The Ultimate Guide to Proofreading

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Editing

This is the ultimate guide to proofreading.  If you’ve got questions about what proofreading is and how it works, you’ll find the answers here.

What is proofreading?

Proofreading is the final review of a document prior to publication.

Specifically, proofreading should identify and correct any errors previous rounds of editing might have missed, including typographical errors (typos), incorrect or missing punctuation, spelling errors and formatting issues.

Traditional proofreading versus regular proofreading

Traditional proofreading involves comparing a typeset proof and the original document, and correcting irregularities.

When books, magazines and other types of hard documents are published, they are ‘typeset’ – a professional typesetter transfers the document into typesetting software, setting it out exactly as it will be printed.

The job of a traditional proofreader is to make sure that this typeset proof is error-free.  Ever seen a book with a typo?  That’s an example of a traditional proofreader missing their mark.

By contrast, ‘regular’ proofreading (the type of proofreading you’ll hear talked about normally), is simply the final stage of editing, and normally doesn’t involve anything other than a digital version of the draft document.

Copy editing versus proofreading

If you’re in the market for an editor, you’ve probably heard the term ‘copy editing’ used in a similar context to proofreading.

Copy editing and proofreading aren’t the same thing.  They’re actually two quite distinct stages of the editing process.

Manuscript Editing Process

  1. Manuscript Assessment
  2. Structural Editing
  3. Copy Editing
  4. Typesetting
  5. Proofreading

Business Editing Process

  1. Structural Editing
  2. Copy Editing
  3. Proofreading

A simple definition for copy editing is that it works to improve syntax, style and voice.  Essentially, a copy editor refines the document at a line level, whereas a proofreader simply locates and corrects errors.

Copy editing is much more difficult than proofreading and, consequently, takes longer and generally costs more.

Why is proofreading important for businesses?

It’s not uncommon to view the idea of proofreading as some unnecessary luxury solely employed by magazines and book publishers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

When a business outputs a communication – whether that communication is an in-person sales interaction, a web page, or a press release – people make meaning from it.

In an ideal world, that meaning would be the exact thing that we intended.  But we don’t live in an ideal world, so we rely on communicators (hello, Marketing and PR) to deliver our business’s messages in ways that our target audiences can easily understand.

The more talented the communicator, the more of your intended meaning the audience absorbs.

An easy way to sabotage the efforts of your MarComms teams?  Get them to distribute a communication riddled with errors.  Those grammatical and syntactic inaccuracies mean that the intended meaning is further obscured.

Here’s an example.

You run a SaaS company.  You want prospects to know that your product gives them a competitive advantage over other businesses.  So you put a big hero banner on your website with the copy:

“Our software gives you an edge over your competitor’s.”

See that misplaced apostrophe at the end of the sentence?  It indicates a possessive, which means you’re telling readers that your software gives them an edge over their competitor’s software – huh?

Even if people do manage to work out what you actually meant (“Our software gives you an edge over your competitors.”), you’ve created cognitive dissonance, which can seriously impact whether prospects choose to follow your CTA, or simply hit the ‘Back’ button to check out your competitors’ sites instead.

The example I just gave is fairly mild, but when you’ve got copy riddled with dozens of errors, the accumulation results in a very unpleasant user experience, which inevitably leads to reduced sales.

Another big problem with in-text errors is that they affect your brand image, because prospects will feel that you lack professionalism.  This is particularly relevant for B2B and white-collar businesses, because clientele are more likely to notice and less likely to forgive.

Would you employ someone whose CV had a bunch of spelling errors?  Probably not.  Will prospects call you (after reading through a website with error-riddled copy) or your competitor (whose perfect writing makes them seem thorough and professional)?  You know the answer.

This isn’t supposition, either.  There have been numerous peer-reviewed studies that explicitly show poor grammar and spelling create negative perceptions of everything from intelligence to work ethic to message coherency.  We summarised the findings in a different article, ‘Can Bad Grammar Destroy Your Marketing Efforts?’.

Proofreading isn’t optional for modern businesses.  It should be an essential function within your MarComms department, and every single communication you release should be proofread at least once.

How do you mark up proofread documents?

Traditional proofreaders edit typeset proofs using proofreading marks (more on these in a minute).  Regular proofreaders mark up electronic documents using word processing software like Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat.

Since MS Word is very much the industry standard, I’ll walk you through how to proofread a document using its various Review functions.

