B3 – delete

B13 – capitals

B7 – italics

C3 – transpose

D1 – close up

D2 – insert space

Proofreading can be done on paper or on screen. BS mark-up on hard copy (paper) is faster and can be clearer; BS mark-up on screen (using PDF stamps) is more convenient for the user correcting the source file. Whatever way the proofs are corrected, the mark-up must be perfectly clear even to a user who does not know a word of the language – a situation which is not unusual.

If a client prefers mark-up on screen using tools built into a PDF program, then the proofreader will use those tools, though they are not ideal. Ask yourself: are the comments and mark-up as clear as they would be in PDF stamps? For example, has the same tool been used for typesetter instructions and textual changes?

Mark-up on paper

Here is part of a printed proof, read against copy. In BS5261, each mark in the text is explained by a mark in the margin. The proofreader has used red pen to delete a comma and change J to I – the typesetter's mistakes – and blue for an editorial error, changing i to j (italics are shown by an underline). The proofreader has taken in the author's corrections in black. Really clear mark-up like this takes only seconds, and this is the standard to aim at; anything less leads to new errors, queries and delay.

Mark-up on screen

Here is part of a proof read 'blind' and marked up on screen, using PDF stamps for the BS5261 marks and the Typewriter function for new text. The marks are grouped, so clicking on the circle around R also selects the downcase symbol and the solidus (forward slash) that marks the end of the correction; using this system, the designer or typesetter sees these three marks as a single change in the comments list. The solidus (forward slash) after the delete symbol beside line 1 is a space-saving way of showing a repeated change. Really clear mark-up like this takes only a few more seconds, and this is the standard to aim at. This was a real job, done at normal speed.

If the client prefers PDFs marked up on screen using the program's built-in tools, that is what the proofreader will use. If the client supplies material in Word or a similar program, this is not a proof, though many proofreaders may be willing to 'proof-edit' it.

How fast do proofreaders work?

That depends how complex, difficult or badly written the text is. How many problems did it have to begin with? How well was it edited? Unless the material is straightforward, it will need at least two passes – one for headings, numbering and layout, say, and one for content.

Proofreading is tiring for the eyes and the brain, so proofreaders cannot work for hours at a time and remain efficient. It also takes time to get up to speed, reading or re-reading the brief and style guide, so short jobs are slower by their nature.

Allowing for all the factors mentioned, an experienced professional can usually proofread and correct 2000 to 3500 words per hour – about 6–11pp. in many books – and 2500 is typical.

If the budget or schedule turns out to be too tight, our ideas of what is 'good enough' have to change. In that case, the proofreader will minimise and simplify any changes, partly because time is now tight for the designer or typesetter to take in corrections.

Will they make my text perfect?

That is the aim, but perfection is rarely possible. By the Law of Diminishing Returns, perfection requires inordinate amounts of time and money. It is not realistic, but nor are some clients. Even when time is tight, they still want perfection while paying only for 'good enough'. If they did not pay for copy-editing, the proofreader can only sort out the worst problems.

The document may be diabolical, but the proofreader is only human. What can make their job impossible?

  • Different people wrote various parts of the text, the boss added a few touches, the office junior corrected it, everyone made last-minute additions or changes; nobody hired a copy-editor, nobody briefed the designer.
  • Parts of the document are now inconsistent, incoherent or incomplete; layout, images and sense do not match.
  • The proofreading budget will buy one pass from a beginner; the schedule is unrealistic.

You look at the corrected proof, and three errors jump out at you. 'That's not good enough!' Then you go through the mark-up and see all the errors, omissions and other problems. The proofreader successfully dealt with over three quarters of them. Is that good enough?

How good is 'good enough'?

SfEP mentors have standards for what is good enough in proofreading.

Trainees (not beginners), proofreading a professionally copy-edited typescript, are normally expected – after some practice – to spot and deal appropriately with at least 70% of errors; this is based on finding 80% of typos and 60% of editorial errors or oversights. If a mentee finds fewer mistakes than that, they need more training or guidance.

An experienced professional proofreader, reading a copy-edited typescript, should be able to spot and deal appropriately with at least 80% of all errors but at least 90% of typos – other things being equal.

Other things are seldom equal. Was the writer accurate, consistent and reasonably coherent? Was the material edited? How tricky is the subject matter? Did the author respond to queries? Did the author, project manager, journal editor or designer add new mistakes? Did the proofreader have enough time and money? 

Good enough for what?

How perfect do you want it? What counts as an error? And will even one error matter?

Sometimes only perfection is good enough, and the Wicked Bible of 1631 was not good enough. Its Ten Commandments contained one mistake: 'Thou shalt commit adultery'. The edition was pulped.

You don't want that to happen. Even so, perfection is usually out of reach, though you can get very close. Not every error matters equally. After all, how many readers will notice that italic comma? (Go back and look!) Clients have to decide what matters to them, but they need to be prepared to take the proofreader's advice.

No publication is likely to be good enough if it has not been edited. However, copy-editors do a lot more than pick up mistakes, so they may not catch all of them, especially if the material is complex, difficult or badly written.

Complex, difficult or badly written?

A complex publication is typically one that makes numerous connections: for example, a school textbook, where the same topic may appear in various forms (image, table, text, citation) in different places, but where the content also has to link to the teacher's handbook and an external syllabus.

A difficult publication is usually defined by its subject matter, such as philosophy or biochemistry, by its language – Arabic philology or Joyce's Ulysses for example – or by a hard-to-reach audience.

A well-written text should be not just grammatical, well punctuated and correctly spelt, but also consistent, logical and readable. It should be well judged in tone and level, use appropriate vocabulary, tell the reader everything they need to know, explain anything unfamiliar and not leave out steps in the plot, argument or directions. Copy-editors practise these skills every day, and they know what to look for.

Why bother?

A good copy-editor picks up 80% of errors; a good proofreader picks up 80% of what's left. Why bother? Because people will judge you on the quality of what you put in front of them. Because people will not take you or your message seriously if it is unclear, inconsistent or poorly presented. Because you are asking people to spend time reading it, and it is simple courtesy to smooth the reader's path.