Proofreading is the reading of a galley proof or an electronic copy of a publication to find and correct production errors of text or art. Proofreading is the final step in the editorial cycle before publication.
A 'galley proof' (familiarly, 'a proof') is a typeset version of copy or a manuscript document. They may contain typographical errors ("printer's errors"), as a result of human error during typesetting. Traditionally, a proofreader looks at an increment of text on the copy and then compares it to the corresponding typeset increment, and then marks any errors (sometimes called 'line edits') using standard proofreaders' marks. Unlike copy editing, the defining procedure of a proofreading service is to work directly with two sets of information at the same time. Proofs are then returned to the typesetter for correction. Correction-cycle proofs will typically have one descriptive term, such as 'bounce', 'bump', or 'revise' unique to the department or organization and used for clarity to the strict exclusion of any other. It is a common practice for 'all' such corrections, no matter how slight, to be sent again to a proofreader to be checked and initialled, thus establishing the principle of higher responsibility for proofreaders as compared to their typesetters or artists.
'Copy holding' or 'copy reading' employs two readers per proof. The first reads the text aloud literally as it appears, usually at a comparatively fast but uniform rate. The second reader follows along and marks any pertinent differences between what is read and what was typeset. This method is appropriate for large quantities of boilerplate text where it is assumed that there will be comparatively few mistakes.
Experienced copy holders employ various codes and verbal short-cuts that accompany their reading. The spoken word 'digits', for example, means that the numbers about to be read are not words spelled out; and 'in a hole' can mean that the upcoming segment of text is within parentheses. 'Bang' means an exclamation point. A 'thump' or 'screamer' made with a finger on the table represents the initial cap, comma, period, or similar obvious attribute being read simultaneously. Thus the line of text (He said the address was 1234 Central Blvd., and to hurry!) would be read aloud as "in a hole [thump] he said the address was digits 1 2 3 4 [thump] central [thump] buluhvuhd [thump] comma and to hurry bang". Mutual understanding is the only guiding principle, so codes evolve as opportunity permits. In the above example, two thumps after 'buluhvuhd' might be acceptable to proofreaders familiar with the text.
'Double reading' is when a single proofreader checks a proof in the traditional manner and then another reader repeats the process. Both initial the proof. Note that with both copy holding and double reading, responsibility for a given proof is necessarily shared by the two proofreaders.
'Scanning' is used to check a proof without reading it word for word, has become common with computerization of typesetting and the popularization of word processing. Many publishers have their own proprietary typesetting systems, while their customers use commercial programs such as Word. Before the data in a Word file can be published, it must be converted into a format used by the publisher. The end product is usually called a conversion. If a customer has already proofread the contents of a file before submitting it to a publisher, there will be no reason for another proofreader to re-read it from the copy (although this additional service may be requested and paid for). Instead, the publisher is held responsible only for formatting errors, such as typeface, page width, and alignment of columns in tables; and production errors such as text inadvertently deleted. To simplify matters further, a given conversion will usually be assigned a specific template. Given typesetters of sufficient skill, experienced proofreaders familiar with their typesetters' work can accurately scan their pages without reading the text for errors that neither they nor their typesetters are responsible for.
Proofreaders are expected to be consistently accurate by default because they occupy the last stage of typographic production before publication.
Before it is typeset, copy is often marked up by an editor or customer with various instructions as to typefaces, art, and layout. Often these individuals will consult a style guide of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Such guides are usually produced in-house by the staff or supplied by the customer, and should be distinguished from professional references such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, The Elements of Style, and Gregg Reference Manual. When appropriate, proofreaders may mark errors in accordance with their house guide instead of the copy when the two conflict. Where this is the case, the proofreader may justifiably be considered a copy editor.
Checklists are common in proof-rooms where there is sufficient uniformity of product to distil some or all of its components to a list. They may also act as a training tool for new hires. Checklists are never comprehensive, however: proofreaders still have to find all mistakes that are not mentioned or described, thus limiting their usefulness.
The term 'proofreading' is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to copy editing, and vice versa. Although there is necessarily some overlap, proofreaders typically lack any real editorial or managerial authority. What they can do is mark queries for typesetters, editors, or authors. To clarify matters at the outset, some advertised vacancies come with a notice that the job advertised is not a writing or editing position and will not become one. Creativity and critical thinking by their very nature conflict with the strict copy-following discipline that commercial and governmental proofreading requires. Thus, proofreading and editing are fundamentally separate responsibilities. In contrast, 'copy editors' focus on a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the text to "clean it up" by improving grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and structure. The copy editor is usually the last editor that an author will work with. Copy editing focuses intensely on style, content, punctuation, grammar, and consistency of usage.
Copy editing and proofreading are parts of the same process, their necessity depends on the stage of the writing process. Copy editing is required during the drafting stage. A copy editor polishes the text for precision and conciseness. The copy editors attempt to understand the purpose of the writing and the intended audience; therefore, they will ask questions such as where the document will be published and who will read it, and edit accordingly. Proofreading is the last step of the editing process. The scope of proofreading is limited as the proofreader only focuses on reading the text to ensure the document is error-free and ready for publication.
Primary examples include job seekers' own résumés and student term papers. Proofreading such material presents a special challenge, first because the proofreader/editor is usually the author; second because such authors are usually unaware of the inevitability of mistakes and the effort required to find them; and third, as final mistakes are often found when stress levels are highest and time shortest, readers fail to identify them as mistakes. Under these conditions, proofreaders tend to see only what they want to see.
Examples of proofreaders in fiction include The History of the Siege of Lisbon (Historia do Cerco de Lisboa), a 1989 novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, the short story "Proofs" in George Steiner's Proofs and Three Parables (1992), and the short story "Evermore" in Cross Channel (1996) by Julian Barnes, in which the protagonist Miss Moss is a proofreader for a dictionary. Under the headline "Orthographical" in James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses, the protagonist Leopold Bloom, watching the typesetter foreman Mr. Nannetti read over a "limp galleypage", thinks "Proof fever". Isaac Asimov's short story "Galley Slave" features a robot proofreader.
For documents that do not require a formal typesetting process, such as reports, journal articles and e-publications, the costs involved with making changes at the proofreading stage are no longer as relevant. This, along with the time and cost pressures felt by businesses, self-publishers and academics, has led to a demand for one-stage proofreading and copy-editing services where a professional proofreader/copy-editor - often a freelancer, sometimes now called an author editor - will be contracted to provide an agreed level of service to an agreed deadline and cost.
Proof-editing tends to exist outside of the traditional publishing realm, and it usually involves a single stage of editing. It is considered preferable to have separate copy-editing and proofreading stages, so proof-editing is, by definition, a compromise but one that modern professional on-screen proofreaders and copy-editors are increasingly offering in order to meet the demand for flexible proofreading and editing services.
As this is such a new term (discussed in a guest blog on the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading website) and tends to be offered by freelancers to individuals and companies rather than being a formal, industry-defined service, exactly what is included can vary. Below is an example of the distinctions between services for work on non-fiction.
|Heavy content rewriting||Y||N||N||N|
|Rewriting for style, clarity and tone||Y||Y||N||N|
|Implementing a style sheet/house style||Y||Y||N||N|
|Cross-checking in-text references to illustrations, graphs, equations, etc.||Y||Y||Y||N|
|Cross-checking in-text references with bibliography||Y||Y||Y||N|
|Checking that style sheet/house style is followed||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Ensuring consistency of formatting||Y||Y||Y||Y|