An introductory guide to the proofreader's mark-up symbols
I’m sometimes asked by people considering setting up a proofreading business, “Do I still need to learn how to use the proof-correction symbols? Surely most work is done onscreen these days.”
My answer is an emphatic “Yes, you should learn them!”
As I'll show below, knowing how to use them will increase your efficiency, productivity, clarity, marketability, and professionalism.
Traditional proofreading: Checking typeset proofs
Many proofreaders do work directly in Word, making actual changes to the text. In my experience, it's primarily self-publishing authors, academics, students and businesses that commission such direct intervention; almost all of my publishers want me to use the proof-correction symbols. That’s because I’m not editing the text; rather, I’m annotating pages that have been professionally designed – the pages appear as I would expect to see them if I walked into a bookshop and pulled the published book from a shelf.
In this situation, I'm not just looking for spelling and grammar mistakes. I also need to annotate for problems with layout, for example: misaligned text; incorrect indentation; inconsistent line or paragraph spacing; the wrong font; heading design problems; widows, orphans, and short lines; chapter-drop inconsistencies; incorrect positioning of different elements on a page, from boxes to images to tables; bad word breaks; recto word breaks; and so on.
So, if you plan to work on page proofs that have been professionally typeset prior to publication, and you hope to acquire this work from mainstream publishing houses, you will need to know how to annotate the pages correctly with these symbols, even if you are proofreading onscreen.
What do the marks look like?
It depends where you live. If you need guidance about proof-correction marks in your particular region, contact your national editorial society. In some countries, the UK’s BSI marks are accepted for proofreading and copy-editing practice.
In the UK, there is a single set of industry-recognized symbols. These have been prepared by the British Standards Institution (BSI) and are entitled “Marks for copy preparation and proof correction”. Over time they’ve been updated. The current marks are identified as follows: BS 5261C:2005.
If you’re working for Canadian or US clients, read Adrienne Montgomerie’s article, “The Secret Code of Proofreaders” (Copyediting.com, 2014). As she points out, the Canadian Translation Bureau’s Canadian Style guide marks are quite different from the marks preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style.
Why are proof-correction marks useful?
When we proofread typeset page proofs, there’s little room to indicate what we want to change. Recall that each page we’re working on appears almost as it would if the printed book had been published.
Using industry-standard proof-correction marks is an efficient way to annotate the page with the desired corrections. The symbols are a short-cut code of instructions that tell the designer exactly what to do. Once you’ve learned all the symbols by heart, they’re much quicker to use than long-hand text and take up minimal space.
Open the nearest book you have to hand and look at how much white space there isn’t between the text and the margin – it’s not uncommon for me to work on page proofs with a 2cm margin either side of the text. Notice, too, how small the space is above and below a single line of text. The book has been designed and there's little room to annotate. Now imagine that in a given line there is a missing comma, a spelling mistake, and a word that needs decapitalizing.
The example below illustrates how these problems would be marked up using the BSI proof-correction symbols. The long-hand alternative might be something on the lines of <Change “fax” to “fox”> in the left-hand margin, and <Insert comma after “grass” and decapitalize “Legs”> in the right-hand margin. Given that we only have 2cm margins to play with, that each line is spaced closely to its neighbours above and below, and that in a real set of proofs there may be several corrections in multiple lines, any instructions to the typesetter are likely to become cluttered and confusing. Proof-correction symbols solve the problem.
The use of proof-correction symbols therefore offers increased efficiency, productivity, and clarity. And if you’re a proofreader-to-be who wants to ensure you’re marketable to as wide a range of clients as possible, acquiring the ability to use this mark-up process is a no-brainer.
Attending to professional standards
In addition to enabling you to work efficiently, productively, and clearly, and maximizing your marketability, there is also the issue of professionalism. Membership of a professional editorial society often requires knowledge of the relevant nationally approved mark-up symbols as a standard of good practice.
The Australian standards for editing practice, 2nd ed. (2013), states, "Editors should be up to date and proficient in the following: [...] A6.6 Standard mark-up symbols and conventions for copyediting and proofreading."
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Code of practice notes at section 5.6, Proofreading printed materials: Basic skills, "A proofreader should be competent in the following skills: [...] 5.6.4 Proof-correction symbols: Use current British Standard proof-correction symbols or terms, and colour coding for corrections (if required by the client) to permit accurate apportioning of costs."
The Editors' Association of Canada's Professional Editorial Standards: "E. Standards for Proofreading" says: "A professional proofreader requires a mastery of Part A: The Fundamentals of Editing and meets the following standards. [...] E16 When working on paper proofs, mark clearly and use standard proofreading marks unless another system has been agreed upon."
Where to find the UK marks
The BSI provides a laminated 8-page summary sheet of all the marks you need to know for proofreading. Also included are short notes that enable the proofreader or copy-editor to identify the correct mark for both marginal and in-text mark-up, colour of ink to be used, and positioning of the symbols.
The SfEP has an arrangement with the BSI whereby Society members can purchase the sheet for £4; others pay £10. Visit the SfEP’s online shop. You can also buy the summary sheet directly from the BSI. It costs £28 for non-members and £20 for members.
How to learn to use the marks
Any comprehensive proofreading course worth its salt should test your ability to use the marks according to industry standards. It's not just about using the right mark so that the instruction is unambiguous, but also about knowing when to use the mark and when to leave well enough alone.
In the UK, the SfEP and The Publishing Training Centre are examples of organizations offering industry-recognized courses that attend to these issues. If you live outside the UK, ask your national editorial society for guidance.
If you’re considering embarking on a professional proofreading career, you might find the following related articles of use:
About Louise Harnby
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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I'm an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society. Visit the SfEP website for more information.
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