The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
If you’re thinking about becoming a “proofreader”, it’s important to understand that this term can mean different things in different contexts and with different client groups. What type of proofreading you want to do and which group of clients you want to be work-ready for will determine the choices you make with regard to training.
Some proofreaders work directly with the creators of the written materials being proofread – independent authors, students and business professionals, for example. These clients send Word files and the proofreader amends the files directly (often with Track Changes switched on so that the client can see what’s been changed).
Others work for intermediaries such as publishers and project management agencies. Here the author supplies the text files; then the in-house project manager (PM) organizes the various elements of the production process – including copy-editing, proofreading, typesetting and printing. After copy-editing and typesetting, the PM supplies page proofs to the proofreader, who makes annotations that identify where there are problems to be attended to. The proofreader does not amend the text directly.
Here in Part I, I give the new entrant to the field an overview of what it’s like to be a proofreader working with page proofs. Next week, in Part II, I’ll consider proofreading work that involves working directly with the raw Word files.
What are page proofs?
Page proofs, traditionally defined, are so called because they are laid out exactly as they will appear in the final printed book. If all has gone well, what the proofreader is looking at will be almost what the reader sees if they were to walk into a bookshop, pull this title off the shelf and browse through the pages. The layout process has been taken care of by a professional typesetter who designs the text in a way that is pleasing to the eye and in accordance with a publisher’s brief.
The page proofs I work on for publishers and project management agencies are either in paper or PDF format. When I work on paper, I'm still supplied with a PDF (which comes in useful when using digital tools).
In addition to the bulk of the typeset text, page proofs include the following elements: page numbers; running heads; a contents list; copyright information; cataloguing data; figures, tables and any other finished artwork; bibliography; and perhaps an index. The jacket may or may not be included, but there’ll usually be a title page and a half-title page.
To reiterate, the pages have been professionally designed, so my job is not only to check for any final grammar, spelling or punctuation errors that have slipped in during the production chain; I'm also tasked with ensuring that the appearance of the book is consistent and correct according to the instructions given to the typesetter by the client. So I’ll need to carry out a range of checks to ensure the following:
Where am I in the chain?
The proofreader is one person in a fairly lengthy chain. Different clients work in different ways but the following is not uncommon:
What does this mean for my working methods?
I'm not actually changing anything … I can use digital tools to complement my eye – various scripted macros, consistency checkers like PerfectIt, and reference-checking software like ReferenceChecker. To use these tools I need to strip text from a PDF of the page proofs, place it in a Word document, and then run my digital tools. Any mistakes flagged up, however, need to be marked up on the page proofs – that is, on paper or PDF (as agreed with the PM). I don’t get to change the actual text – I only get to make marks on it (usually those little hieroglyphics that constitute, in the UK, the BS 5261C:2005 proof-correction symbols).
But I’m checking everything … Recall, too, that I'm paid to check every word and every page. Relevant software is a brilliant addition to any proofreader’s tool kit, but it will only go so far because the proofreader’s job goes beyond error-checking. We’re looking for layout problems, too, because we’re working on designed text – the first draft of the final page proofs.
There are legal issues … I can only use software tools that are already sitting on my PC. This is because of confidentiality issues. All of my PMs consider it unacceptable business practice for me to send the page proofs (or the text stripped from them) to a third party, as the following direct quotes demonstrate:
Confidentiality is absolutely core … We send PDFs to proofreaders in good faith. The files must not be uploaded to external websites or distributed to third parties.
We ask that anyone who receives a file from us in the course of their freelance work [...] does not share that file with anyone, does not post it to any remote server or LAN, makes no copies of it and deletes it after use.
We send files to you on the strict understanding that they are for you to use only in completing the assignment we've placed with you.
That means that while it’s fine for me to run the paid-for PerfectIt plug-in on my PC, I can’t take advantage of the free online consistency checker available on the PerfectIt website.
What does this mean for training?
If you want to proofread for publishers, it’s likely that you’ll be working on page proofs. This means you’ll need to learn to use the industry-recognized mark-up language effectively and efficiently, and you’ll need to be able to carry out the necessary design and layout checks. If your training course doesn't teach you how to mark up using the relevant symbols or what to look out for in terms of layout problems, it’s probably not the right course to make you fit for publisher work.
Furthermore, you’ll have to learn not to interfere beyond your brief. Not all publishers want every single inconsistency attended to. Amendments made at page-proof stage are expensive to implement so many publishers ask for “minimal” correction. How they define “minimal” will vary so you’ll need to work according to a clear brief. And if you’re not given a clear brief, you’ll need to ask for one. Assumptions about your remit are to be avoided – what one PM considers unworthy of change will be considered an essential error by another!
The business of knowing when to leave well enough alone and when to interfere is one of the trickiest issues to deal with, so doing a course that has an assessment element is a good idea if you are working with page proofs and publisher clients.
Summing up …
Proofreading isn't some catch-all phrase that means the same thing to every client group. What you actually do, on which medium, how much you interfere, the extent to which you can use complementary tools, and the expectations of the client will differ greatly. This means a range of competencies will need to be acquired depending on whom you’re working for. Your training will need to match the requirements of various client groups – a publisher’s expectations in terms of industry-recognized standards will be different from a business executive’s or student’s, so take care to research any proofreading training syllabus carefully to make sure it’s providing you with the skill set relevant to your target client group. Your training should suit your needs, your business plan, your objectives; and what will be right for one person may not be right for another.
Next week I’ll look at proofreading for clients who want you to work directly on the text in Word. I’ll also look at how the line between editing and proofreading can become blurred with particular client groups, and how this might influence the type of training you do or the work you choose to take on.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader, the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour, and the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
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Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.