What is proofreading, and do I need it?

The St. Paul's Literary Service - David Brookes

As part of a short series on editorial processes, I will be looking at proofreading, line-editing and copy-editing to give some insight onto the features that distinguish them from one another. To begin with the simplest, this week I’ll talk about proofreading.

What is proofreading?

Most writers already have a basic understanding of what proofreading entails. Once you have written the work, a proofreader will carefully examine your text for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. They might mark the errors for you to correct, or they may correct the errors themselves if they’re working with a digital copy.

Proofreaders don’t examine things like structure, or whether your paragraphs ‘flow’ when being read, or if they fit together smoothly. A simple way to remember a proofreader’s scope is to think in terms of sentences. The proofreader will generally work one sentence at a time, forgetting everything that comes before or after it. Are the words spelling correctly? Is the sentence correctly formed in grammatical terms? Is it properly punctuated? Is it formatted correctly and consistent with the rest of the document?

Beyond this, we have ventured into the realms of editing, not proofreading. However, a good proofreader should also look for consistency in your word use, regional spelling (consistently UK or US English, for example) and presentation. If you’re working towards a style guide, they will check that you have been consistent with this (note: check that it is so, not make it so).

When proofreading for clients, I personally go a little further and give a ‘semi-edit’. Most people find it very useful to know whether their sentences fit together properly (cohesion) and are easily understandable and readable (coherence and flow). Some, but not all, proofreaders will add comments justifying their changes or recommendations. At STP Editing, this is part of the service.

A deeper look

Assuming that your proofreader is working with a paper copy (such as a teacher marking your printed essay), you may get your paper back covered in mysterious annotations (usually in the notorious red ink). Whilst these glyphs are probably undecipherable to the average person, they are actually the useful language of the proofreader. Here are some examples:


How will proofreading help?

If you are writing an academic piece, such as an essay, dissertation or PhD proposal, then you will be assessed, in part, on your ability to write in your chosen language. It’s therefore essential to ensure that your paper is error-free.

Or perhaps you’re a budding author, itching to self publish your new story, novel or poetry collection on Amazon or a similar platform? Don’t even think about it until you’re confident that it’s totally error-free and is of a publishable standard. No writer wants bad reviews based on an unpolished manuscript (trust me!). A proofreader will be able to help you with this.

If you’re a business, the last thing you need in your marketing material – or worse, proposals or important reports – are simple typographical errors. Customers are less likely to engage with a business that they consider unprofessional, and a flier, website or menu riddled with errors in written English could be their first contact with your brand.

Do I really need a proofreader?

Maybe, maybe not. Even professional writers use proofreaders (or at least take full advantage of their publisher’s in-house editors), as no matter how many times you scour your own work for errors, there always seems to be a few more you missed the last time. It really does take a fresh pair of eyes to ensure that your work is completely without errors.

I hope no offense is taken when I say that not everybody is an expert in written English. As competent or enthusiastic as a person is, they might not necessarily be familiar with the changing landscape of English grammar or totally conversant with the finer points of syntax or punctuation. Not to mention that there may be issues that you don’t recognise as errors: incorrect capitalisation, mixed or broken metaphors, and incorrect spelling and punctuation are common. A word processor won’t necessarily know that you haven’t written what you meant to write.


The St Paul's Literary Service - David Brookes


One thought on “What is proofreading, and do I need it?

  1. Pingback: What is line-editing, and do I need it? | The St. Paul's Literary Service

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