Proofreading:
    everything

    you need to know
     

    “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Patricia Fuller

    We’re pretty open-minded, but we generally recommend that writing be at least partially dressed before sharing with the world.

    Now that just about everyone is a writer, just about everyone is a proofreader, too, when you think about it. Which is why we believe now is the time to get clear about what exactly proofreading entails in our modern world.

    History of proofreading

    Proofreading has come a long way since the 15th century, when printing allowed people to document their ideas beyond hand-written letters and documents. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern movable printer. Apparently, 60 years later, after many books and documents had been published, a book publisher wrote the first contract stating that the responsibility of proofreading lies with the author. 

    Since then, proofreading services have become paid full-time work, firstly in the book, magazine, and print journalism world, and then in the advertising, legal, and business world as well. And there are slews of proofreading and editing agencies that companies and individuals hire to make sure their work is top-quality.

    At the same time, now that there’s so much writing on the Internet competing for eyeballs, proofreading largely rests on the writers’ shoulders. Getting your writing right — as in, high-quality, engaging, and helpful — in social media, blog posts, emails, can make all the difference between a view or no view, a click or no click.

    The key questions are: How good are your proofreading skills? And what can you do to make sure your copy is as crisp and easy to understand as quickly as possible? That’s what we’ll address in this article.

    What is proofreading?

    Proofreading refers to carefully checking errors in a text before it’s published. It’s the final step in making sure a piece of writing is as close to “perfect” as possible, when you fix punctuation and spelling errors, typos, and any inconsistencies. 

    The most important purpose of writing is to communicate your thoughts effectively, and we believe that striving for “perfection” can hold you back from reaching that goal. In other words, writing should happen in the writing phase, not the proofreading phase.

    Proofreading is the act of reading copy and either making proofreading marks on paper, or in comments and digital notes in Google Docs and word processing software (such as Microsoft Word), to alert the writer of suggested corrections within a document. There are both US and UK English conventions for proofreading.

    The final step of any personal or business writing process, proofreading is the process of identifying and correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.

    Types of proofreading

    Traditional proofreading tends to refer to proofreading of printed materials, such as books, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and academic papers, and journal articles. In general, the process of editing, copy editing, and proofreading traditional print materials often are allotted more time to do the work compared to more modern production processes for online and digital content.

    Book publishers

    Of course, when it comes to proofreading, one of the first things you think of are books—lots of pages, lots of words, lots of potential and room for mistakes and typos. 

    At book publishing companies, words are literally their products, so they have well-established proofing processes and a team of people to comb through every sentence to ensure near perfection. And, yes, even with a staff of eagle eyes, mistakes can still slip through the cracks occasionally.

    The books we see in shops and libraries are the result of many rounds of proofing. Books typically go through three rounds of different kinds of editing. One is editing for story development; another is copy-editing, which corrects grammatical and technical errors; then, the final stage is proofreading, making sure that all of these changes are implemented. 

    The proofing process starts with a galley, which is the complete designed book in its almost-final consumer-facing version. (An interesting tidbit: the term “galleys” comes from the long metal trays that columns of type were placed in to create proofs.) 

    Galleys can be delivered digitally or as a hardcopy depending on the preferences of the individual proofer. Since this is the final stage of editing, there should be very few mistakes, but proofreading helps to ensure that all previous corrections are made, well, correctly. 

    Catalog and magazine proofreaders

    Much like book publishing, catalog and magazine proofreading comes at the final stages before publication. However, where a book usually has one author and is composed of one, albeit long, story, catalogs and magazines are made up of numerous articles/items by different people, including images, photos, and infographics. This means there are many more moving parts and details, from product copy descriptions and photo captions to a table of contents and shopping credits to double- and triple-check. 

    Newspapers

    Besides things like op-eds, comics, and horoscopes, newspapers are primarily reporting the news and current events. This means fact-checking and proofreading are not only done at a fast-paced, daily basis, but the standards for getting things "right" is very high. Leading newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have a well-staffed team of proofreaders and fact-checkers to comb through copy, call sources, and research claims before any piece is set to publish. 

