Proof reading can be fun!

Get your stamp at the ready. Click image for source.

Get your stamp at the ready. Click image for source.

Proof reading is supposed to be a doddle. It’s just making sure everything’s tickety-boo and stamping it with your big red ‘Approved’ stamp. No?

Actually, no. Not really. Not when you’re proofing a 26,000 word document, like I just did today. It’s been a while since I did hard-core proofing and it reminded me that there are most definitely right ways to do it, and wrong ‘uns.

WRONG WAY – just make sure everything’s tickety-boo and stamp it with your big red ‘Approved’ stamp, then skip away singing “Hello birds, hello trees, hello sky.”

RIGHT WAY – as follows:

  1. Agree beforehand on what needs doing. There is a gulf of difference between a copy edit – where you’re more likely than not going to have to disassemble some scrawl and turn it into beautiful filigree curlicued baroque English – and a proof edit. The gulf, in my case, is precisely 2,000 words per hour. That is, I can proof edit at 4K words an hour but copy edit at 2K. So if I get the requirement wrong to start with, I spend twice as long, or earn half as much, or annoy the client. They’re all bad outcomes.
  2. Read the whole thing in one go. That’s right, even a 26K worder. OK, maybe allow yourself a Guinness or two (I did, but it was late last night), but make sure you’ve read it once before you even start to edit it. You get a flavour of the general tone of voice, where the voice changes (which it inevitably will if it’s multi-authored, or even if one person wrote it at different times or under the influence of different prescription drugs), potential problem areas, that sort of thing. Plus you get an idea of what the document’s actually about, which helps.
  3. Leave it. Go and do something else instead. Play with your tortoise, for example.
  4. Come back all refreshed and just get stuck in. You need to make decisions along the way but they’ll basically be along the lines of:
    • Grammar: get rid of howlers, check the finer points of quotation mark usage, change the wording if you think you’re going to get into a slanging match over the apostrophe.
    • Vocab: try and make it simple – for example ‘you will be able to’ is the same as ‘you can’ – but be careful if you’re just proofing because you’re getting close to a copy edit.
    • Tone of voice: is usually copy edit territory but you might need to stitch it together. Put it this way: if you’re the first person bringing together a multi-authored report, you are most definitely not going to be just proofing it. Poo-pah.
  5. Handover from the old document to the new. After your first pass, save it under a new filename, accept all the revisions, and then read it alongside the original. In this way you get to see the revisions that didn’t quite go right – double spaces here, no spaces there etc – and can read two ‘clean’ versions next to each other. In this way you might even decide to reject some of your own changes in preference to the original.
    • Hint: you might want to leave something untouched if someone in the document is making a claim that you don’t feel qualified to alter and you don’t want to ‘sex it up’ at all. Lord knows, I’ve been watching the Iraq inquiry on TV recently and I don’t want to be hauled in front of a select committee (“Why did you change ‘could’ to ‘should’, Mr. Cooper..?” “I don’t know your honour, can I go home now please?”). If in doubt, leave it, but flag it for the client perhaps.
  6. Check the new document. Save it again under a different filename, accept all the revisions again, and read the new document on its own. Yes, that means you’ve now read it four times in total, but it’s necessary: overview, detail, handover, check. You need each one.
  7. Make a note of the funnies. As you’re going along make a note of things you’re unclear of, or that the client needs to double-check. And make sure you tell the client to check the tables of contents, and page/figure/table references because copy edits sometimes muck up the pagination. It’s not your job to do this, but the client will love you for reminding him/her.

Oh, and use revision marks (obviously). If you haven’t, you can use Word’s ‘Compare’ feature. Good luck.

One thought on “Proof reading can be fun!

  1. Ah, copy and proof editing! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

    Anyway, Brendo, a fine post (am I supposed to say first that I’m a long-time lurker, first-time poster? Nah, we’re pals and I’m sure you’ll forgive me). If only more people understood how time consuming and important a proof (or copy) edit job actually is, it would save a lot of heartache.

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