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.


Proofreading or editing – that is the question

The line between proofreading and editing can seem a little blurred sometimes. However, there are a couple of clear indicators to straighten it out. If you are not sure whether your text needs proofreading or editing, here are some pointers to help you decide.

One way to make a distinction between the two services is to look at what stage of the process the task is performed. Proofreading is generally carried out once the text has been edited and the final version is complete. So it’s editing first, proofreading last.

Another way is to look at what the task actually includes. A proofreader looks for and corrects errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling and layout and does not otherwise interfere with the text. If there is a need for clarification, the proofreader merely raises a query so that the author or editor can take the final decision. Proofreading generally does not include changing the style or content of a text.

Editing a text (also called copy-editing) involves working on the text to enhance its quality. An editor specifies the overall style in view of the intended readership and alters the text (in collaboration with the author) when he or she thinks that a change is necessary, either for consistency, accuracy or to improve the flow. The editor also corrects spelling and grammatical errors, but – provided there is a separate proofreading process afterwards – the main focus is on the style and content of the text.

With these two indicators at hand – the stage of the process and the actual activity involved – it becomes easy to distinguish between editing and proofreading.

Proofreading and editing translations

Just like any other text, regardless of the language, a translation should be proofread at the end (unless it is for information only) to ensure that the translated text is error-free and consistent. Many translators proofread the text themselves once it is finished or ask a colleague to do so. Being familiar with the techniques of a proofreader is essential here, especially when checking your own text. You can read more on that subject here. For translations that are going to be printed or published it is advisable to employ a second (and preferably professional) proofreader in the target language to double-check the final version.

A translation may be reviewed by another translator with the same language combination, particularly on specialised subject matters. This can be regarded as editing, as it involves checking and, if required, changing the content of the translation itself to maintain accuracy or improve the overall quality of it. Again, this should be done before the final proofreading.

Treat a translation like any other text and you will know if and when it requires editing (reviewing) or proofreading.

It pays to know what you need

To illustrate all of the above in practice, I will conclude with an example that involves all three services: translating, editing and proofreading.

With the rise of machine translations, both translators and proofreaders (indeed sometimes confused in the process) often get asked to “proofread” a text which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a machine translation. The idea to run a free machine translation and ask someone to proofread it in order to use the text as a translation seems to become increasingly popular, but it usually backfires as it can lead to time-consuming and costly consequences.

As we have established earlier, in order to proofread you need a finished text. Depending on the subject and length of the text, this may not be the case with machine translations. More often than not the result of a machine translation is an incoherent and hardly comprehensible text that is difficult to read. What is required here is in fact either a substantial editing service to turn it into a readable and attractive text or a completely new and adequate translation of the original text – the latter often being the more efficient and less expensive alternative. Only then can we think about proofreading the text.

In the end, if you are unsure about the right service for your text, speak to a proofreader or copy-editor – or indeed a translator if you need it in a different language – and ask them for guidance. It is better to establish the true requirements to start with than to end up having to pay for extra services or to rectify a job that wasn’t necessary in the first place. It is quicker too.