The proofreader, the last person in the chain of people who guide, suggest, and make changes to writing before it is published, is generally the one who gets the “blame” when things go wrong with that piece of content you want to publish.
If you’ve put your soul into writing a book or a personal essay, you want it to be perfect. So, how do you get to “perfect”?
As the writer, you have to be competent, of course. You also may have a team of editors who will guide you along the way to create a successful end product, but you’ll definitely have to depend on a proofreader to make sure it has no mistakes.
This individual will make and recommend changes to your writing. But they may also make changes that you don’t like or don’t approve of.
And sometimes, a proofreader will get it wrong.
Before looking at some practical strategies to help avoid and prevent mistakes by your proofreader, let’s take a look at some legendary proofreading errors:
If you graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1988, just take a look at the diploma. It spells the university’s name as “Wisconson,” not “Wisconsin.” Four thousand diplomas were issued with that spelling mistake from an institution of higher learning. Six months later, an official claimed that they had proofread all the degrees, but only to check for the proper spelling of names and degree subjects. Embarrassing!
You may have been one of the lucky individuals who bought a Toronto-to-Cyprus airline ticket from Alitalia for $39 in 2006. The problem is the fare should have been advertised as $3,900—a big difference. Before the error was discovered, thousands of tickets were sold. The company was forced to honor the price, at a cost of millions of dollars.
If you’ve ever read the inaugural address on the Lincoln Memorial, you may have noticed the words “HOPE FOR THE FUTURE,” where “future” doesn’t look quite right. That’s because it was originally spelled “euture.” This mistake was eventually just filled in to make the word “future.” The correction is still noticeable. Imagine having to replace the entire wall because of a one-word error!
And there are more, like the case where a printer distributed 1,000 copies of the Bible in 1631 with the seventh commandment written as “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Most of the copies were found and burned, except for seven that survived.
Proofreader mistakes can be embarrassing and even funny. But they can also be very costly, even to the point of ruin.
Professional proofreaders can make different types of mistakes. Some are easy to detect (e.g., incorrect spelling and comma usage), and others are more difficult to find (e.g., vague pronoun references and parallelism errors).
Then there are those errors that are due to misunderstandings or lack of communication between you (as the writer or individual doing the hiring) and the proofreader. These are highly preventable from the get-go.
The following steps likely apply more to a larger project, such as an eBook, than a small proofreading effort, such as a blog post or a product description (where you may even try to do the job yourself). But in either case, you can use these guidelines to lead you through the process of selecting a proofreader.
Let’s assume you’re ready to hire a proofreader to put the finishing touches before you have it published. Here’s how to move forward while avoiding costly mistakes.
You’re ready to hire someone, but who can you hire to do the job right? Do you go cheap and hire the person who’ll work for $0.01 per word, or do you look around for someone who has the right experience, someone who understands you, someone who will do what you ask for?
Don’t make the mistake of hiring someone just because they’ll do the job “real quick and cheap.”
Hiring the right person is the most important thing to consider when you’re looking for a proofreader.
Hire someone who has the skills to proofread the type of material you’re trying to finalize—technical, academic, legal, etc.
According to Louise Harnby, there are several places where you can find a good candidate without having to pay a finder’s fee:
Once you’ve identified candidates, you want to determine their experience level, skill level, accomplishments, and specialization if any. You also want to determine how the individual or organization works.
Interview the candidates (via phone or video), just like you would anyone you’re hiring.
You also want to check other sources to help you determine if the candidates are being truthful about themselves and their accomplishments (education, certifications, work history) and to find out anything else you want to know about them.
Of course, you also want to consider how much you’re willing to pay for their services and how they are to be paid. Proofreaders work on a per-word basis, per-deliverable basis, or by the hour.
According to the Editorial Freelancers Association, you could expect to pay between $0.018 and $0.064 per word, or $30 to $35 per hour, for proofreading. You could also pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for work based on specific deliverables, ongoing services, and other editing services.
You hired the person you think is the right proofreader. But have you decided what you want them to do? If not, you could end up with results that cost too much, are late, or aren’t what you want.
You could end up with proofreading that changed your tone, approach, or style. You might even wind up with something written with the wrong localization in mind, like text geared for a British, not an American, audience.
Think through, and lay out, what you want done, how you want it done, when you need it to be finished, and how much you’re willing to pay.
Ensure you and the proofreader are in agreement with regard to those aspects of your project. If the proofreader is not clear about what they’re expected to do and when, you may not get what you bargained for.
For instance, do you want to make sure your “polished” product has no minor errors, or do you want a thorough examination to ensure you’re not using any questionable grammar or faulty phrasing?
Without a schedule, your proofreader may complete your job in two weeks instead of your expected two days. For big jobs, the schedule should have enough information to make it clear what’s expected at certain points in the project; otherwise, you don’t know what you’re going to get or when.
Make sure the proofreader understands your planned completion date, and be in agreement as to how to handle any schedule slips.
You may have to be willing to modify your schedule for big or difficult jobs, since neither you nor the proofreader really knows how long proofreading will take for these types of jobs.
If you don’t clarify and specify, in writing, your voice, vision, and style preferences, your proofreader may not realize that you have a particular way of writing and communicating with your audience.
To make sure your proofreader knows not to tamper with your voice and vision, you need to inform the proofreader how you write. Is your writing style conversational or formal, informative or entertaining, persuasive or educational?
Left unchecked, changes to your voice and vision could affect the tone and intent of the piece and leave you wanting to rewrite the material and strangle the proofreader.
Talk through these questions with your proofreader.
They may ask for a style sheet. These are the types of items you could include in one:
You can provide guidance to have the proofreader refer to an authoritative style manual, such as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, for most of your style preferences and then simply provide exceptions to the particular manual.
Establishing milestones for your project schedule is a great way to keep your project on track, too, especially if it’s on the longer side.
Milestones are points during the project when the proofreader should provide you with any completed elements or other material (document, thesis, etc.) and inform you about any issues or questions they may have regarding the project.
It’s also the time when you can bring up any issues you may have with their progress.
Together, you can resolve any problems, whether the proofreader has questions or issues about the project or whether you’re having problems with their work.
What happens if your final product still has flaws, errors, misunderstandings, or unwanted changes?
If you planned your project correctly, you would have agreed on whether the proofreader would have to make requested changes after they’ve finished the job and the number of times you could request changes. You will be responsible for making any subsequent changes yourself.
If you got periodic updates along the way, there should be no surprises; that’s the purpose of such updates. If you have issues with the final product, let the proofreader know.
Depending on your initial agreement, the proofreader may provide one or more rounds of changes or corrections to the material, after which you should not expect them to do any more work.
If you’re happy with the final product, use the experience as a guide for the next time you need any work proofread or the next time you need editing help. And don’t forget to thank the proofreader. They will appreciate it.
Proofreaders do make mistakes, sometimes costly ones. But proofreading mistakes can be avoided or minimized if you plan ahead. You (the writer) or the organization that hires the proofreader can ensure a good product by following the guidelines listed above.
Remember: You want to hire the right person or team for the job, agree on what’s to be done, agree on schedule changes, and track progress. The result is a job well done.
Joaquin is a graduate of Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a degree in Business Administration. He was a software engineer for many years, working mostly for the U.S. government as a contractor. He has always enjoyed the idea of trying to interpret what people are saying, either verbally or in writing and has always been interested in languages. That’s how he found his way into copy editing and proofreading, which he really enjoys. Joaquin is a senior copy editor at CYC.