Proofreading – what skills does it really involve?

The best proofreader I know is my Dad. He’s not a journalist or an English graduate or a writer or anything like that – he’s a solicitor.

My Dad is good at proofreading because he has unbelievable attention to detail, honed by a career spent checking facts and spotting loopholes. Of course he’s a good writer and a img_3133prolific reader, which means words are a comfortable stomping ground for him, but thinking about his skill set made me think about what really makes a good proofreader. I think it’s about finding someone you can trust to care about the tiny, seemingly insignificant details. Because it’s those tiny details that turn into the biggest confusions – or the biggest embarrassments!

To illustrate this I’m going to give you a run down of my two funniest proofreading fails – one my very own and one by a colleague. I realise this might be impolitic if you’re considering using my proofreading services – but I’m sharing them because they taught me important lessons!

Some background first! My first real job was editing the undergraduate prospectus at a university in London. This basically involved collating a gigantic amount of information from dozens of academics and admin staff, and turning it into a consistent directory of all the courses and services offered by the university.

I used to say that it was just a massive, complex admin job, but in retrospect it was in fact a three month proofreading fest. In a 250-page document the occasional error inevitably made it through our team’s proofreading efforts, but two stand out in my memory for the lessons I learnt from them.

The first was in the section about accommodation – for each Hall of Residence there was some smallprint that read something like: “Heating and water rates are included in your rent.” For one of the Halls – only one! – it read: “Heating and water rates are included in your tent.” Well, I can’t imagine many people applied for the camping option that year. The lesson – always check every bit of text, even if it’s something repeated on 15 other pages!

The second was worse – we managed to call the Dean of Students the Dead of Students. Not really the image he wanted to convey – luckily he had a sense of humour. The lesson – we see people’s names so often that we assume we’ve got them right, but names and job titles are one of the most important checks to make.

The trouble is that it’s really easy to lose concentration when you’re proofreading – to read what your eye expects to see, rather than what’s there. The best proofreaders put their preconceptions to one side and really read each word, each phrase, for its own sake, even if they’ve read it a hundred times. When you get into the zone it’s quite zen-like!

That’s why I’ll continue to take inspiration from my Dad, whose proofreading is founded on good old-fashioned attention to detail. Meanwhile I’ll get back to my tent.

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