What is proofreading?

Proofreading consists of checking a document for grammatical and spelling errors, typos, punctuation and syntax. This process typically involves much the same correction as a secondary school teacher would perform on a written test. The meaning of words and terminology is irrelevant here, as the task focuses only on the correctness of the text.

Proofreading presents a special challenge, first because the proofreader is usually the author; second because such authors are often unaware of the inevitability of errors and the effort required finding them; and third, as finding any final errors often occurs just when stress levels are highest and time is shortest, readers’ minds resist identifying them as errors. Under these conditions, proofreaders will see only what they want to see.

Everyone, even professional writers, editors and proofreaders, fails at creating the perfect draft the first time. People involved in the writing professions know that proofreading is an essential part of the writing process.

In proofreading, you can take nothing for granted, because unconscious mistakes are so easy to make!

Most errors in written work are made unconsciously. It is the unconscious nature that makes proofreading so difficult. The student who turned in a paper saying, “I like girdle cakes for breakfast” did not have a perverted digestion. He thought he had written “griddle cakes” and because that’s what he was sure he had written, that’s what he “saw” when he proofread.

It is twice as hard to detect mistakes in your own work as in someone else’s!

Another reason why documents should be checked by external proofreaders is that when you read normally, you often see only the shells of words — the first and last few letters, perhaps. You “fix your eyes” on the print only three or four times per line, or less. You take in the words between your fixation points with your peripheral vision, which gets less accurate the farther it is from the point. The average reader can only take in six letters accurately with one fixation. This means you have to fix your eyes on almost every word you have written and do it twice in longer words, in order to proofread accurately. You have to look at the word, not slide over it.

Professional editors proofread as many as ten times. Publishing houses hire teams of readers to work in pairs, out loud. And still errors occur. A thorough proofread will include looking for all of the following:
• Typos that are still words– These will not be caught by spell-check: from/form, it’s/its, thing/think.
• Typos that are not words– Not everyone runs a spell-check.
• Easily confused words– Even professionals find themselves looking up such words as affect/effect, lie/lay or compose/comprise.
• Doubled words-It is easy to overlook to to or the the, especially when there is a line break between them.
• Sentence fragments- Verbs not operating as verbs and sentences too short or too long to easily identify their structure are common examples of this.
• Pronoun-antecedent agreement- Pronouns have to agree in number, person and gender with what they refer to. (An incorrect version of that sentence would be Pronouns have to agree in number, person and gender with what it refers to. “It” is singular, but refers to “pronouns,” which is plural.)
• Misplaced and missing punctuation- It is easy to overlook a missing full-stop or end quotation mark when you’re in the middle of focusing on content.
• Spelling consistency- Is it advisor or adviser? Is it about Christina or Kristina? While all correct, you want to make sure that you stick with one spelling.
• Formatting- Are all paragraphs equally indented? Are all font sizes and styles consistent? Did pictures end up where they were supposed to? Is the table of contents still accurate?
• Numbers- Every digit in every number is checked for accuracy.

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