    Academics

    Academic textbooks often focus on a singular topic and act as established sources of information for education. As a learning material—whether it's astrophysics, insects, or history—it's imperative that proofreading and fact-checking are part of the editing process. In addition to textbooks, academic writing includes scientific and research writing, dissertations, and medical journals. Because academic writing often delves into esoteric topics, it's helpful that an academic proofreader possesses some knowledge of the given subject or area of expertise. 

    Website producers

    Much of the content we consume today is online, and much of it gets proofed—but a lot doesn't. Most professional websites use editors, proofreaders, and spell checkers to inspect work before it goes online, but since content is frequently user-generated now (like blogs, personal websites, and self-publishing platforms), not everything is subject to the eagle eyes of a professional proofreader. 

    While a website producer takes on many responsibilities, such as creating and curating video, images, and audio, they’re also responsible for editing and proofing copy before it hits the World Wide Web. 

    Marketers

    While "proofreading" is not typically associated with a marketer's role, it is a responsibility that comes along with the territory. A marketer's job is to communicate with coworkers, clients, and the consumer, and much of this communication is done through the written word. In emails, meeting presentations, and advertising copy, marketers do their daily share of writing and proofreading to uphold a standard of professionalism and also to produce high-quality work.

    Video production (for on-screen copy) 

    Whether they're subtitles or pop-up bites of information, on-screen copy is created by a writer and then a video editor will make sure the copy matches up to the video. In this instance of proofreading, the writer will watch a cut of the video to inform the text and review it again to see if the copy was implemented correctly.

    The difference between proofreading and editing

    You’ll often hear people talk about editing content and content that’s well-edited. It’s important to note that proofreading and editing are not the same. Editing — more specifically, developmental editing — involves a lot more effort and skill. Editing and developmental editing often involves a deep analysis of lengthy works, such as books, investigative journalism, essays, instructional works, and magazine articles. 

    “Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love.”

    Stephanie Roberts

    Copy editing

    Think of copy editing as fixing a bunch of little mistakes—grammar, spelling, style, syntax, and punctuation. That's a lot of things to keep track of! To correct them, you need a styleguide to provide the rules. This is what the Associated Press Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style—the two guides that have set the standards for copy editing—provide for thousands of professionals. 

    Before the advent of computers and digital software, all copy editing was done by hand and written directly on printed copies with a pen or pencil. Today, copy editors must possess a level of technological know-how as most editing is executed in software developed specifically for publishing. Also, modern copy editors often need to have a basic understanding of HTML, social media platforms, and website production. 

    Line editing

    Unlike copy editing and proofreading, which focus on the technical aspects of writing, line editing digs into the craft of writing—its content, language, style, and overall expression. Of course, line editing will still point out an egregious grammatical error, but the main purpose is to provide feedback on how to tell a better story. 

    Examples of what a line editor might comment: provide more clarity to a sentence, consider using a different word, point out confusing passages, and address tone of voice shifts in writing. 

    How to proofread: Things to look for when proofreading

    Traditionally, proofreading is meant to be a relatively rapid and focused process of making sure writing is free of relatively minor errors, such as typos that may have occurred during a more rigorous round of editing. 

    For online publishing and blogging, which often includes transferring of content from a word processing document to a CMS (content management system), proofreading includes making sure that formatting is correct. 

    • Misspelled words and incorrect word choice
    • Punctuation errors
    • Incorrect titles in attributions 
    • Voice and style inconsistencies
    • Misplaced or misuse of commas
    • Subject-verb agreement issues

    Some of the common mistakes to catch when proofreading online content include:

    • Making sure that links function properly and direct readers to the right pages.
    • Making sure that spellings of names and organizations are spelled correctly.
    • Making sure that formatting appears as it was originally intended. Making sure that bolds, italics, indentations, new paragraphs, and fonts are consistent and correct. Formatting often changes when transferred from one document to another type.
    • Making sure that there are no misspelled words or punctuation, such as a backward quotation mark or apostrophe, a common mistake that happens in digital publishing.
    • “Bad breaks”, such as widows or orphans as they’re often called in publishing.
    • Adding last-minute helpful information such as “more information in this article, FAQ, etc.
    • Catch inconsistent tenses, such as “says” and “said” in attributions for quotes.
    • Tweaking one or two words in headline or an email subject line for brevity’s sake.
    • Confirming that citations match the brand styleguide, whether it’s American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA)

    When is the best time to proofread text? 

