I never was a good student, and I had very little interest in writing or anything related to writing. But, I soon discovered that I had an interest in words.
As a kid, I would go shopping with my mother. I would look at signs and labels and anything that was written and then try to decipher what I saw.
Eventually, I got the hang of it. Even so, I never really liked reading and writing until I started getting good grades in high school English and on my English Regents exam.
While I didn’t become a writer, I used writing in my career as a personnel specialist (military), computer programmer, and software tester. Then, when I retired from the software world, I had to find something to do.
What to do, fix words? That was it!
I could put my interest in words and some inborn need to make things perfect to some useful endeavor. So, I took some editing and proofreading courses and became a proofreader.
I’ve since discovered there’s a lot more to being a proofreader than most people would assume, and sometimes proofreaders can even step on a few toes. But over time, I’ve developed my own sense for what good proofreading is, and it has a lot to do with communication.
First, some clarification. Proofreading is part of the editing process, but proofreaders are not editors, although their work is generally included in the term “editing.”
Editors primarily review, change, suggest changes to, and comment on written material produced by authors of books, articles, and any written content. Editors also have an eye out for grammatical, punctuation, and other errors they may see in a piece.
And there’s no single role that an editor plays wherever they may work. There are supervisory-type editors, heavy editors, line editors, light copy editors, and more.
Look at this list of editing roles (which you’ll notice includes proofreader) from the Helpful Writer:
Proofreaders, as part of the editing team or as sole providers, are primarily interested in ensuring that the written material is free of mechanical errors (i.e., grammar, punctuation, capitalization, word usage, formatting in general, and spelling).
Proofreaders may also make or suggest changes to the structure of poorly written text. For instance, the proofreader might “fix” ambiguous wording, wrong tense, and unclear pronoun references, or they might correct a dangling or misplaced modifier (unclear references).
So, here’s my definition of editing:
Editing is simply a broad category of what editors and proofreaders do to make sure writing will be well-received by the reader.
Most organizations don’t require the services of all those types of editors listed above, but every organization should use at least some of them if they’re serious about the written material they produce. Even the entrepreneur with a small business needs help with the content of their website or blog.
So, we see that editors (excluding proofreaders) take care of the overall plot (if any), structure, voice, appeal, etc. of the writing, while proofreaders take care of the mechanical aspects of the writing.
The proofreader pays attention to detail and wants to ensure that the writing they are proofreading is in good shape after they’re finished with it. There may also be some psychological reason why proofreaders do what they do, but that’s another topic.
In writing, there are two schools of thought with regard to grammar.
The descriptivist believes that the rules for grammar should be based on how people use the language, for instance: “I’m gonna write somethin’ today.”
The prescriptivist believes that grammar should be based on prescribed rules and on how things should be, for instance: “I am going to write something today.”
If you, as a writer, hire a proofreader who is a prescriptivist, you may be in for a hard time when the proofreader “fixes” your writing.
The prescriptivist might try to change the elements of your writing that they don’t approve of (like ending a sentence with a preposition). The prescriptivist might add or remove commas and other punctuation; change a sentence because it’s a sentence fragment, not a sentence; and tell you that the word “ain’t” is not proper English.
But, sometimes a proofreader can go too far while fixing things.
And that can often cause a bit of friction between the proofreader and their client. Here’s a few examples of times when a proofreader gets a bit overzealous and why this might happen.
Let’s say you hired a proofreader to check the spelling in your article for a blog, and the proofreader overdid it. You think to yourself:
One of the fundamental things proofreaders do is check text to ensure that words are spelled correctly and are used in their proper context, and when words are strung together, that the words make sense.
Sounds easy, but not so fast. The simple act of checking one word can involve several steps:
The overzealous proofreader might “edit” your words because the words don’t appear in the prescribed dictionary, or don’t appear in their favorite dictionary, or don’t appear in any dictionary at all.
You, as a writer, might want to use the word “Saturdaze”—the Saturday after partying the night before. It’s not in any standard dictionary, but you may have heard it or even used it. A descriptive type of proofreader might accept “saturdaze” without questioning it, but not the proofreading zealot.
So, what’s the problem? You should have communicated to your proofreader what your preferences were with regard to spelling before they started on your article. They, in turn, would have been more tuned in to your preferences.
