Proofreading Defined



Proofreading Defined:

Proofreading is the reading of a galley proof or computer monitor to detect and correct production-errors of text or art. Proofreaders are expected to be consistently accurate by default because they occupy the last stage of typographic production before publication.

Professional proofreading
Traditional methodA proof is a typeset version of copy or a manuscript page. They often contain typos introduced through both human error and bugs in programming code. 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. Thus, unlike copy editing, proofreading's defining procedure is to work directly with two sets of information at the same time. Proofs are then returned to the typesetter or graphic artist 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 initialed, establishing the principle of consistent accuracy for proofreaders.

Alternative methods
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 of speed. 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 the number of errors will be comparatively small.

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 aren't words spelled out; and in a hole can mean that the upcoming segment of text is within parenthesis. Bang means an exclamation point. A thump 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 he said the address was digits 1 2 3 4 central buluhvuhd 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
A single proofreader checks a proof in the traditional manner, but then passes it on to a second reader who 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 two individuals.

Scanning, used to check a proof without reading it word for word, has become common with computerisation of typesetting and the popularisation 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 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.

Style guides and checklists
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, or Gregg Reference Manual. When appropriate, proofreaders may mark errors in accordance with their house guide instead of the copy when the two conflict.

Checklists are commonly employed in proofrooms where there is sufficient uniformity of product to distill some or all of its components to a list format. They may also act as a training tool for new hires.

The educational-level of proofreaders in general is on par with that of their coworkers. Typesetters, graphic artists, and word processors are rarely required to have a college degree, and a perusal of online job-listings for proofreaders will show that although some specify a degree for proofreaders, as many do not. Those same listings will also show a tendency for degree-only positions to be in firms in commercial fields such as retail, medicine, or insurance, where the data to be read is internal documentation not intended for public consumption per se. Such listings, specifying a single proofreader to fill a single position, are more likely to require a degree as a way of reducing the candidate-pool, but also because the degree is perceived as a requirement for any potentially promotable white collar applicant. Experience is discounted at the outset in preference to a credential, indicating a relatively low starting wage appropriate for younger applicants. In these kinds of multitasking desktop-publishing environments, Human Resources may even classify proofreading as a clerical skill generic to literacy itself. Where this is the case, it isn't unusual for proofreaders to find themselves guaranteeing the accuracy of higher-paid coworkers.

By contrast, printers, publishers, advertising agencies and law firms tend not to specifically require a degree. In these professionally demanding single-tasking environments, the educational divide surrounds the production department instead of the company itself. Promotion is rare for these proofreaders because they tend to be valued more for their present skill-set than for any potential leadership ability. They are often supervised by a typesetter also without a degree, or an administrative manager with little or no production experience who delegates day-to-day responsibilities to a typesetter. It follows that such listings tend to stress experience, offer commensurately higher rates of pay, and include mention of a proofreading test.

Proofreader testing Applicants.
Practical job-training for proofreaders has declined along with its status as a craft, although many commercial and college-level proofreading courses of varying quality can be found online. There are also available numerous books that instruct the basics to their readers. Such tools of self-preparation have by and large replaced formal workplace-instruction.

Proofreader applicants are tested primarily on their spelling, speed, and skill in finding errors in sample text. Towards that end, they may be given a list of ten or twenty classically difficult words and a proofreading test, both tightly timed. The proofreading test will often have a maximum number of errors per quantity of text and a minimum amount of time to find them. The goal of this approach is to identify those with the best skill-set.

A contrasting approach to testing is to identify and reward persistence more than an arbitrarily high level of expertise. For the spelling portion of the test, that can be accomplished by providing a dictionary; lengthening the word-list conspicuously; and making clear that the test is not timed. For the proofreading portion a suitable language-usage reference book (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) can be provided. (Note that knowing where to find needed information in such specialized books is itself an effective component of the test.) Removing the pressure of what is essentially an ASAP deadline will identify those applicants with marginally greater reservoirs of persistence, stamina, and commitment. At the same time, by mooting the need for applicants to make use of a memorized list of difficult words and a studied knowledge of the more common grammatical traps (affect, effect, lay, lie), applicants learn that their success depends primarily on a quality at least theoretically available to anyone at any time without preparation.

Formal employee-testing is usually planned and announced well in advance, and may have titles, such as Levels Testing, Skills Evaluation, etc. They are found in corporate or governmental environments with a large enough HR staff to devote to preparing and administering the tests.

