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Proofreading is Hard!

Updated on June 27, 2011

I'm not sure I can do it, actually!

For anyone who might be under the misapprehension that proofreading is about picking out a few typos and adding a few commas, it isn't. Well, it is, but that's only part of it.

I received my first assignment mark today, and what I learned about proofreading in those few minutes that it took to read my comments was that leaving well enough alone is just as important as pointing out mistakes. I was too picky! In my efforts to make sure that I did not miss a single mistake, I found too many. Now, you might be confused by this - I was at first, still am a little bit - because, surely, you can't find too many mistakes? Surely, if you notice a mistake you have to point it out? Well, yes, you do, that's absolutely right; but you have to point it out in the correct colour! I was pointing out mistakes in blue, when I should have been highlighting them in pencil. Ah.

It would seem that I have been developing this bad-mannered habit of thinking that I know better than the editor. I have been tempted into re-editing. That is not the job of the proofreader.

Let me show you how it plays out:

Author → writes book, sends it to Publisher in form of typescript, or electronic file

Publisher → has the book costed, copy-edited, designed

Typesetter → keys amendments to text, as suggested by copy-editor, then returns copy and proofs to Publisher

Publisher → sends proofs out to Author, Proofreader, Indexer, then all proofs are collated and combined into a single master set, and returned to the Typesetter for final amendment

Typesetter → makes changes, then when the Publisher gives final approval the book is sent for printing

Printer → prints the book, sends it for binding

Binder → binds the book, sends the stock to the Publisher's warehouse or distributor

Proofreader = one little piece in a great big making-a-book jigsaw.

So, if you spot a typesetter error it definitely has to be changed, and the typesetters bear the cost for the time that takes - those errors are marked in red. If you spot an editor error you have two choices. Is it a glaring mistake that must be changed because it will mislead the reader? Spelling mistakes missed by the copy-editor must be changed, of course, definitely, and the publishers rather than the typesetters pay for these - these errors are marked in blue. But it's missing commas that stymie me! To me that missing comma might be essential, because I'm a stickler for them. But inserting every missed comma can be too time-consuming, and can have the knock-on effect of causing the book to miss it's scheduled slot on the printing press. This can be costly. So here is the second choice: you can either use your judgement to decide that it's alright to leave the comma out, or you can query it - queries marked in pencil, saying, in so many words 'are you sure it's alright for this sentence to be comma-less?' The responsibility is already causing me to have palpitations.

But, this is why publishing houses only use proofreaders with a few years' worth of experience. I must learn to chill about proofreading. I must learn to accept that I may miss the odd grammatical error, because I am not an expert. No-one expects me to get 100% - yet!

So I paid full attention to the notes my tutor had written - mostly very positive and encouraging, but containing a warning to query more in pencil. I opened my notes to the second unit, and did this: 'ohhhhhhh, nohhhhhhhhhh, I've forgotten everything! Gibber, gibber, gibber...' I had a little bit of panic, but then calmed myself down, and got down to reading.

Reading the notes for each new topic of proofreading elicits two responses from me, the second following on fairly rapidly from the first: 1) 'You what?!' I do not understand what I am being told to look out for, and know that I will miss it every time; 2) realisation and relief: 'oh, I'm just looking for small dashes that should be large ones, I see.'

Then I complete an exercise to cement what I have just learned into my brain. The exercises are invaluable. You complete them, then mark them with the answer sheets. I'm very strict with myself, and mark as my tutor would, not letting myself off with anything; no point in cheating, because we learn nothing that way.

But even in the exercises I miss obvious errors, and then it's all over: I'm a useless proofreader, is there even any point in finishing the course, is there even any point in submitting the next assignment? SLAP! Well, of course there is, pull yourself together. You paid a lot to be trained by the best, you silly girl! You did not pay a lot just to be told that you already know everything! Just try harder!

Second assignment submitted. I am nervous that I will have corrected my mistakes from last time, and made whole new ones. Bah! What can I do? It's done, and I can only wait for the result. In the meantime I will press on with the exercises for the third unit. Gibber, gibber, gibber!

What do I know about proofreading though? For definite? I know this: you can't do it properly if you're tired, so get some sleep. I did a practice run of my second assignment when I was tired. When I looked at it the next day I was horrified to see that I had missed quite a few very obvious mistakes. To be expected.

So, if you are thinking of trying your hand at proofreading, bear in mind that you need plenty of sleep, calmness (camomile tea?) and a comfortable sitting position. Hopefully this will be the formula for perfect error spotting.

Onwards...

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    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Linda, I think I didn't see your comment. (What a lovely sentence!)

