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What does a proofreader do?

If you hire a proofreader, what exactly will they do with your writing? And what won’t they do?

A red proofreader's pen

Long, long ago…

In the past, proofreaders checked proofs (the printed page produced by printing presses) against correct originals. They were looking for typos – characters placed incorrectly, worn characters or blocks protruding from the bed of the laid-out page.

Nowadays, proofreaders often work in MS Word with documents that have not been typeset. They still carry out the last check before a text reaches its audience, but how that text will be delivered determines what the proofreader is looking for.

What a proofreader does

The proofreader’s task list depends on the job’s brief and what will happen to the writing once the proofreader has done with it. At a bare minimum, the proofreader will check for:

  • errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation

  • correct word usage

  • consistency in spelling, hyphenation, formatting and style (British or US English, for instance)

In typeset documents, a proofreader will also check:

  • that the proof matches the copy-editor’s copy (to ensure that all the changes have been made)

  • that all extra matter (images, tables etc) is present and in the right place

  • that the word breaks are appropriate (if applicable)

  • that all references and citations are correctly formatted

  • that only necessary changes are made (by this stage of the process, changes cost money)

What a proofreader doesn’t do

A proofreader will only change things that are wrong. They will not:

  • reorder the text

  • rewrite a sentence to make it flow or read better

  • change the layout

  • add more illustrations or text

  • check the accuracy of references or facts

That should all have been done at the copy-edit stage.

So, my book will be perfect when you’ve finished…?

No, it won’t. Some matters of grammar, clear writing and even spelling are ambiguous. Perfection is not possible.

Sometimes we have to agree to disagree and do our best to remove the indisputable errors. This is why it is up to the self-publishing author to check their proofreader’s suggestions. It is one of the big advantages of self-publishing that you, as the author, get the final decision on every punctuation mark and word in your book.

And in the end, we are all only human. Even the most practised proofreader will miss the occasional error. Perhaps she hasn’t had her morning coffee yet. Or perhaps she was distracted by the blood-curdling scream from next door as her partner managed to pour his morning coffee into his lap (he can be a little clumsy).


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