Here’s another situation. This time, the proofreader has their own ideas about what makes sense in writing, and you’re thinking:
Sometimes, proofreaders and editors will make changes to text when the words just don’t make sense to them. We all think differently and write differently. Remember, the proofreader’s job is to make your words as “perfect” as possible, and “perfect” means different things to different people.
If you’re an academic, you likely write material related to your field of expertise in a formal and professional tone. So what happens? The proofreader hacks your writing to death. But why? Maybe he thinks your fancy words are too fancy. Or, maybe you just needed to let him know how you write and for whom.
What if you have a less formal style of writing? The overzealous proofreader might have a point of view that says “Nobody will understand this stuff; I’m gonna fix it.” Wrong! This is another case where you and the proofreader should have had an understanding about how you write.
Editors and proofreaders have to make sure they’re not “correcting” the writing just because they don’t understand the writing or because they don’t like it. In the end, you, as the writer, need to let the proofreader know what your style of writing is so they don’t insert their own feelings or concepts into the material.
Then there’s the case where you might be a translator who wants your translation proofed, but the proofreader hasn’t done translation proofreading before. So, you scream:
The proofreader finished the job, and now you’re horrified with the results. The proofreader changed some of your words. They also removed some text and had the audacity to reword some important phrases in the text.
What went wrong?
The writing might have appeared unnatural or nonstandard to the proofreader, or the writing may have made no sense to them. Maybe you hired an overzealous proofreader, or maybe you hired the wrong type of proofreader for the job.
Proofreading translations is a specialty. The translation proofreader should at least be familiar with the source language and its intricacies—formal, casual, expressive, idiomatic, etc.—and should probably be a native speaker of the source language.
As a writer, you must make sure the proofreader you hire is someone who has the right skills for the type of writing you do—in this case, translations. You might even hire the person on a trial basis so you can evaluate their work before you commit to a long-term relationship.
Being a proofreader can be a thankless job at times, especially when the client thinks the proofreader is just fixing some spelling. And proofreaders can overdo it too.
Once again, communication between the proofreader and writer is the key. You need to make sure that the proofreader (or editing team) you hire understands what you want and need, and why.
Once the proofreader understands what you (the writer) want, they will happily make any revisions the way you want them done; if not, you might need a different proofreader.
In addition to being something of a “perfectionist,” I’m one of those people who like the middle ground. When I proofread a document, I really want to make sure I’m following the “rules,” but I also want to make sure I do the proofreading to the writer’s expectations.
At Craft Your Content, these are some of the things I do when proofreading a piece:
That’s a lot of work for “just proofreading.”
So, am I overdoing it? No.
I’m not a “proofreading zealot,” but when I do a proofread for a client, I want to make sure I’m doing the best I can do, and that means taking the time to check, and sometimes double-check, the material before I declare it “done.”
In addition, I’ll take the time to listen to the client, whether in writing or verbally, to determine what they really need and want.
And if the client doesn’t like how I changed their writing, I’ll work with them and correct any issues or misunderstandings.
There are no rules, really. Unlike in countries where language standards are determined and controlled by governmental bodies, English is something of a do-whatever-comes-naturally language, with no controlling body.
But English does have its accepted practices and standards that some speakers, writers, academics, and proofreaders tend to adhere to vehemently (remember those prescriptivists?). And then there are those proofreaders who will accept changes to the language as they come (the descriptivists).
I tend to fall on the side of the prescriptivists. I like to adhere to standards and accepted practices in writing, but I’ll always listen to the writer.
Although communicating clearly is more important in bigger jobs where an editing team might be contracted to produce a service or product, the following is also true of proofreaders.
The editing team has to ensure that they are providing a service that will make the client happy, not what the team thinks will make the client happy.
The client may have some preconceived notions about what the editing team is expected to do. And the customer is always right. Yet, the editing team, as the experts, may have ideas and suggestions that are important in completing a project successfully.
So … the key to a successful task or project is communication.
Once everyone is in agreement, the client will be satisfied that they know what to expect as a final product and when. And the editing team (or proofreader) will be positioned to do a good job and produce a great product.
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 copy editor at Craft Your Content.