Definitions of Editing: Proofreading


This post continues a short series defining basic terms about editing and editorial processes with a look at proofreading. Following copyediting (which in turn comes after structural editing), proofreading is the last check for quality control: checking for any remaining errors, as well as looking over the designed page as it will finally appear.

To return to the gardening analogy I used in the earlier posts, proofreading is like a final clean-up before the garden party: weeding, raking the gravel, deadheading, sweeping up.

Once the editor has a master copy (often called a fair copy) of the copyedited manuscript, it is ready for typesetting. An in-house production department usually liaises with the typesetter, though editors in smaller presses often work directly with typesetters. Sometimes editors do the typesetting themselves. Typesetting software such as InDesign has made all of this easier. All the same, I do think the expertise of a good typesetter cannot be beaten. (I speak from experience: InDesign is marvellous, but has a steep learning curve, and I’ve only really learned some of its most basic functions.)

In the olden days, of course, the typesetter had to rekey every word in a script. Nowadays, the typesetter will usually uses the final corrected text in digital format (which incorporates both copyedits and author’s changes, often already typed in by the copyeditor or desk editor), or otherwise will take the author’s unedited digital text along with the final copyedited hard copy and incorporate editorial changes themselves as part of typesetting. Typesetters are probably better equipped to carry out such corrections, for they are trained keyboard operators, and editors are not (editors are also incredibly neurotic about messing things up, and sometimes they are technophobes, and …).

In addition to processing corrections to the book, the typesetter works on its internal design. The design might be briefed, firmly or loosely, to a particular style by an editor, production manager, or designer, but the typesetter often takes charge of various design decisions, e.g., about typeface and page layout as well as other aspects of tidying up and organising the text, e.g., sorting out dashes and hyphens, indenting extracted text in the same style, and inserting artwork in the right places. For many illustrated books, design is a defining aspect of production that takes place alongside copyediting; many copyeditors in this field handle the design too.

Once upon a time typesetting was a mechanical procedure, but nowadays technology has automated various processes for inserting features such as the page numbers or the running heads (the headings on the top of every page, which are usually some combination of page numbers, author name and book title). Body text is usually run into a standard template.

Proofreading: The Basics
One of the primary purposes of proofreading is removing glaring mistakes that remain in the text: errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, inconsistencies of form, slips in continuity.

The proofreader looks not only for errors that slipped through the copy-edit, but seeks out any mistakes that might have been introduced at earlier stages too. For example, the introduction to a Penguin edition of War and Peace tells us that:

in her nightly copying of her husband’s output during the day the Countess misread words, mistook word order, even missed out whole phrases occurring between two identical words. Printers and proof readers succeeded no better, and the first (1868–9) Russian publication of War and Peace contained 1,885 errors which automatically reappeared in all subsequent editions during the following ninety-four years.

(Guess it serves Count Tolstoy right for not copying out his own words of genius, doesn’t it?!)

Other corrections deal with the display of the book. Some matters are routine, e.g., checking that headings and page numbers are correct (rarely a problem nowadays), inserting the final page numbers on to a contents list, and guaranteeing that facing pages have the same number of lines. Other matters require a modest but careful degree of judgement, e.g., a book on counselling for abuse survivors might try to avoid the unfortunate word break in the word therapist that would place the- on the end of one line and rapist on the start of the next. The overall appearance should also be checked, e.g., headings should not land at the bottom of a page, and any artwork needs to fall in the correct spot in the text and sit beside the right caption. Overly gappy or tight setting within body text can also be noted; in many cases the typesetter can rerun the text to make the word spacing more even.

If artwork is used, it will also need checking. For example, photos should be checked to see whether they have been wrongly inverted or flipped during design, or to ensure that any cropping has been done successfully.

Proofreading: Practical Matters
Proofreaders are usually freelancers who’re assigned jobs by in-house editors. The author is sent a set of proofs too, and this will be the last chance to make any changes. (This is not the time to rewrite the book, though! Any changes should be limited to corrections. Any final amendments to the text should really be made at the copyediting stage.)

Proofs are usually read as printed-out facsimiles of double-page spreads from inside the book. Proof pages (unlike manuscript pages) look like the very pages that will be read by readers, at least in print format.

Proofreaders are tasked on either reading against copy, cross-checking that none of the original text is missing or wrongly transcribed, or reading blind (without reference to the original text) for sense and any outstanding errors. If a manuscript was heavily copyedited, it is a good idea to have two proofreads, as there is a greater chance that errors will need removing.

Corrections are made in ink on the page proofs. The convention is to mark printer’s errors (made by the typesetter) in red ink and editorial corrections in blue, using proofreader’s marks (this goes back to the days when the cost of print corrections needed to be allocated to either printer/typesetter or publisher/author). Slightly different sets of marks are used  in the UK and in the US.

A proofreader’s squiggles and crosses might look like an alien alphabet to a newcomer, but they are soon grasped. I first learned them through checking over the work of other proofreaders when I was collating proofs, and when I started to proofread myself I simply referred to a chart of symbols as I needed. If in doubt, it is easy enough simply to cross out the word in the text and write the correction in the margin.

Extensive proof changes can be expensive and complicated. They might need checking by the author, which adds further time and work to proceedings, and they can lead to extra work for the typesetter, which has to be paid for. And every change introduces the possibility for yet another error to be introduced into the text.

But sometimes a proofreader cannot resist suggesting further stylistic changes to smooth out clunky phrasing or perk up stilted language, or to avoid confusions in ambiguous usage. An in-house editor might in fact brief a proofreader to look for such refinements to the text, particularly if a copyedit was demanding and there are concerns that there may still be room for improvement. Such alterations are not necessarily essential, so they might be flagged in pencil. Changes that would affect pagination should be avoided.

