Now, please don’t get over-excited.

Yes, some proofreaders might do snake charming, pole dancing or submarine mechanics in their spare time. But if you’re thinking of employing a professional proofreader, that’s not what you’d be paying for.

So what do you expect a proofreader to do? And what will she actually do?

First, let’s clear up the main misconception: the idea that proofreaders just check spellings, punctuation and grammar.

Well, that would be nice.

If that’s all proofreading involved, many jobs would be done in the time it takes to boil a kettle. (Pass the biscuits, please.)

But proper proofreading is about checking things many people might not even think of. Just looking at spelling, punctuation and grammar is like swishing a duster over a shelf full of ornaments without moving any of them to get at the dead flies in between.

I happen to think that written language is a lot more important than a bit of dust.

So, what else is there?

Proofreaders check for typos. A typographical error is anything that causes printed text not to look the way it should on page or screen. So we are not only looking for straightforward mistakes, but also for inconsistencies.

Not just to be nitpicking.

Not just to make the page look neater.

It’s about making sure your message is as clear as possible.

Here I’ll expand on just a few of the problems frequently seen in promotional writing (that’s anything from a CV to a website), with some examples from my favourite skyhook manufacturer…

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Headings

Oh, many and varied are the ways of being inconsistent with headings and subheadings. The possible combinations would keep a mathematician happy for hours. And a proofreader must look out for all of them.

  • Font design and size – These might or might not be different from the main text. Your call. But is that choice applied consistently throughout?
  • Font style – Underlined? Bold? Italic? Any combination of the three?
  • Colour – At first you wanted blue subheadings. Then you changed your mind and went for green. Did they all get changed? Are you sure?
  • Capitalisation – Can you identify the capitalisation principles that have been applied in the following heading examples? (All are valid.) How would you make sure all other headings are capitalised in the same chosen style?

Installing skyhooks – the basics

Installing Skyhooks – The Basics

Installing Skyhooks – the Basics

Once the heading and subheading style have been sorted, it’s time to consider what comes underneath. It’s all too easy, when shuffling layout ideas around, to end up with a ‘ghost’ detached heading that’s doomed to wander the world forever in search of its section content, unless a proofreader spots it.

Or, for maximum confusion, a heading that doesn’t remotely match what follows it.

Spacing

We choose to leave space for a reason – it aids communication. Here are some of the places in a document where spacing decisions need to be made (and then checked by the proofreader):

  • Between lines
  • Between paragraphs
  • Between pictures and captions
  • Between bullet points
  • Under the aforementioned headings and subheadings
  • At margins (left and right indentation or justification)

Capital letters

I know I’ve already mentioned them. But they are becoming as misused as apostrophes, and it’s time someone drew attention to their plight.

We probably all know when we should use capitals. The problem comes when we decide to make them work harder. Because we know that capital letters make things stand out, right?

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I admit that this example is less about typos and more about a deliberate writing decision. But there’s inconsistency, and it lies in the ‘rules’ that are being applied here. Does the writer want all nouns capitalised? (Not usual in English, although it is in German.) Some verbs or all?  All important information? If so, how is that defined?

Another problem with scattering capitals about like dandelion seeds is that if lots of words ‘stand out’, then none of them really do.

Capitalising names can also cause consistency difficulties. If we are introduced to the Value Skyhook pack, what are we to think if later we see mention of a value Skyhook Pack? Is that the same product? Neither of these examples is wrong, in a technical sense. But a proofreader would query them.

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And in summary…

Inconsistencies in these and many other areas lead to one main problem: category confusion.

Our brains are wired to make sense of what we see, so we try to follow logical patterns. We attempt (albeit subconsciously) to assign levels of importance to written information, and the way it looks on the page starts the process off before we’ve even read the actual wording.

If there is confusion about what is important and what is less so, then one of two things might happen. Either everything becomes one homogenised mass, so salient points are missed. Or readers become so bewildered about what they’re being told that they give up altogether, and move on to find a CV, newsletter, report or website that they can understand.

You don’t want that.

So here’s what a proofreader checks:

Spelling, punctuation and grammar.

And then font style, font size, text colour, bullet points, numbering, date style, heading and subheading style, heading/content match, footers, contents, glossaries, indexes, internal text references, image/caption content match, caption style, indentation, paragraph spacing, line and list spacing, capitalisation…

That’s 19 more things than most people think I do, and many of those have sub-categories. It’s more than a five minute job.

And I’m happy to admit that that’s why I haven’t got round to the dusting.

Catherine Legg

Catherine Legg is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website

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