Detective work: Six proofreading secrets

You may be forgiven for thinking that proofreading is something anyone with a decent knowledge of grammar and spelling can do. After all, it is just about finding mistakes and adding or deleting the odd comma, isn’t it?

I have been proofreading since I was at university, a lifetime ago. I always had a good grasp of language and would find mistakes that other people had missed. It came naturally to me, and I was confident that I would spot all there was to spot. It wasn’t until I completed my formal training in proofreading that I realised how much more there is to it.

Of course there is the spelling and the grammar – and along came the realisation that I had to look up and double-check more words and rules than I thought I would. It also turned out that my first instinct wasn’t always right. Then there is the issue of consistency: what if a word can be spelled in different ways and they all appear in one text? Do I choose the one I like best? What about hyphenation and quotation marks, font types and sizes, layout and spaces? Do I have to check all of that too? Not to mention the important matter of putting your own personal style aside and not to confuse proofreading with editing (you can read more on that subject here). In short: the list was long, and my eyes were opened.

As a proofreader you take care of the whole text, correct factual errors where they occur, ensure consistency in line with the preferred style of the author and check if the text makes sense, taking the target readership into account. Often this requires more than one proof run and quite some detective work, as you have to check each and every aspect carefully not to miss anything. On top of that, you need to be able to follow a client’s brief, work with a style sheet or produce one yourself, give clear and concise instructions and justify your decisions.

To give you an insight into how a proofreader works and some tips how you can improve your own proofreading skills, I will let you in on six proofreading secrets:

1. Check layout and numbers first
Before you start correcting, have a look at the overall layout and structure of the text. Inconsistencies in font types and sizes, numbering or alignment are easier to spot when the text is still untouched. The same goes for missing or redundant spaces.

2. Run a spellchecker – but don’t rely on it
It doesn’t hurt to run a spellchecker if you are working on a digital document, but be aware that it will not find every error. Words that are spelled correctly will not be flagged, even if they are not intended, for example: ‘then’ instead of ‘when’, ‘for’ instead of ‘four’, ‘claws’ instead of ‘flaws’. I recently proofread a text where no errors were found by the spellchecker. After I had finished proofreading, I realised that I had to make more than 100 changes (deletions and insertions). This illustrates the limits of a spellchecker: it can be used in addition to but not as a replacement for proofreading.

3. Use a rule
Place a rule under the line that you are reading. It helps to focus on the words that are in front of you and keeps your eyes from skipping to other lines. This is simple but very effective.

4. Slow down
When we are reading for pleasure and at our normal speed, our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read. This is why you need to slow down and read every single word when you are proofreading a text. In order to spot mistakes, you need to concentrate on what is actually there without being tempted to read what should be there. It also helps to read aloud and spell out what is written syllable by syllable. Some people even read a text backwards to focus on every single word.

5. Watch out for inconsistencies
When you come across words that can be spelled in two different ways and both spellings appear in the same document, you need to find out which one is used more often than the other and correct accordingly. The same approach applies to hyphenation – there are few set rules, and often it is a matter of making sure that the prevailing style is used consistently.

6. Read again for sense
After you have proofread a paragraph for errors, read it again to check if it makes sense. You may stumble upon conflicting messages or components of a sentence that don’t go together. If something is unclear or ambiguous, you may need to query it with the author (or indeed yourself, if that’s you).

This is just a glimpse into the world of a proofreader, but I hope it has given you a more detailed idea of what proofreading entails as well as some handy tips for your own use.

Proofreading does – and therefore requires – a lot more than meets the eye. Some of it may come naturally (a good grasp of grammar and spelling), but a lot of it takes formal training and practice (eye for the detail, in-depth knowledge and good judgement). What I enjoy most about proofreading is that you never stop learning: not only do you get to read about different subjects while you are at it, you also encounter new challenges waiting to be solved. It often feels like detective work, and if you fancy yourself to be a bit of a Sherlock, you are in for a thrill.

Find out more about the proofreading services at ablewords.