Informal employee-testing takes place whenever a manager feels the need to take a random sampling of a proofreader's work by double-reading selected pages. Usually this is done without warning, and sometimes it will be done secretly. It can be highly effective, and there will certainly be times when such re-reading is justified, but care must be taken.

There are two basic approaches. The first is to re-read a proof within its deadline and in the department itself. Thus the manager will read from the same copy that the first reader saw, and be aware of any volume and deadline pressures the first reader was under, and can directly observe the individual in real time. This approach can also be followed as a matter of routine. The goal then is not to confirm a specific suspicion of poor job-performance by a particular reader, but rather to confirm a general assumption that the proofreading staff needs ongoing monitoring.

The second approach to informal testing is to wait for some days or weeks and then, as time allows, randomly select proofs to re-read while outside the department. Such proofs may or may not be accompanied by the copy pages that the proofreader saw. Here the re-reader is examining the proof from the perspective of typographical and formatting accuracy alone, ignoring how many other pages the first reader had read that day, and had yet to read, and how many pages were successfully read and how many deadlines were met under a given day's specific conditions.

Economics of proofreading
Proofreading cannot be fully cost-effective where volume or unpredictable work flow prevents proofreaders from managing their own time. Examples would be thermographic trade printers of business cards, network hubs, and newspapers. The problem in each of these environments is that jobs can’t be put aside to be re-read as needed. In the first and third example, volume and deadlines dictate that all jobs be finished as soon as possible; in the second, jobs presently on-site at the hub are hurried, regardless of their formal deadline, in favor of possible future work that may arrive unpredictably. Where proofs can programmatically be read only once, quality will never be superior on average. Instead, it will randomly but persistently fall below expectations. Even the best and most experienced readers will not be able to consistently push the margin of accuracy far enough to justify premium pay.

Production technology can also moot the need to pay a premium for proofreading. In the example of thermographic business-card printing, even when there are no reprints, there is considerable wastage of paper and ink generated in preparing each of the press-runs, which are separated by color. When (as often happens) there is unused space available on the plate, there is no increase in production cost for reprints that use that space. Only when reprints are so numerous that they push production-staff into significant overtime would they increase costs. But significant overtime is usually the result of a high volume in new orders using up the eight-hour day. In such industries proofreading need only – and can only – make a marginal difference to be cost-effective. As for the customers, many will never return even when their jobs are perfect, and enough of those who do need a reprint will find the retailer’s cost-saving price to be satisfactory enough to tolerate a late delivery.

Only where workload volume doesn’t compress all deadlines to ASAP and the workflow is reasonably predictable can proofreading be worth a premium wage. Inflexible deadlines mandate a delivery time, but in doing so they necessarily don’t mandate delivery before that time. If deadlines are consistently maintained instead of arbitrarily moved up, proofreaders can manage their own time by putting proofs aside at their own discretion for re-reading later. Whether the interval is a few seconds or overnight, it enables proofs to be viewed as both familiar and new. Where this procedure is followed, managers can expect consistently superior performance. However, re-reading focuses responsibility instead of dividing it (as double-reading and copy holding, both described above, do) and obviously requires extra effort from proofreaders and a measure of independence from management. Instead of managers controlling deadlines, deadlines control managers, and leeway is passed to the proofreaders as well as commensurate pay.

Proofreading vs copy editing
The misperception that proofreading is related to editing is a common one, and the term proofreading is sometimes used to refer to copy editing, and vice versa. Although there is necessarily some overlap, particularly regarding queries (see below), proofreaders typically lack any real editorial or managerial authority, having only the option of querying items for typesetters, editors, or authors to consider. To clarify matters at the outset, some want-ads come with a notice that the job advertised is not a writing or editing position and will not become one. The lesson is that creativity and critical thinking by their very nature conflict with the strict copy-following discipline that commercial and governmental proofreading requires, that proofreading and editing are fundamentally separate responsibilities.

Self proofreading/copy editing
Primary examples include job seekers' own resumes and student term-papers. Proofreading this kind of 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 errors and the effort required to find them; and third, as finding any final errors often occurs just when stress levels are highest and time shortest, readers' minds resist identifying them as errors. Under these conditions, proofreaders will see only what they want to see.

There are numerous websites offering detailed advice on how authors should check their own material. The context is that of a one-time effort, neither paid nor deadline-driven. Some tips may not be appropriate for everyone, e.g., read upside down to "focus on typology", read backward, chew gum, listen to music, and don't use fluorescent lighting. 


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