This post is all about professional proofreading tips and techniques to keep your skills sharp. Whether you’re proofreading on-screen or making proofreading marks by hand, these 9 tips will help you succeed as a proofreader.
No matter the type of content, proofreading is an essential step in the publishing process. Making sure your text is polished and free from errors not only helps ensure clarity and correctness—it helps you gain trust from your readers.
Here are the 10 proofreading tips and techniques to help your words shine.
Professional Proofreading Tips and Techniques
1. Learn the typesetter’s lingo.
From type font and line spacing to word breaks and a variety of margins, you need to study the technical aspects of how words are published. Learn how to recognize widows and orphans and problematic breaks so you can flag any issues for the designer.
2. Follow a style sheet closely.
As the proofreader, you’re the final eyes on the project. Other editors have likely gone before you and made stylistic decisions, or they’ve already researched necessary information for fact-checking. The style sheet is the one place where you document these rules and changes for consistency.
3. Look for common proofreading mistakes.
Keep a list of common proofreading errors on hand so you can reference it often. Mistakes are frequently introduced with any copy you’ve written or re-typed, double consonants or vowels, italicized letters, numerals, quote marks, dashes, and words with several narrow letters (e.g., ili, ifi, and til)—to name a few.
4. Read out loud, slowly.
Depending on what you are proofreading, rhythm may be an important factor. Reading out loud with another person can help catch mistakes, especially if you slow down to call out punctuation, too. Reading slowly and reading out loud will help you focus on each word and character.
5. Take breaks.
It seems simple, but it needs to be said. Proofreading requires full attention and focus. Avoid distractions, eye strain, and general burnout by taking breaks, especially if you’re proofreading on-screen. If your eyes are tired, you may miss something.
6. Query decisively and effectively.
One of the trickiest parts of being a proofreader is knowing when and how to query and whether it’s your job or the copyeditor’s responsibility. You should determine how and when to query before the project begins with your production editor; the person assigning the project should set the cadence for communication.
If anything is inconsistent, wrong, or simply doesn’t make sense, you may want to alert the production editor right away. Never assume the publisher or author has approved a stylistic decision. The style sheet should outline every preference, and if it doesn’t, insert a query.
7. Have proofreading resources on hand.
Make sure to have the style sheet, the style guide, any supplemental material, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or preferred dictionary, and any other resources you need for the project close to you at all times. You should have a list of all character names and descriptions, proper nouns, any words or phrases in a foreign language, and any words with variant spellings.
You may also request notes on any problem areas or specific areas to focus on. If you haven’t received detailed instructions or you aren’t sure at a granular level what’s expected of you, ask. Being a good proofreader means being a good communicator.
9. Get in the habit of being curious.
The copyeditor should have fact-checked the content beforehand, but if something seems off, investigate. You may not be responsible for fact-checking or verifying the spelling of proper names, but you may need to make sure words are consistently and accurately spelled.
Query anything that gives you pause, but don’t spend too long trying to track down information you need. The publisher or client is paying you to proofread, not fact-check, so while you should investigate and be curious, remember to keep an appropriate pace.
10. Be organized.
You will likely have multiple materials to check against, whether it’s the original copy against the typed copy, first galleys (typeset copies) against revised galleys, et cetera. Keeping your work area tidy and making sure everything is saved correctly in your files is crucial to your success as a proofreader. It’s far too easy to get distracted or confused with multiple versions.
How to Proofread Professionally
There are so many ways to proofread professionally depending on the type of work. On-screen or on a printout, reading out loud with another person, comparison reading—whatever the case may be, you’ll need to study different terms and be aware of where you are in the process.
First, check expectations.
Keep in mind different publishers, agencies, and businesses have different expectations. Make sure to check with your client so you can be on the same page (pun intended!) when you deliver your final product.
Ultimately, most proofreaders are expected to perform a character-by-character proof, making sure the copy is accurate and consistent in style, spelling, grammar, and usage.
Here are just a few errors proofreaders should flag or fix:
- Misused words
- Subject-verb disagreement
- Issues with the correlation of the parts of a book
- Pagination problems
- Incorrect spelling or word choice
- Illogical, garbled, repeated, or missing text
- Problematic orphans, widows, stacks, or bad breaks
- Redundancies within a phrase or sentence
- Dangling modifiers
- Inconsistencies with punctuation or capitalization
While this isn’t a complete proofreading checklist, many of the above errors are common offenders at the proofreading level.
Proofreaders must also be responsible for formatting documentation if included in the project:
- Footnotes and endnotes
If you’re proofreading by hand, you need to be familiar with proofreading symbols, and you should be as neat as possible to avoid any ambiguity in the marks you make. I recommend studying Laura Anderson’s McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook, second edition, to become familiar with proofreading marks.
Tips for proofreading on-screen (or electronic proofreading) depend on the type of proofread:
- Pretypeset proofs: Typically, your client will prefer you use Word’s tracked changes feature. You can insert queries through the comment bubbles. Some publishers will want you to include your CMOS rule to support any change or edit you make. Others will not care and may even prefer you make the change directly without using highlighting or colored text features.
- Typeset proofs: In most cases, you will use Adobe Acrobat/Reader, applying the text editing tools to mark corrections as you see fit. If you are proofreading first pages, you shouldn’t need to flag widows.
Do you need qualifications to be a proofreader? Not exactly. You won’t find one certification program to become a proofreader. But to sharpen your skills and become a successful proofreader, you need to speak the language of the designer, typesetter, and copyeditor. In general, you need to have a firm understanding of what’s expected of you. For this reason, I do think it’s wise to take a proofreading course.
The University of Chicago Graham School offers proofreading courses online through the Editing certificate program. If you’re interested in learning about different levels of manuscript editing and you want to become a book editor, not just a proofreader, I highly recommend this program.
The best proofreading courses online are going to be ones that challenge you, provide an opportunity for hands-on learning, and set you up for success in the client-proofreader relationship.
Other proofreading organizations to learn from include:
- ACES: The Society for Editing
- Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network)
- CIEP (Society for Editors and Proofreaders)
- Editorial Freelancers Association
Regardless of the type of proofreading project, there are universal proofreading tips and techniques to help you succeed, slow down to see better, and remain vigilant for errors that may slip through the cracks.
This post was all about how to become a proofreader, proofreading techniques and tips to stay sharp, and whether proofreading courses are worth the investment.