      I didn't answer it, and I wish I had... but it's ancient history, now.

      Soggy!!!

    • PositiveChristian profile image

      PositiveChristian 6 years ago from Hailsham, England

      Very interesting read. I learnt a lot. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I am going to sign up to proofread on Project Gutenberg Hyphenbird. I thought it would help too. Of course, I can't make a living from that, but it will help to have the practice. Project Gutenberg kept me sane when I was working in a little office all alone for three years! I never had enough work to do and my boss wouldn't allow me to bring in my own books to read, so I pretending to work, kept my computer screen facing away from the door, and read Dickens and Austen and all of my favourite classics to my heart's content - it actually turned out to be one of the best jobs I've ever had for that reason - hated the job itself, but loved reading 'Great Expectations' all day :D

      Thank you for reading and commenting on this little hub :)

      Linda.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Proofreading is indeed hard. I have been a proofreader on Project Gutenberg for years now and that has helped a lot. Now I catch my own mistakes easier. I enjoyed this Hub a lot!

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Hi Sharyn,

      I just can't tell if I'm going to be a good proofreader or not. When I send of the assignment I have a feeling that I've done very well. The assignment comes back and it turns out that I'm not brilliant, and I feel a bit baffled because I was sure I didn't miss a thing. But, I'm going back to the beginning. My tutor advised me to refresh my memory and look back over everything, so that is what I am doing.

      I guessed there would be a lot more to it than just checking spellings, especially since this course that I'm doing is just the beginning and there are further courses to take.

      It might be difficult, but I really am enjoying it: it's challenging me beautifully :)

      Thanks for reading, and enjoying.

      Linda.

    • Sharyn's Slant profile image

      Sharon Smith 6 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

      Hello LW,

      I have often thought that I am a "pretty good proofreader." But I realize that is not so. Things that need to be corrected in anything that I am reading often stop me in my tracks and interrupt me. But I am still certain that there is so much more to proofreading that I have yet to learn. I enjoyed this . . . thanks!

      Sharyn

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Is she a comma nazi? Ooh.

      IKEA chocolate? Does it come in a flat pack, with instructions on how to assemble it? Do you have to add the milk yourself?

      Well, you don't have to publish the new short story until you're happy with it. Do you want me to read it first? You can send it to me if you like :)

      Lx.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      By the way, I am in the middle of another short "story" of me growing up in British India. But I don't know if I have shot myself in the foot; I have written it from the perspective of an eight year old boy, as in 'Krishna in the Morning' but I don't know if it is as good.

      I know 'Krishna' worked, but I'm not sure...

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      WWish I did, but i heard something about her recently, but Alzheimer's prevents me from remembering what it was. I seem to remember that she wasn't (or isn't) a very pleasant person.

      A little to the right of Atilla the Hun or something.

      I have a CD of 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' read by her good self, and I just love listening to it.

      Talking about chocolate (as you were) IKEA do a bar of plain chocolate (and milk) which is so smooth and delicious. I found it yesterday.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Ian, I meant to ask earlier - do you know Lynne Truss personally? On my shelf I have two of her books wot I have not yet read, so I almost know her personally.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Too much grammar, probably ;) I think we could all use a little less grammar sometimes. But then again, there are days when I just can't get enough grammar. Grammar is like chocolate in that way - some days I need a lot, and other days I barely give it a thought.

      Oh my lordy lordy, I think I need some sleep!

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      HA! Me too, Linda. In fact, I'd bet most of us did. That sort of makes you wonder what the problem is, hey? ;-)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Well, I think it's best to leave it there to show that I'm only human, Mo :D We all learn something new every day, as They say. And grammar is bloody hard to learn, and I went to a grammar school - go figure!

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      Ah, the last comma in a sentence listing a series. I see. I didn't notice you looking like an idiot, Linda, so hurry and delete that comment before anyone sees it! ;-) No one else should notice. And, if they do, just tell them we're all still learning and to bugger off! LOL

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      And see Mo, what I've actually done is made myself look like an idiot, because the coordinating conjunction IS the comma used before the 'and' or the 'or' in a list! Should read Wikip£dia properly before stealing information from it!

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I always use an Oxford comma. Actually, not always: sometimes I leave it out preceding the 'and' or the 'or' in a list. Then I feel guilty for leaving it out, and wonder whether I should go back and put it in. But I do always use it before the coordinating conjunction.

      No, Mo: it can be known as the 'Harvard comma' also :) It's the one that you use before 'and' or 'or' in a longish sort of sentence. I know this, because I just Go0gled it ;) It's the comma that seems to be most often omitted by comma curtailers!

