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How to work with a proofreader
In my life as a copywriter, I've written and proofed many types of copy, including financial and technical details.
Ask about my proofreading services. It's not my main line of work, but I'll happily serve as
"fresh eyes" at a competitive fee, which may be based on word count, hourly, project, or retainer.
IMPORTANT NOTE: With so much financial and technical copy under my belt, I've become pretty good at proofreading. But a writer should never
be the only one to proof his or her own work. Although proofing is an important part of the writing job, have everyone check it before printing!
As I was saying, I've worked with all sorts of styles and content, ranging from highly
conversational copy to specification charts, technical topics, and financial services. That's one of the
interesting things about business-to-business copywriting: the variety and opportunity to learn new stuff.
My degree is in Journalism (B.S., University of Illinois). I originally followed the NY Times Style Book, but
we in the advertising business rarely need to refer to a formal authority. These days, I generally use my own standards, but
I can follow whatever style you prefer.
I should probably add this note: As a copywriter, I have sometimes worked with "official" proofreaders – people who do
nothing but proofreading all day long. They did not revise my text; their job was just to find typos and such. As a copywriter, I did
not want them messing with my carefully crafted rhetoric. Now, when
working as proofreader, I remember how I felt. I respect the writer's choices, and I "only" proof for errors in typography,
grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and (when meaning is confused, or words don't correspond) syntax.
If you want an editor, I can do that, too (see below), but it's not the same job description.
Here are some tips on working with a proofreader:
First, proof it yourself. Run it through spellcheck and maybe a grammar checker. Do NOT change your copy based
on robotic suggestions. They don't have the sensibilities of a real, human copywriter, and they are sometimes wrong. But do
correct anything that is clearly wrong. By cleaning up the copy a bit yourself, your proofreader can focus on what remains.
There is no such thing as "perfect" copy, and there are many ways to write up any thought. A proofreader has to make various
choices as to writing style, grammar, and punctuation style. The differences between various style manuals (Associated Press,
Chicago, New York Times, etc.) is just one example. Your company and your readers may also have certain conventions. (For example,
programmers might prefer "linespacing" or "line height," whereas general grammarians might want "line spacing" and traditional typographers say "leading.")
If the choice of style is important to you, then discuss it before the work begins. At least in general terms – is the copy supposed
to be formal, informal, conversational, academic, or what?
Above all, the proofing choices should be consistent. Any inconsistency should be for good reason. If you use the Oxford comma, use it consistently.
If you prefer not to use it,
will it be okay to use it when the meaning would be otherwise unclear? If you like the more "modern" sans-comma style, I recommend
making exceptions for clarity. (If it is legal text, a lawyer should be involved. Unlike 200 years ago, nowadays a comma can affect legal meaning.)
An accurate, detailed description makes your job easier to quote. When asking a professional proofreader to estimate your job,
be prepared to provide several representative samples.
If you have a ton of copy to check, have your proofreader do a small batch first. This enables you two to confirm that his or her
choices are to your liking. It will also confirm the estimate of the time required.
If your schedule allows a bit of extra turnaround time, please do. This reduces pressure and might allow your proofreader to give it an extra scan.
Before beginning, discuss how you would like comments to be returned. If the proofreader has a question, should he or she pose
it as a Word comment, or embed it in the text (using a different font color, for example), or in a separate list of notes, or what? Be
prepared to exchange before and after documents as Word files, which will allow more flexibility in this regard. For short texts, HTML email
will also work. Your proofreader can help choose what method is most convenient for all involved.
Explaining every correction takes a lot more time. You might want the first job to include explanations and options
(and pay a bit more to cover that time), but as you come to understand and trust the proofer's choices, just accept the changes and ask
about any few that bother you. You're hiring a proofreader, not a tutor.
Keep in mind that the more questions your writing invites from the proofreader, the longer the proofreading job will take. When you work
with an experienced pro, proofing often goes fairly quickly, even if there are lots of errors. But writing up comments, notes, questions, and
alternative wordings can be a real timesink. It is best if you can cover these issues at the outset, so they needn't be dealt with again and again.
Don't be annoyed if the proofreader seems overly critical, marking up words and passages that you consider "conversational" or otherwise
acceptable nits. It can take a proofreader significantly longer to mentally alternate between "proofing" mode and "analysis" mode. That's
because we humans tend to read phrases and thoughts, but a proofreader must read word by word. Deciding whether an error is "important" disrupts that
process. Maybe it uses a different part of the brain, the way your brain might "think" in a foreign language, vs. translating each word as you go.
Hopefully, your proofreader will adjust to your general preferences. (By the way, do you want to catch conversational and clear, but hackneyed, conventions
such as "Hopefully"?) But if he or she has caught errors that are unimportant to you, don't
think they are padding the bill. Catching everything might actually take less time. Just ignore any catches that you don't care about.
Does the writing consist of works by multiple authors? You should discuss this with your proofreader. In my experience as an editor,
I have been reminded that some authors do not want their writing messed with, even so far as punctuation, even if it's "wrong."
On the other hand, other writers are grateful for any corrections and even embellishment (although that is not part of proofreading),
thinking that it only makes them look even better. Both viewpoints are correct, but some common ground needs to be defined. It may be
easier to work things out with the editor or proofreader, rather than offend, say, a guest blogger writing for free.
... Which raises the question: Are you looking just for a proofreader (e.g., to check the spelling and punctuation of your blog posts), or
do you want an editor, (who can also improve the phrasing, clarity, and maybe reorganize or even add to the content)?
