Why use a proofreader?

A partial view of an open book with pages flapping

(8 mins read)

This article explains

A partial view of an open book with pages flapping

Even a proofreader needs a proofreader to check their writing. Just like everyone else, we can’t spot our own mistakes when we write — that’s just how it is. I recently read a self-published book by a good editor and I was surprised to see that it contained so many issues (but I’m fairly sure this blog won’t be perfect because, probably like the editor, I have not made the time to get it proofread!). Grammarly, Hemingway and Word’s Editor are all fairly useful aids, but these still don’t catch everything. So, the thing to remember is that writing perfectly is not easy and you can ask people for help. (If it helps further, remember that whilst talent, authenticity and hard work are important, those who are ‘successful‘ (singers, actors, celebrity cooks, business personalities, great writers etc) have a hidden team of people whose job is to make them successful).

The value of using a proofreader

A proofreader can save you in terms of costs to your credibility and financially. A proofreader can also help you avoid confusing your audience.

  • Mistakes in our writing cost us credibility. The cost might be slight and not matter overall, but if we are aiming to cultivate an image (let’s say as a spotless professional, an expert, a unique novelist, a thought leader etc) mistakes can be detrimental.
  • Money (and time as money). Any type of trade is fundamentally about trust and we base much of our trust on image and communication. Therefore, using language and formats well to present ourselves can matter financially. If our copy contains errors, it will be harder for readers to be convinced by our products and services. For example, if you happen to be thinking about selling your home and you receive two flyers from two different Estate Agents, would you consider calling the agency that uses poor punctuation, inaccurate graphics and the wrong captions against images? Or would you consider calling the agency that uses perfect punctuation, accurate graphics, and correct images with captions?
  • Mistakes and inconsistencies that go unchecked can mean readers become distracted or confused, pulling them out of the story we’re telling, reducing the impact of the key message we want to drive home, or preventing them from making that already-elusive Call To Action (CTA). For example, there is no way any child will let you get away with telling a story with even small discrepancies. Imagine that you are reading the story of Little Red Riding Hood to a child and you describe Red Riding Hood as, “…carrying soup and bread for poor Grandma who was poorly…”, but the illustration shows cakes and buns. Cakes and buns? No child will fail to notice this big, silly mistake! And instead of being engrossed by the rest of the story, they will probably look out for more anomalies instead. Now imagine mistakes in a financial report …

Even those who find writing natural and easy can have their wordy art pieces thrown off from all the interventions they may end up making — adding things here and deleting things there. Formatting can unleash other sorts of problems too. A misplaced decimal point or an upside down photo.

In short, a proofreader can help clean things up and save you from avoidable mistakes.

What can you expect from a proofreader?

The proofreader’s ultimate aim is to help the client achieve clarity in their writing. A trained proofreader will avoid making too many changes, will suggest simple changes where it is needed, and will keep your voice intact. They will:

  • Correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, use of hyphens and dashes, use of words whilst ensuring the meaning and voice remains intact.
  • Ensure a consistent style and format. (A proofreader may also offer an additional service of creating a style guide or house style for you. This is really useful if you run a business and/or publish frequently.)
  • Check for overall clarity (and that it will make sense to your readers).
  • Raise issues (common lexicon is ‘query’) about less clear cut matters that need attention.
  • Cross-check references within the piece of work to ensure it makes sense eg footnote 4 does refer to the correct source and not some other random thing that got pasted in.
  • Check that numbers, photos, figures, tables, graphs, equations, quantities all match up within the context of the piece. For example, a London number begins with 020 not 0161 or Tesco shares peaked in March (as shown on graph) and not May (as mistakenly appears in the summary).
  • Not check the accuracy of facts but may mention glaring problems and inconsistencies.

If the text contains a lot of issues, it is usually best for the author to redraft and get it proofread again.

Anything beyond this list is usually the work of editors (proof-editors, copy-editors, line editors, development editors etc). The definitions can overlap and roles are fluid. If you are looking for someone to write for you, look for a ghost writer (books), content writer (mostly online content), or copywriter (sales).

Just a small caveat: proofreaders can miss things too, but a professional proofreader will have a lot of training, experience and resources to help prevent things from slipping through the cracks.

Find a proofreader and what to look out for

  1. The handiest and cheapest thing to do is to ask a friend or family member to look at your writing. A fresh pair of eyes is better than nothing. However, if you do want that professional oversight, do an online search, preferably for people who have both training and experience.
  2. Web search: many proofreaders have websites, are on socials like LinkedIn, or appear on freelance platforms, like Upwork, where you can check their testimonials. Work history on these platforms may look empty because freelancers prefer to work off the platform to earn a better fee (platforms take a hefty cut from the quoted fee).
  3. Often, you can request a sample to be proofread (about 500 words is reasonable) to make sure they are the right fit for you and your business. Some proofreaders will charge a small fee for this.
  4. Many proofreaders advertising their services are people doing it on the side, like English teachers, academics, or retired specialists. This can work well for both parties and these proofreaders can charge lower rates than professionals.
  5. Look out for mentions of training, as that’s a good sign. And if they mention that they belong to an editing body, that’s even better as it means they have signed up to a professional code (and you can contact that body to seek redress if there are any major problems). People affiliated with a body are also likely to be engaged in continuous training and learning. For example, as a member of the CIEP, I have access to a lot of information and learning materials such as advice on tackling gendered language, guidance about Plain English, knowledge exchanges with peers and access to discussions on very niche things (like dealing with complications in using different calendar systems alongside each other in a piece of text- the issue was very confusing but fascinating!).
  6. There are proofreaders who specialise in certain areas, eg science journals, dual languages, legal academic texts, exam papers etc. If you want a proofreader (or editor) with a specialism, the CIEP runs a directory (which is updated regularly) and lists experienced members. Clients can apply a filter to search only for those with the specialism they are looking for. Check: http://www.ciep.uk/directory/directory-search.

To sum up

  • Errors and inconsistencies in your publications (online and hard copy) impact your image, reduce trust and engagement, distract from your story/key messages, and reduce the likelihood of customers following the CTA.
  • A proofreader’s job is to make your writing clear and as error free as possible, therefore, helping you to achieve the result that you want.
  • Find a proofreader by doing a web search, check on freelance platforms, or if you need a specialist, use the CIEP directory.
  • Look for people who have trained and have testimonials or ask for references.
  • Ensure a good fit by sending a sample.

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