      Linda.

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      Twilight, what is the Oxford comma? Is it something you Brits are hiding from the Yanks?

      :-)

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      And when Lyyne Truss told me (almost personally) about the Oxford comma, I was jubilant, to say the least.

      Am I nit picking, pathetic and OCD? Yes, yes, yes.

      And happy to be so.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      @Ian - it scares me that way too. My assignment is due back any day, and every time the postman arrives I have a little panic. Seeing the bumph letters from insurance companies flop onto the carpet is almost a relief now! Yes, I think we do over-puntuate, and the trend these days is for less commas - but yet when I decide to leave out the 'insert comma' mark, I'm told that I should have put it in! Oh, the pressure! (I love commas, and punctuation, I think we should have more! It makes me feel clever!)

      @Martie - hello there :) Thank you so much for that very kind comment. I do apologise in advance, I never get chance to read other hubs as much as I would like - but I always comment on every hub that I do read, so I will be happy to point out anything that you might need to fix. Not everyone likes to have their work constructively criticised, so it's lovely to have your permission :D By the way, for someone who's first language is not English, your writing in this language is not bad at all, seriously! And oh yes, that's an interesting point you've made - a proofreader does need to suppress his or her creative flair while they are reading someone else's work. That's actually a very useful observation, and I will try to hold on to that, it may help a lot in my next assignment. Thank you so much.

      Linda.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      Proofreading seems to be quite a challenge and can, according to my own experience, only be practiced by a person who is able to suppress his/her talent to write creatively. I wish you all of the best, Lady. You will, for sure, never be jobless in Cyber Space. BTW, you are welcome to practise on my hubs. Because English is not my mother-tongue, I commit many mistakes without even recognizing them. I write by ear, and should actually enrol for a comprehensive course in English Grammar. Lol – call me arrogant; I’m begging for free proofreading services :)))

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      I am sure that I over-punctuate, and that may be due to the fact that I was aught in Australia. We do over-punctuate, don't we? But i can read a passage a dozen time before I see a glaring error. Oh Lynne Truss, where are you in my hour of need,

      A really interesting hub, Linda. It just managed to scare me sxxxless.

      I think I'll mark you up and give you a USEFUL. That will make me feel better.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Ah, thanks for the encouragement Emily. It's like anything that's new I suppose, a bit daunting at first. Glad to hear that it's possible to get the hang of it in the end!

      Thanks again.

      Linda.

    • emilybee profile image

      emilybee 6 years ago

      I agree- proofreading is hard! I spent some time as an editorial proofreader (my first job in my designated field - communications) and surely enough I didn't expect him to be as it was. Besides the back ache from long days in front of the computer scanning pages and pages for errors....I finally was getting the hang of things when the assignment ended! Best of luck, you'll get the hang of things :)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I wanted to buy a boxed set of the books by Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander and so on, but the reviews all said that the editions were riddled with errors. It seems odd to spot errors in books that look so perfect in every other way - it does go to show that proofreading is difficult. Thanks WillStarr :)

      Linda.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I've spotted errors in books that were in their umpteenth printing! Proofreading is very difficult.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Ah, thank you. That's a lovely thing to say, my friend :)

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      What you're doing now is an encouragement to others, I promise. :-)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Indeed we are. Wish I had more time to do the encouraging! :D

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      Anytime. Aren't we all here to encourage each other? ;-)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Phew, yes, quite right, quite right, breathe, breathe :D Thanks Mo.

      Linda.

    • profile image

      Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

      I have no doubt that you'll be a brilliant proofreader when all is said and done. For now, lighten up on yourself a little. Like you said, why you would be paying to learn how to proofread if you already knew everything about doing it?

      Onward and upward, my dear! Best of luck to you!

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Morning Sunnie,

      Oh, I'm so pleased that my words could have a lovely positive effect like that. I think we're all much cleverer than we give ourselves credit for, I really do. Stretching our abilities, testing new waters, the only way to be, to grow, and to find some inner peace :)

      Thanks Sunnie.

      Linda.

    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 6 years ago

      Good Morning Linda,

      This was fantastic and sure did give me a bit of relief too..I worry so much about common errors..Having been out of school for many many years..I have forgotton so much..Nursing school did not prepare me for being a writer..lol

      Thank you so much and will take these words to heart. Up and Awesome

      Sunnie

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image
      Author

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      A lot more than I thought too, Jack. Thanks for reading :)

      Linda.

    • Apostle Jack profile image

      Apostle Jack 6 years ago from Atlanta Ga

      It is a lot more than i thought that goes into making a book.Thanks for sharing.