Strictly speaking, proofreading is the last check of a text in its final paper ‘proof’ form prior to publishing/printing. It is the last chance to catch mistakes and prevent glaring errors from interfering with the enjoyment of the reader. Incorrect spelling, misleading punctuation and poor grammar are obvious targets. However, spotting inconsistencies of content, whether text or graphic, formatting and language are also important. The number of corrections required for a published book will usually be few because it will have been edited previously. These days, publishers’ proofs are often digital PDFs, but some are still paper. Proofreaders often use a set of ‘proofreaders’ marks’ to indicate corrections required. These marks are concise and unambiguous and so enable efficient instruction for typesetters.

It isn’t just publishers who need proofreaders, though. This BBC report demonstrates just how important it is for businesses to avoid errors in their written communications with customers and clients.

While publishers will have professionally edited their titles prior to final proofreading, thus eradicating most errors, many businesses and organisations produce written copy for use online and for print, with few if any checks. These are liable to contain more errors than a publisher’s proof,  and errors may be damaging to customer confidence and reduce sales.

Some organisations will send PDF proofs to their proofreader exactly as a publisher would, and will advise the proofreader of any special requirements in a ‘house style guide’ which sets out how they like their materials to be presented. They cover aspects such as preferred spellings, when words should be capitalised, which dictionary should be used, how pages should be laid out, how numbers should be written… a whole range of details. Attention to these details enables organisations to project a consistent and professional image. Because branding is important to business, all of their communications should follow their brand style so that it is instantly recognisable to customers and clients; it’s the proofreader’s job to check that it does.

Accuracy is also important to students who may be distilling years of study into a thesis that will shape their future career. Or an author who is trying to snare the interest of a publisher or agent, or a job applicant. Such projects are typically provided to the proofreader in Microsoft Word (rather than PDF or paper) and proofreaders will generally undertake correction using Word’s ‘Track Changes’ function. This enables the client to review the proofreader’s corrections or attend to any queries raised. In addition to the corrections of spelling, punctuation etc., a proofreader may spot inconsistencies (a character’s hair may be blond in chapter one but red in chapter six), query a possible inaccuracy or suggest a sentence needs clarification.

Some suggestions for minor rewording may also be made where clarification is needed or to improve the flow. As this requires more intervention than proofreading usually entails, it is sometimes called proof-editing. In work for students, care must be taken to ensure that proof-editing does not affect the academic integrity of the student’s work. More substantial intervention or rewriting is copyediting rather than proofreading, a different but related specialism which is typically carried out earlier in the production process. In whatever form it is undertaken, proofreading should provide a light-touch check to ensure the material is error-free.

For more information about proofreading and editorial services, have a look at detailed guidance from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). For more information about what you might expect from a proofreading service, please visit the SfEP’s Standards in Proofreading page. The SfEP has exacting standards, and members are expected to adhere to its strict Code of Practice.

If you are uncertain which service you need, please get in touch for a chat. I will be happy to discuss your options with you.