DesignBiz: How to Proofread Like a Pro

Posted inDavid Sherwin
Thumbnail for DesignBiz: How to Proofread Like a Pro
I like my misteaks extra rare.

No one likes a typo. Especially your client clicking through the website you just pushed live.

When it’s the 14th time we’ve made revisions on the 128-page magazine and you need to get the files off to the printer, it’s inevitable that a typesetting error or grammatical mistake is still lurking somewhere in the document. The same issues apply when completing content for a website and porting it into a CMS, where gremlins always seem to lurk in the hallways of our code. Mistakes happen, but we can catch them.

There are various grades of proofing that you can apply to a document. If you’re conducting a light proof, you read through the material and see if there are any grammatical errors, typos, and glaring inconsistencies. If you’re working through multiple rounds of edits, you would highlight areas where the changes were made in a document and only reproof those areas after the edits had been made. On a full proofreading and fact-checking pass, you would dig deeply into the material to ensure that it’s error-free before releasing it. So know what you’re asking for, from yourself or your proofreader.

If you’re going to take on proofing content yourself, use the following process, which I gleaned from an early career stint as an editor and proofer. Be sure to build the necessary time into your client estimates and charge for this activity as part of your service offering.

1. Go line by line through the text. Use a physical aid, such as an index card or sheet of paper, to block out all of the text except for a single line. Then review each line, one after one in order, without distraction. By using this method, your brain can’t default to its typical human reading behavior—where you read words by their shapes, instead of inspecting what letters on the page compose those shapes. This method of reading will also make you pay closer attention to typesetting issues such as widows, orphans, and ladders, which can detract from the elegance of a printed document.

Killing a tree with printouts is the least painful way to carry out this process. Even if you’re working on a 1,000 page website, you should consider this step. There are always ways to manage how the content is printed out—duplex, lighter ink, recycled paper—to maximize the output and reduce the impact on your physical printing supplies around the office.

This work can also be carried out on screen in a manual, somewhat painful way by double or triple-spacing the text in a story editor or text preview.

2. After you’ve read the text forwards, re-read it backwards. For most professional proofreaders, this is their dirty secret. When they reach the end of a piece that they’ve proofed forwards, they keep their index cards on the page and do the same process in reverse. It’s rare that a typo can escape your notice on this second pass, as each word is now abstracted out of our regular reading flow. This is hard to do on screen, but can be accomplished with some effort.

3. Highlight and verify all factual sources—no exceptions! As you’re reading through the text forward and backwards, you should be indicating and verifying page content that can be cross-checked from other (reputable) sources.

This can be the most time-consuming part of any heavy proofreading job, but it is the most important part as well. Even if the client says that everything in the document is correct, it’s your duty to be sure. I can’t count how many times this situation has come up in professional practice, and I always do the necessary fact-checking—and find at least one factual error. Anything that you can’t verify, you should query the client for their sourcing. This way, you are indemnified via a paper trail if they take their product to press with a potential problem.

4. Flag missing information in a manner that can’t go live. When asked to show layout with fake calls to action, such as placeholder information like 1-800-123-4567, you need to do so in a manner that screams out “FPO!” Think yellow highlighting, bold red text—whatever stands off the page in a different color and weight.

5. After you’ve finished your hard proof, conduct a light re-proof all fixed changes to make sure new errors didn’t slip in. There are inevitably one or two small typos or new errors that find their way into layouts after a heavy proofreading pass. Also, reflow mistakes or re-ragging can occur that should be checked.

Even one-word edits can push the final line of a story off a page in a print file, and when those problems aren’t caught, there can be a hard cost associated with fixing the error in page proofs. This can be less of an issue in proofing online content, but an extra carat or ampersand may cause all sorts of mayhem in terms of breaking layout in a browser and additional time for QA/testing.

6. At the final proof stage, you should re-read all content forwards and backwards. No, please not again! Sorry, but this is the one area where you can’t afford to see a new mistake introduced—and even the best printers accidentally introduce errors at prepress. For a website, this would be the proofing that happens when content is flown into your CMS or coded into the system. Quality assurance should be happening at the testing stage, as cleaning up what seems like a typo can sometimes be an issue associated with a major bug fix.

Know When to Outsource

Proofreaders know that if you give a complete and thorough proofing to your client work at every round, you’d end up wasting valuable time. But depending on the scale of your project, outsourcing proofreading can make a lot of sense at critical milestones through the life of a project (such as step #6).

But be aware that even if you pay a professional to review your work, you are still ultimately responsible for any errors that slip through into the final, finished product. So it’s always in your best interest to proof the material before it goes to the proofreader. Spend the necessary time fixing any errors that you’re aware of, then get a professional’s point of view.

This is the best use of their time—and yours. At some agencies, I’ve seen professional proofing employed both at the end of a project (before going to press) and then re-employed when reviewing the page proofs back from the printer or the website as it’s coded and ready to go live.

Don’t let the client say, “We don’t need a proofer—I’ll do it!” Clients are rarely as effective in catching both major and minor proofing errors, unless they also happen to be trained proofreaders.

Never Deviate from Your Proofing Protocol—And Charge for It!

Even if you’re under a tight deadline, proofreading is one corner you should never choose to cut. Because once you do, typos invariably happen. And if that error sneaks out into the wild—well, there goes your reputation.

Keep in mind that copy editing is a completely different animal. If you’re making substantive rewrites to client-provided copy, or creating content wholesale, you are not taking part in the activity of proofreading. The above process only applies when you’re proofing fully-formed material before it will be released out into the world.

What’s your perspective on proofreading design work? Share it in the comments!