Some global issues to consider:
Do you want one space between sentences, or two? One space is correct, except on an actual typewriter. But at times a writer might use
two or even three spaces for emphasis. I am someone who does. In fact, sometimes I have used two spaces throughout, to "open up" the
text and make it more inviting. But, depending on various factors, it can also make things look choppy. (If the text will be published
as HTML, this might be irrelevant, because HTML ignores extra spaces. But a Content Management System that produces HTML might preserve them.)
Is it okay to allow sentence fragments, and maybe even to separate sentences by a comma, the way people talk? Is
it okay to sometimes split infinitives? (My view: it depends. The split just before this would be just as clear and conversational if phrased "sometimes to split,"
but these variations have different meanings:
"He was regularly advised to fill out his timesheet using MM/DD format." ("was advised regularly" could be interpreted both ways.)
"He was advised to regularly fill out his timesheet using MM/DD format."
"He was advised to fill out his timesheet regularly, using MM/DD format." (The best choice. Without the comma, it might seem the issue is inconsistent format.)
Typographic convention for ellipses (...) varies. In the days of physical typesetting, spaces were included (with
a spaceless fourth dot used as necessary to indicate the end of a sentence). These days, the spaces can be problematic
(as on a web page), or the writer might use a Unicode Horizontal Ellipsis symbol, which has no spaces (thus avoiding
the linebreak problem). It will help your proofreader to know how your other text will be formatted, and where it appears.
In any case, I believe the ellipsis should have a space on either side.
My high school English teacher probably would have said, "Don't start a sentence with 'There is'," but that's generally
not something your proofreader will bother with. The construction is short, everybody understands it, it's correct, and people talk that way.
The point, after all, is to communicate, not complicate. Either settle on such things before proofing begins, or be available to
your proofreader so he or she can ask you when an issue first comes up.
Sentence fragments are a similar issue. Except to some academics, they're probably fine. A staff proofreader at a large ad agency wouldn't object.
List points are another gray area when it comes to style. Each bullet (or numbered) point may or may not end with a period.
My rule of thumb is that if it is a complete sentence, use a period. If most bullets are not complete sentences, do not use a period,
except for the few that are. The main concern is to be consistent. If the bullets are not rhetorically consistent (e.g., all begin with a verb except
one), consider revising them so that they are, if possible without resorting to contortion. The proofreader should simply note the inconsistency,
for your writer to repair.
Proofreaders tend to be more picky than you in other ways, too. For example, when referring to a Facebook Friend. When used as a
noun (as I just did) to
characterize someone who is on a list of accepted Friends, it should be capitalized. But what if it is used as a noun* verb (as in "please friend me")?
Although in a Facebook context, the meaning is clear, I would still capitalize it, because it involves a specific Facebook process.
But outside of Facebook, it may not even be acceptable as a formal verb, the alternative likely being "befriend."
* Also note: In my first draft, I mistakenly typed "noun" where I meant "verb." When a word choice is clearly incorrect, the
proofreader should either correct it or at least mark it.
How do you want to treat trademarks and proper nouns? Company and product names
should be capitalized, spaced, punctuated, and marked as those
companies use them. Bear in mind that checking such things adds to the time required. For example, PayPal®
is a registered trademark. Use of the symbol may depend on your publication's overall style and policies.
You could use the symbol on first use and not when repeated, or on every occurrence, or not at all. You might have a section that acknowledges all
In an informal document, trademark symbols and other such notices are generally not used. In the case of a printed brochure, you should
probably include them. A similar situation is when a product and its company are involved. For example, "Microsoft Word." Virtually everybody knows that
Word is a Microsoft product. But with some products that will not be the case. What to do? Err on the side of clarity and that company's own
usage. As long as the reader knows we're talking about word processing software, I'd be inclined to say simply "Word document," of course
always capitalizing "Word." (Yet another issue is, should a brand name ever be all-caps? Preferably not, but it depends. And what if
the brand's owner doesn't capitalize the name? Should you? What if you've used it to start a sentence?)
As with other legal issues, the company may want to have a qualified lawyer work with a copywriter to set standard procedures and work out
Should the document use software formatting (e.g., Word lists), as opposed to hard-formatted text (where the bullets or numbers are
typed characters)? That depends on how you will implement production. It will help your proofreader to know.
What characters to use for punctuation? For example, curly quotation marks. The proofreader
will routinely check to be sure that usage is consistent – that your document doesn't use curly here and straight marks elsewhere. But it
is also important to know where the text will be published. Some electronic media can handle either form. But, depending on various
factors, sometimes "smart" characters won't appear as expected. For example, without special coding, a curly quote
( ) in HTML might appear as “.
Also be aware that some punctuation marks depend on meaning and some abbreviations are specially formatted.
For example, a curly quote is technically incorrect when you mean it to stand for "inches"
or "feet." Measurements call for straight-quote characters in every case. Another example of standard formatting is the abbreviation for "decibel." It's "dB". Why?
the measurement honors Alexander Graham Bell, so the B is capped.
But, to repeat ... above all, make the formatting consistent. As long as words are spelled and used correctly, and your punctuation is consistent,
you don't need to be embarrassed.
There's a saying in the voice-acting business: The actor should make the engineer's job easy. The same is true in proofreading. A professional
proofreader should understand that clients differ and so do their needs. The easier you make it for your proofreader to understand your needs —
your company, your readership, the publishing environment, and so on — the easier it will ultimately be for you.
And the faster and more affordable the essential task of proofreading will be.
Do you have a project, question, or suggestion in mind? Let's put our minds together. Contact me now.