Jobs I love: proofreading

(Now, is that “proofreading”, “proof reading” or “proof-reading”?)

Proofreading is a job that I have been doing on and off, officially and unofficially, for twenty years. (Or more, if you consider how, in the top infants, Mrs Warren used to send kids over to my desk to ask for spellings if the queue at her desk was too long.)

I thought it might be interesting to explain how it works, which might help you if you’re considering using a proofreader and aren’t sure what you’d get for your money.

Many people ask for a proofreader when what they actually want is a copyeditor, or even just a “sanity check”, so my way of working is a mixture of all of these, depending on the client. Generally I’ll work with you to make sure that whatever I do for you will meet your expectations.

How I became a proofreader

You’re probably thinking “jobs she LOVES? Can you really love proofreading? Isn’t it just something you have to do, like filing?” But yes, I do love it. I’m not one of these “grammar nazis” who go around picking people up on their dropped apostrophes (much) but I am a bit of a pedant, so I enjoy burying myself in the detail, and I find it very satisfying.

At 20, a friend who worked at an advertising agency told me they were looking for a proofreader and said he’d already put my name forward because “it’s just spelling and you’re good at spelling”. I worked for them on a freelance basis (at a whopping £6 an hour!) for a few months and realised very quickly that it isn’t “just spelling” at all. Correcting someone’s spelling is one thing, but marking up a piece of design work so that the designer can understand and quickly make changes is quite another. Plus, it’s not all black and white; grammar and tone of voice can be very subjective, so there are loads of grey areas. You need to understand and have some empathy for the reader, the medium, and the person or brand you’re working with.

I’m not qualified, or accredited by any formal bodies, so I don’t know if the way I proofread is the “official” way… or if there even is an official way any more. As I’ve already said, what I produce is often more of a “copy edit” than a “proof”. I don’t tend to use proofreader’s marks any more because most of my proofreading clients wouldn’t know what they mean (and I could never draw the swirly “delete” mark quite right, anyway). I just know that my way works. Over the last twenty years I’ve found a way of working that I find efficient, and that the people I work with seem to appreciate.

So, when I am commissioned as a proofreader, here’s how I approach it:

How I proofread

Firstly, someone will send me the piece that needs proofing in whatever format’s easiest for them. One client, for example, who designs infographics, sends PDFs of the designs, and a spreadsheet full of source data to cross-reference. Others send Word docs, or links to websites.

I tend to print the material out – it’s easier to see mistakes that way, for some reason – and scribble all over it. Then I write up my notes into an email list of amends and queries, which looks something like this:

Page 2, line 3:
CURRENTLY: I’ve got a brand new cobine harvester
AMEND TO: I’ve got a brand new combine harvester
Page 2, line 4:
CURRENTLY: I’ll give you th ekey
AMEND TO: I’ll give you the key

Page 3: Consider adding a caption to the photo; the fact they’re on a log flume seems rather incongruous
Page 4: I found the wording in the pie chart rather small to read; suggest 9pt or more
Page 5: The photo of the sky looks slightly green on my screen
Page 6: In three of the four sections, you’ve used the US Eng spelling of “digitized” but in section 2 you’ve used the Br Eng spelling: “digitised”. Suggest “digitised” throughout.

If you know whoever’s making the amends will be pushed for time, or if you’re still drafting and just need to know the “headlines”, I can also prioritise. For example, I could put the “howlers” in red, the “it wouldn’t really matter if it went to print like this but it would be nice to change” comments in orange/yellow and the really pedantic “it might just be me, but…” comments in green. Or we could decide on a level of pedantry to work to beforehand and I just won’t worry about the picky bits.

If you want to see my scribbles … er, I mean proofreading markup, I can scan the docs back in and send those to you too.

I have also proofed stuff for people via tracked changes in Word and via shared Google docs. Both are fine for me, and if it’s a massive project it’s often useful for you to see what I’m doing as we go along. But I might still print them out to proof, and then go back online to make the amends. Over Christmas, I proofed a short book completely online, but I found it more difficult to spot inconsistencies on screen than when the paper pages were spread out in front of me.

And that’s about the size of it, really.

If you’ve been wondering whether it’s worth getting someone in to check your work occasionally, get in touch. It’s really hard to check things you’ve written yourself – your brain tends to see what you meant to write rather than what you actually wrote! If you are producing a large quantity of written work, or a one-off important document that you want to get right, then a proofreader might just turn out to be great value for money.

Speaking of self-checking: did you know that there’s an editorial version of Murphy’s Law (aka Sod’s Law)? Muphry’s Law – and yes, it’s Murphy’s spelled wrong… that’s the joke – states that if you’re picking someone up on their spelling or grammar, you’re bound to make a mistake yourself. And yes, it’s ten times worse when you’ve set yourself up as a “professional”. As a young would-be proofreader I once sent a batch of letters out to a load of agencies, offering my services, and was horrified when the only reply I had was from the largest company… telling me that I’d spelled their address wrong. It was, you know, a learning experience, or something. So I’m fully expecting this blog post to be full of typos.



    Hang on (and I’m not trying to be snide or snarky as I like your style!) but how best to write ‘proofreader’ as I’m not keen on words that, when shoved together, almost end up looking like something else such as a ‘proo-freader’.

    It’s even worse with that dratted word (or phrase?) ‘fundraising’ as if someone wants to ‘draise’ some ‘fun’, so I tend to use ‘fund raising’. So, is it better to hyphenate or use two words?

    ‘Proof reader’ or ‘proof-reader’? And I’m really not comfortable with ‘copyeditor’ as I think that ‘copy editor’ looks so much better, at least to my squinty eyes. Although I know these things have a tendency to merge over time.

    And I could well be a hypocrite as I call myself a creative ‘copywriter’ and not a ‘copy writer’. But then no one said it was easy this English language business!

    With best wishes,


    1. Rob, you’re right – it’s not easy at all! I’ve always written “proofreading”, and both Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries seem to think that’s fine, but I can see your point. I like “fundraising”, too, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it written as two words. If it was two words, it would surely need to be hyphenated when it’s used as an adjective (“a fund-raising event”)… wouldn’t it? Hmmm! I’ll be looking out for it everywhere now. Every…where…

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