    The best time to proofread is in every project's final stage, after revisions are done, and copy editing has been completed. Proofreading is the last step. If you're wondering what time is the best, we advise after morning coffee and before your deadline. 

    Because the proofreading process is intended to be the final step before publishing or hitting “send”, the changes should be relatively minor, meaning, catching typos or errors that may have In other words, proofreading is not the phase in which you should be completely reworking a paragraph or changing direction in the main points. 

    Proofreading is not the time to decide that you’ve changed your stance on an important topic — that kind of change should happen during the initial planning, thesis-writing, or outline phase of your writing.

    Proofreading is not the time to completely overhaul a piece of writing from, say, a 1,500-word blog post to a 3,000-word help article. That work should have been done during the developmental editing phase. Proofreading also is not the time to change complete direction in tone.

    Top proofreading techniques and tricks

    Ask someone else to proofread for you

    Get a pair of fresh eyes on your writing. After spending so much time on your work, you'll be apt to glaze over errors and typographical errors. It's like a crooked painting in your house—you don't notice it until someone else points it out. 

    If you have to proofread your work, step away

    Close your document, shut down your computer, and take a break from staring at the screen for a few hours (the longer, the better). Go for a walk, sip some coffee, and you'll have a fresher set of eyes when you return. 

    Come back to it if you’re tired

    Don't ever try to proofread at the end of the day when your attention span is nil, and all you want to do is sleep. Sleep on it and try again in the morning. 

    Print it out

    Editing a hard copy—and not a digital one—will help you see your writing from a different perspective. It feels different, and putting pen to paper feels more substantive and also satisfying.

    Allot two days to proofread

    Ideally, proofreading should happen at least two days before a deadline. This ensures that you'll have enough time to implement changes with one more round of proofing to come. Take into consideration the length of your writing—the longer it is, the longer proofing will take. 

    Use an AI proofreading tool

    You can use an AI writing assistant to help with proofreading. Writer uses AI to catch and correct common writing mistakes and make your text ready to share. 

    Proofreading example

    Professional editors and proofreading experts usually check a printed “proof copy” of the text and make corrections using specialized marks. In the digital realm, proofreaders work with AI writing assistants and make corrections directly into a document to help learn how to write better

    Most of these online proofreading and editing services also include plagiarism checkers to identify duplicate content on the web and provide an efficient solution for the publication.

    Improve your proofreading skills and write better text today

    As you go about figuring out your proofreading and editing process, look to see where a free writing assistant can help. You can run a free grammar check online to spot and fix spelling and grammar errors, and publish your text with more confidence and a better experience for your readers.

    Write with clarity and confidence when using Writer. Sign up for your 14-free trial.

    Proofreading FAQ

    Why is proofreading and editing important?

    Proofreading is equally as important as writing, revising, and editing because it guarantees your text is clear and free of punctuation, spelling, formatting, and mechanical errors.  

    When should you proofread?

    Proofreading is the last stage of the editing process. It focuses on finding and correcting writing errors such as misspelled words, common grammar mistakes, and punctuation errors. You should proofread after you finish all your editing rounds. 

    What is a good proofreading strategy?

    1. Step away from your text for a bit.
    2. Approach each proofreading and editing stage separately
    3. Read the text out loud
    4. Take regular breaks
    5. Print it out 
    6. Use an AI proofreading tool
    7. Review headings separately from the text 

    How do you become a proofreader?

    • Understand what a proofreader does
    • Decide what type of proofreading you want to specialize
    • Take free proofreading courses to perfect your skills
    • Create an error-free cover letter and portfolio
    • Find proofreading jobs online or become a freelancer

    The power of plain language