Proofreading is one of those jobs that people don’t think about until something goes wrong. In an incident that highlights the importance of proofreading, Penguin Books once published a recipe for pasta where the ingredients included “freshly ground black people.” It cost them thousands to have the text reprinted.
Even the Prophet Moses had trouble with proofreading. A 1631 edition of the Bible included a surprising version of the seventh commandment “thou shalt commit adultery.”
Less amusing are those times when proofreading gaffes hurt us financially. A government tender reviewer would feel disinclined to award a $5 million contract to a business that can’t correctly spell the names of key stakeholders. Why? Because it indicates a lack of attention to detail, and tender bids are all about the details.
Who cares about their and there?
The short answer is – more people than you would imagine. More precisely, these sticklers for spelling, grammar and punctuation are usually the publishers, editors, NGO and government heads that you are hoping to impress with your writing.
Proofreading is about spelling, punctuation and grammar – all those old-fashioned values that in the age of Facebook people seem to ignore.
Social media has allowed millions of those who were once mute to voice their opinions on the world stage. But it has also highlighted the difference between professional writers and those who simply want to get what’s in their heads onto the page as quickly as possible.
The posts made on the most popular medium, Facebook, show that many people paid little attention in English class. Poor expression and punctuation are fine if you’re arguing why Lady Gaga’s the best pop singer ever. Not so good if you’re writing an article for the Sydney Morning Herald or about to submit your thesis.
The perils of punctuation
One of the hardest elements to master is punctuation. Many writers have driven themselves crazy adding and removing a single comma from a sentence just to get the balance right. It’s common for people confuse colons with semi-colons, believing one is simply a less-severe version of the other.
There are times when punctuation makes a huge difference to meaning – “it’s time to eat, children!” But there will be times when you’re not sure whether to use one or not. When that happens, try reading the sentence out loud. Did you feel the need to pause for breath where you think the comma should be? If so, include one.
Then there are hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes – each has its own place, as do ellipses, square brackets and parentheses, and single and double quotes. You could subscribe to the Oxford Style Manual online or just buy the book for extra guidance.
Proofreading outside the box
“All writing is rewriting” is a comment attributed to a number of writers, and it’s true. A writer produces many drafts of a work trying to work out content and structure. But as you do you become over-familiar with the text. You start to gloss over an area of poor expression because you’ve read it so many times it’s starting to make sense!
This is why you should proofread ‘cold’. After you finish writing, put the piece aside and proofread it a few hours later, when your mind has cleared itself of the subject. You will be amazed at what you discover with this cold reading approach.
Another tip is to take your work outside the box. So, if you write on a computer, do a print out and sit down with a pen to make corrections.
It helps to learn the symbols that proofreaders use to mark up copy. These clarify what you want changed. For example, three lines under a letter means capitalise, while a wavy underline indicates text should be bold.
Reading a piece out loud can also uncover those missing words that have eluded you on screen and paper.
Proofreading for polish
After proofreading, you should feel that your work is as polished as it can be and ready to face the world. If you still have niggling doubts about it, you probably have issues that run deeper than spelling and punctuation and you should attempt another draft.
One final word of advice – spellchecker is not infallible. If you type ‘fro’ instead of ‘for’ it’s going to leave that as is. Only a thorough check by a human being can guarantee an error-free outcome, and this is why a proofreader is the unsung hero behind every word we read.