The proof’s in the proof

Proof-reading is another element of the copywriter’s daily life, particularly when working in an agency. At any point you might be called on to proof someone’s work before it goes to a client and you need to be able to stop, switch and concentrate on the new ‘mindset’ of that account.

The problem is that agencies are often not the best places in which to do this. So here are some practical measures you can take that might help.

  • Use the copy brief – yes, even for proofing. It’s as important to know why you’re proofing as it would be for editing or writing. OK, so you’re really just looking for bloopers but you might be able to improve a piece even at this stage. Even if you only go through it quickly or just use it as a cue, it will help you get the proof done effectively.
  • Figure out how long it typically takes you to proof. For example when I look back over past work it seems I average out at about 4,000 words per hour, so if someone needs me to proof quickly – which is almost always the case – then I can give them a good estimate of how long it will take. They’re eternally grateful when you tell them it will take 15 minutes to proof 1,000 words and 15 minutes later it’s on their desk.
  • Try and get both an electronic copy and a print-out. You’ll find the print-out easier to read and take in, but the electronic version easier to jump into and make changes. Sometimes people aren’t that familiar with mark-up – the word ‘stet’ can cause problems – but if you can mail them back a marked-up Word document they can see exactly the changes you’ve made. Also, people might prefer just to receive the proof without mark-ups. Ask them first what they want.
  • Go somewhere quiet. At my agency we have booths for private work. On several occasions, when I’ve been given big documents to go through, I’ve used the booths just to shut everyone and everything else out. Even when I work at my desk I ‘blinker’ myself with my hands so that I have minimum distractions. I would add that this doesn’tinclude shutting people out by listening to music on your headphones! I know some people who listen to music while working. Perhaps this is my failing but I certainly cannot work well with music in my head and I don’t know how other people can.
  • Manage expectations. If people want it proofing now and you cannot do it now, then say. Agree a time when you can do it by. Often you’ll find that people are panicking when there’s no need to, and you can schedule your workload better if neither of you are panicking. The more you do this – the more people you work with come to trust your ability to get the job done properly by the agreed deadline – the easier it will get for everyone.

Of course, ideally everyone would be as eagle-eyed as you, and know all about apostrophes and hypens. But then again I guess that would put you out of a job.

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