The salt and pepper grinders in our office kitchen are marked with red pen. Or rather, there are typos on their labels, which I’ve marked with red pen. Not that I set aside time to read the labels of our corporate condiments. While waiting for the kettle to boil, ‘qualtiy’ jumped out at me from the eye-height shelf. There are two things to note here: firstly, I can’t help but think a little less of that brand, and secondly, proofreaders will proofread – all the time.
When I say “I’m a proofreader”, the response is usually “Wow, you must be really good at spelling.” (And, depending on the setting, “How interesting! Could you pass the salt?”) It’s true: proofreaders are ‘really good at spelling’ like tax auditors are really good with numbers, and musicians are really good at putting the right notes together. There’s nature behind the profession.
That first reaction is usually followed by a second: “I could never do that – I have the attention span of a goldfish and I’m a terrible speller.” My response to that is usually an abridged version of the following.
A focused eye
Proofreaders specialise in doing their job just as you specialise in yours. We proofread so you can get on with your work, without having to worry about commas, hyphens, style guides and dictionaries.
Because aside from spelling, there are a hundred and one other things a good proofreader looks out for. Things you can’t ‘see’ because you’re too familiar with the report you’ve spent six months preparing. Things you don’t have time to stop and look for. Things you might never notice anyway, because your eye is trained to spot numerical inconsistencies or to seek out the next opportunity for your company. For example, whether there’s indecision over ‘cooperation’ or ‘co-operation’. Whether the page numbering matches the table of contents. Whether numbered lists run in order. Whether bullet lists all use the same bullet style and are evenly indented. Whether the same typeface is used throughout a document. Whether your company name is always spelled correctly (yes, it happens).
There’s always time to proofread
Some people don’t have time to do this sort of magnifying-glass work themselves, or have deadlines so tight there’s no time to engage an external proofreader. But signing off on the final version of a document without having it proofread is like leaving for work without looking in the mirror: you may gain a bit of extra time as you rush for the train (or the deadline), but you’ll be stuck with a sense of uneasy uncertainty, and you could end up walking into a meeting with egg on your face (literally or figuratively).
The most logical solution is to factor proofreading into the project timeline – like you set aside time to brush your teeth and check the mirror each morning – so there’s always time for it.
Ideally, a proofreader should review a document three times.
• In the first read, the document is in the ‘final draft’ stage (usually a Word document). Working directly in the document (using Track Changes), a proofreader can pick up any egregious spelling or grammatical errors or inconsistencies. This ensures the copy is as clean as possible when it goes into design, saving time, effort and a lot of red pen later on.
• Once the document has been designed or laid out in its final format (usually a PDF file), the proofreader looks for any errors that might have snuck in during the design process, points out unclear or inconsistent formatting, and double-checks page numbers and tables of contents are correct.
• The final read happens after these second-round edits have been taken in. Comparing the final version against the second-round markup, the proofreader will make sure these edits have been applied correctly, look out for any new content and late-entry errors and check that the document is 100% ready for publication.
The cost of not proofreading
In most cases, it’s not a matter of whether you can afford a proofreader, but whether you can afford not to proofread. It only takes one error and one mildly attentive reader – whether it’s a shareholder or just an opinionated and much-followed blogger – and your reputation (and that of your company) could be questioned.
The potential ill effects of untidy language are even greater if the purpose of your document, business or industry is to be accurate, trustworthy and legally compliant. A proofreader can be worth their weight in salt if they save you from the fallout of just one typo (let alone a dozen).
Olivia McDowell is one of Editor Group’s Editors and Proofreader and an all-round punctuation guru. Contact her here.