To get started, open up the draft document in MS Word (.doc or .docx).  In the navigation menu along the top, select the ‘Review’ tab.  Toggle the ‘Track Changes’ button, then, from the drop-down menu beside it, select ‘Simple Markup’.

microsoft word track changes

You can now make changes to the document that are highlighted as changes, allowing your client or colleague to see exactly what you’ve edited.  To display the highlighted changes, change ‘Simple Markup’ to ‘All Markup’.

microsoft word proofreading function

You can also select portions of text and add a comment by hitting ‘New Comment’ under the Review tab.  You can use this function to explain to document authors why you’ve made the changes you have – many people will stubbornly resist your attempts to save their work unless you walk them through your exact reasoning.

microsoft word track changes comment

What are proofreading marks?

Electronic software has made proofreading exceptionally easy, but traditional proofreaders (and anyone editing a hard document) still need to make their amendments by hand.

That’s where proofreading marks become useful.  Although they might seem like gibberish to the untrained eye, they’re shorthand symbols denoting certain formatting and typographical changes.

Each weird symbol has its own meaning – although, confusingly, different style guides sometimes use slightly different marks.  I personally like the Chicago Manual of Style’s clarity, although I typically use the AP Stylebook for all of my editing work.

You can view the Chicago proofreaders’ marks here.  See the AP marks at the bottom of this article.

What about ‘stet’ and other obelisms?

An obelism is an annotation made in the margins of a document.  In double-spaced printed documents, you’ll normally have enough room to make changes between the lines, but single-spaced documents are normally easier to read if the annotations are in the margins.

If you have multiple edits to a single line, my recommendation would to write the obelisms in the order that they appear (left to right) – you can do half in the left margin, and half in the right.

‘Stet’ is Latin for ‘let it stand’, and is the proofreader’s equivalent of a backspace – it means that they want you to disregard a specific change they’ve recommended, and let the text stay as it was.

Can I proofread my own work?

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably feeling pretty confident that you understand proofreading.

Here’s the thing: there’s a world of difference between understanding the concepts and being able to apply them to your own work.

I can say, unequivocally, that no-one should ever rely on editing their own work if they have a choice.  The whole point of retaining an editor is to get a second brain and a second pair of eyes to thoroughly scan for any tiny mistakes you might have missed.

Every person in the world (including professional editors like myself) makes mistakes, and it’s always more difficult to edit something you’ve written.

Even if you’ve let the work sit for a couple of days (rarely an option in the business world), you’re an excellent editor and you’re experienced enough that your own biases don’t impact how you edit, your brain’s filters mean you’re likely to miss the sneakier mistakes (missing words and homophones are arguably the most challenging).

When budgetary or time constraints prevent you from hiring a professional, my advice is to let the document sit for as long as possible, then edit it with a clear mind.  Once you’ve done that, go through again with your eyes closed by using a screen reader.  I personally use NVDA, both for editing and for reviewing the accessibility of web pages, but there are lots of good options out there.

If you want to learn how to become better at proofreading, I recommend checking out our article, 8 Best Proofreading Tips for Error-Free Writing.

Proofreading Exercises

Most marketers and PR practitioners proofread someone’s work at some point in their career, so it’s useful to be good at it.  Visit our Proofreading Exercises page to hone your skills with our library of proofreading exercises.

How do I become a proofreader?

If you’re a non-marketer who’s stumbled across this article and you’re wondering how to become a professional proofreader, I can help you – just not in this article.  Check out our guide to becoming a proofreader in Australia instead.

AP Stylebook Editing Marks Reference Sheet

ap editing marks reference sheet


Got questions?  Drop a comment below, or email me at: service@chevronediting.com.au.

If you need qualified editors to proofread something you’ve written, check out our Proofreading services to discover how we can help.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

3 comments on “The Ultimate Guide to Proofreading”

Have to giggle – this was Too easy… who proofreads your copy?
“If you have multiple edits to a single line, my recommendation would to write the obelisms in the order that they appear (left to right) – you can do half in the left margin, and half in the write.”
*obelisms
no thesaurus results
Did you mean obelisks, or was ‘isms’ on purpose?

*…the write or the right?

By the way Duncan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading you. Thank you so much for the treasure of advice and suggestions. Also, the exercises are excellent practise! I’m looking forward to attacking others.

Regards, Cettina Catlin

Glad you enjoyed the post, Cettina!

I normally just give each post a quick proofread before upload – time and budget are very much considerations for small businesses like ours. ‘Obelisms’ is correct (see the definition in the post), but thanks for picking up on the ‘write’ typo! Examples like this are exactly why I always recommend getting a different editor to review work – it’s difficult to spot errors in your own work, especially when you’re writing and editing in very small timeframes.

I’ll amend that error now – greatly appreciate your sharp eye!

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