Collating And Revises
Any final judgement calls about changes in the proofs will be made during collating, when the author’s set of corrections are integrated into the master set, along with changes from a blind read, if an additional proofread was done. Collating is usually carried out in-house by an editor, though sometimes a proofreader will be sent the author’s set for adding any changes.

Collated proofs are returned to the typesetter, and even if they are lightly corrected a set of revised proofs or revises will be produced. These will be returned to the in-house editor for a final check that corrections from the first round of proofreading have been incorporated accurately. If paragraphs needed rerunning, an editor might also need to check ‘page creep’ to be sure that word spacing remains even and any new word breaks are acceptable. This is the last chance to eyeball the text for any outstanding mistakes before it is signed off as ready for printing, so it can be good to give the whole text one final scan.

The work of collating and checking revises is done with hard copies and any changes are transferred to the digital text by the typesetter, though in some contexts editors have access to the electronic files and make these changes themselves. I do think, however, that inputting corrections is best retained as a distinct stage in the workflow, rather than done while collating; spotting errors and keying in text are separate tasks that require slightly different types of concentration.

Proofreading Digital Formats
Print books are of course proofread as they will finally be read by readers; print publishing uses static text, with a publisher controlling exactly how the final text will look.

Ebooks are a different matter, using dynamic text, i.e., a reader can alter the typeface and typesize with a tap of the screen, so matters such as page layout and word breaks are not so much of a concern.

But other issues can arise in the reading of epub files. For example, automatic and manual indents for new paragraphs in word-processing software look the same on a printed page, but they use different types of underlying coding and it is not unknown for formatting of either type to be lost when the text is translated into its final format. Paragraph returns sometimes use different types of coding too.

I once read (for pleasure) a whole fantasy series in ebook form where indents and paragraphing were messed up, which was confusing in stretches of dialogue: was one speaker continuing, or were these the words of a new speaker? It seemed this text had not been proofread in a digital format.

Mistakes have been made, and lessons have been learned, and best practices are establishing themselves. Nowadays, publishers seem to proofread for print formats, and ensure that corrected files can be used to be produce the ebook too. On the whole this seems to be working.

The technology remains new, and it’s possible that digital formats will change again. The Kindle, for example, is a practical device, but it’s not going to win any awards for elegant typographic display. The iPad is a more attractive reading device, but its glassy screen makes it unsuitable for reading outdoors or under bright lights.

And digital technologies create a whole world of new opportunities for designing and enhancing text. There may come a time when publishers will be able to control the look of digital books more firmly, and when authors will write books that use their potential more purposefully.

For now, though, even if a text is only being published in ebook format I still think it is a good idea (and even essential) for text to be proofread as hard copy. The eye always catches things on a printed page that will be missed on screen, and it is valuable to introduce this subtle shift in perception into the process of reading for errors.

Of course, typos do slip through. Nothing is more terrifying to the good editor or proofreader than a review that says a book was ‘poorly edited’. The reviewer perhaps doesn’t know, however, how much rewriting was done, or how the original text was heavily edited.

And you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Editors and proofreaders are there to help, and a good editor, like a good doctor, will do no harm, but even the best will sometimes miss an error or two.

Which is why it always makes sense to introduce fresh pairs of eyes during every stage of production. If a commissioning editor briefs a desk editor that a writer’s punctuation needs attention, the desk editor will make sure that freelance copyeditors and proofreaders take special care to look for stray commas and run-on sentences. And different editors can look at different things at different stages: the bigger picture during structural editing, style and voice during copyediting, correcting obvious errors during proofreading.

But: be practical. If you are a writer, and you encounter errors in your own book, send a list to your publisher. Mistakes can be corrected in the next printing, and probably more easily for ebooks. It can in fact be a good idea to keep a file copy of the most recent printing that can be marked up with corrections as they are spotted by yourself or other readers.

And yes, it’s good to get your work proofread in professional contexts. You might even proof a manuscript of your own before sharing with beta readers; it can be helpful to introduce that process of cleaning up the text at different stages along the way.

On the whole, I don’t get my blog posts proofread; surely the more casual style of blogging can be forgiving of a typo or two, and besides I can simply go to WordPress and correct anything that’s wrong later on (ah, the instantly corrected beauty of the blog!). But I did get someone to proof these longer blog posts on editing for me; typos would be an irony not worth bearing.

If you are really neurotic about leaving typos (as I am about pressing Publish for this blog post!), it can be good to leave a day or two before proofing the final text, so that you have at least a little distance in your reading. You might also want to read the text aloud, as printers used to; a printer’s setter used to read a copy of the text to a partner, who’d correct any errors; sometimes the setter would even read the text backwards so that every word and punctuation mark could be scrutinised out of its natural context.

That being said: I occasionally hear agents and publishers tell (scold) writers to proofread their cover letters and submissions, and sometimes I even hear them say that the instant they encounter a typo they instantly reject the project. I imagine they’re being a bit hysterical. Of course, we all want to be spotlessly professional in how we present ourselves, and errors can create a sloppy impression. But writers tinker with words, and typos do slip in.

A letterpress printer once said at a Naropa summer school: typos make us human. I guess this is one context where we don’t want to be too human. But typos can at least be easily fixed; clotted syntax and leaden prose and boring characters cannot. Fretting over editing and proofreading could in fact cramp your style. A good agent or editor will (should) be forgiving of a typo if a voice is telling a story and your characters are grabbing our attention.

Concern yourself with telling your story, and don’t worry too much about typos. Proofreaders need jobs, after all.

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