Our proofreading course provides an unrivalled selection of tips and advice, based on our tutors’ decades of experience in proofreading and editing, and of using English grammar.

Our proofreading course tutors have rich and varied backgrounds, and have so much experience to pass on.

The course is ideal for people who want to learn proofreading from scratch, and it starts by making it clear that proofreaders need to know exactly what an error is.

That’s because if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find it!

As far as a proofreader is concerned, an error is anything that contravenes some kind of set plumb line or recognised authority. These include things like:

  1. The style guide – we use the Guardian style guide for our proofreading course
  2. The dictionary – we use Collins for all our proofreading and editing courses
  3. Standard punctuation rules: our students have to make sure they understand the correct usage of each punctuation mark. We use the Blue Book of Grammar on our proofreading courses. However there are plenty of other good resources online.
  4. Standard grammar rules – again, we use the Blue Book of Grammar

So any error you find must stand comparison with a set rule. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably an editing issue. And as we’ll say later in this article, proofreading and editing are very different things!

This means that when you are proofreading, you would never say you changed something because it ‘looks better’. You must always give a reason that comes out of the style guide or grammar book.

Once the proofreader has checked style, spelling, punctuation and grammar, they look for other potential errors. These are things like names of places and people, figures, maths, dates, URLs etc that could be incorrect.

It’s important that URLs work – and go to the right place, especially when you are checking copy that is going to be used on a website.
You need to check every single word, fact and figure – especially words that seem to be correct. This is because the things you learned at school may not be correct for a particular document. Sometimes, a proofreader’s knowledge can be their downfall.

Proofreaders should never assume anything, other than everything is wrong. Never assume things are right.

Proofreaders always check that they have understood everything clearly. The most useful advice is to CHECK EVERY SINGLE WORD. This includes figures, sequences and calculations too. Don’t take anything for granted. Always assume that there is an error in the text and go looking for it.

We encourage our proofreading course students to start developing a system of checking that works for them. We tend to avoid telling them to use a set system, as people work differently.

Some people like to check a document once, and cover everything in one go. Others prefer to go through it two or more times, and look for different things each time. It’s a personal choice.

What sorts of things should you include in your system? You should check:

  • each word/figure/punctuation mark/abbreviation/acronym on its own and against the style guide/dictionary
  • each punctuation mark in context: is it the correct mark?
  • the grammar of each sentence: does it make sense? Are the tenses consistent?
  • the accuracy of names/dates/URLs/figures/maths
  • the formatting of headers etc against the style guide
  • the formatting of lists etc is consistent
  • the list numbering is consistent – a point that our proofreading course repeatedly stresses
  • that the proofreader used the correct symbols inline and in margin
  • the differences between the copy for correction and the marked up copy
  • the differences between the marked up copy and the copy for correction
  • that you or the previous proofreader have not made any errors

Some proofreaders find it helpful to compose questions that they aim to answer while they read. A question such as ‘What do I already know about this topic?’ will allow you to activate any prior knowledge.

Our proofreading course stresses the need for good communication

Proofreaders should make sure they communicate clearly with their clients. You should be prepared to tell them what is wrong – unless, of course, they prefer not to know and are happy to let you work independently.

However if a client needs feedback, you should try to say exactly why something is wrong, and give them a clear suggestion for improvement. Back up everything with a source. Say WHAT the error is, WHY it’s an error, and WHERE you found this out (eg in the Blue Book).

For example, if you say that 7.5 should be 7,5 make sure you give a reason, or where you found this ruling.

Remember too that a client might be rubbish at grammar and may have no idea what a style guide is – your job is to help them. So avoid in-house jargon and proofreading terminology. Our proofreading course has a whole section on translating jargon for a client.

Telling the client to remove question marks and put in lower case letters might be a waste of time for them. Instead, be prepared show them what it should look like. On the point of reasoning, it’s fine to say ‘according to the Blue book’, but it’s better if you can explain why.

Remember that the reason you are proofreading is because the author doesn’t have a clue about grammar or consistency. This is your job. So you are the one who needs to make a decision or at least make a suggestion to the author based on the style guide.

Our proofreading course explains that these are some common problems that proofreaders face:

  1. Dashes: the GSG has a section which explains when they should be used. It says that only en dashes are allowed, and are used to impart drama.
  2. Capital letters: just because something uses the definite article, it does not mean that it takes a capital. If this were the case, it would mean that you would say the Dog, the Tree, the Cat etc. Only proper nouns and some particular departments and institutions take capitals. Have a look under capitals in the style guide.
  3. Implied style: just because there is an implied style, it does not mean that it’s right. Check all implied styles against the GSG and if they contravene it, put in a global query about it explaining why it should not be used and suggest a solution.

Our proofreading course emphases the difference between proofreading and editing. Proofreaders do not copy edit, unless they have been asked to.

So if the sentence is correct grammatically and can be clearly understood, do not change it to something that ‘looks better’ or ‘flows better’. That’s not the proofreader’s job.

However, if you are asked to edit, make sure you provide the client with explanations. Use track changes too, so the author can still see the original (which would be crossed out) as well as your changes.

And explain why you changed things, rather than just highlight what was wrong, as in the lesson example.

Completely rewriting copy removes the reference for the author to see later on, so they either have to check against the original or may just accept your changes without realising that they are changes. This could cause problems in future … they may say: ‘I didn’t realise you’d changed that. You should have told me.’

Be sure to be as specific as you can be and don’t just tell the client that what they have done is wrong – also suggest to them a proper alternative and make this very clear.

There’s a lot involved in proofreading, but it comes with practice. And our proofreading course makes things clear and simple.

See our proofreading courses