So what is proofreading?
According to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), the UK's professional body for the editing industry, traditional proofreading is 'the quality check and tidy-up'. It's the final part of a long process, after text has been written, re-written, edited, re-written again, designed, typeset and eventually formed into proofs ready for printing.
These days, especially outside the publishing industry, lines between each of these stages are now very blurred. This is being driven by the growth of technology, as well as the need for 'faster and cheaper'.
Like me, my clients are generally not from publishing backgrounds. Therefore, when people talk to me about proofreading, they usually mean something a little more than that traditional final check. They want to know their text makes sense. They want me to spot typos, grammatical errors, and missed or repeated words. They are often pleasantly surprised if I point out little details relating to spacing, alignment, capitalisation, consistency or usage.
Proofreading to me is like going round with a bit of polish and a duster, but I'm not going to get hung up on editorial terminology if clients want a little more or a little less intervention.
You must love spotting errors!
Well, to be honest, I don't! Nothing gives me more pleasure in my work than reading a piece of text that's written well, accurately and clearly. If I spot errors, then yes, I'm pleased, but only because that means I've done my job properly. I spotted a missing 'not' in some analysis once, which completely changed the meaning of the findings. Phew! Errors and ambiguities can sometimes be costly, and it's my job to spot them before they get out into the public domain.
The rest of the time? Not so much. I've actually become less picky since becoming a proofreader. Maybe it's because I understand a little more about how people write, why people write, and the many reasons why mistakes can so easily be made. I understand a bit more about our crazy language and how its contradictions and exceptions can quickly lead a writer in the wrong direction. I understand more about how language is taught in schools these days, and how this has skipped between generations from one extreme to the other. I understand how even the most careful writers can miss problems with their own writing. And I understand that, at the end of the day, if a message is clear, what does an errant apostrophe on a sign really matter?
I'll proofread if you ask me to – otherwise, it's none of my business!
I often find people are quite nervous of their language when I'm around. Someone apologised to me while I was listening to a presentation they were delivering, because there was a slightly muddled sentence on one of the slides. Someone else emailed me to say they are now really careful of how they write their emails to me!
I know it's hard – I always see my friend who's a personal stylist when I'm in my hoodie, and I see my friend who's a nutritionist right at the very moment I give my children their first sweets in about a month. But honestly – please relax! I'm not constantly proofreading, just as I'm sure you're not constantly doing your jobs. Writing is such a personal and exposing thing, and it would be rude of me to comment or pass judgement if you hadn't asked me to.
That sign with the extra apostrophe? I'll notice it and think it's a slight shame nobody picked up on it before it was printed, but I won't hyperventilate, point it out and get out my red pen. Indeed, I'll forget all about it three seconds later.
So why do you proofread?
I proofread because I believe in the power of words. I like the science of how we can build them into different structures to suit different purposes. I like the art of how we can play with them. I like the fact that we can use them in so many ways in order to evoke feeling, inform, amuse or promote. I proofread so that I can help others get the most out of their words.
Any questions? Have you learnt from this article? What does proofreading mean to you?