Proofreading: How I Do It

Most job requests I receive are for proofreading, but after talking to the client and learning more about the manuscript, I come to find out that the client is really looking for a copyeditor. So, I have put together this post to help clarify what proofreading is all about and when proofreading should be done, as it is a necessary step to publishing a quality book. (Click here to read how I developmentally edit a manuscript, and click here to read how I copyedit.)

What is proofreading?

Proofreading is often confused with copyediting. But these are very different types of editing, and they serve distinct purposes in the editorial process.

Proofreading is typically the last chance for errors to be caught in a book before publication. During a proofread, the proofreader works to catch errors that slipped through the copyediting stage and any errors that occurred during the typesetting or formatting stages.

If you read Copyediting: How I Do It, you’ll see that a copyeditor is looking for lots of things in the book (plot inconsistencies, character details and descriptions, etc.), and it’s very likely that the copyeditor was not able to catch every error in the book. In comes the proofreader, whose sole job is to catch any remaining errors.

proofreading quoteA proofreader will correct misspellings, typos, subject-verb disagreement, usage errors, misnumbering, punctuation errors, and incorrect or outdated cross-references. In print books, a proofreader will also point out design or layout issues the typesetter needs to address. Usually, the most common types of errors a proofreader will find are misused homophones, missing words, and extra words.

As someone who has worked for publishers throughout all stages of the editorial production process, I know what kinds of errors can make their way to the final stages of publication. It’s important that the freelance proofreader you hire has publishing experience and exceptional knowledge of the style manual and dictionary your book was edited to follow (usually The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).

When does proofreading take place?

In book publishing, proofreading takes place after copyediting. For print books, proofreading typically takes place after the typesetter (or compositor) has laid out the manuscript.

Your manuscript is not ready for proofreading if…

  • it has not been copyedited, and
  • there are still things about your story that you want to change.

It’s important for proofreading to take place after copyediting and after all major revisions and edits have been made so that proofreading can serve its true purpose. Editors will highly advise that major changes not be made after the manuscript has been proofed. Last-minute changes, no matter how big or how small, often result in embarrassing mistakes in the final publication, so it’s important that any changes after proofreading be discussed with your editor and handled carefully.

Can you tell me about your proofreading process?

My proofreading process depends on what format the manuscript is in (usually PDF, Word document, or e-book), but the tools required for proofreading are pretty standard: I will request a copy of the copyeditor’s style sheet and, if applicable, a copy of the copyedited manuscript or the version that was sent to the designer for layout. These documents will help ensure consistency and prevent me from changing something the author has specifically requested to stay as is (e.g., a spelling that differs from the style manual or dictionary).

Regardless of the type of file, I always double-check the corrections I have found before sending them back to the client. I do this to make sure the corrections are clearly noted, and I also double-check the surrounding sentences; sometimes a sentence that contains an error has another one lurking close by.

Proofreading a print layout (PDF or hard copy)

Most proofreading jobs I do are already typeset and are sent to me as PDFs, or galley proofs. The pages resemble what the actual book will look like when it is printed. Depending on the client’s instructions, I will record corrections in a separate Word document or directly on the PDF, using Adobe Acrobat Pro’s markup features or proofreading stamps.

Often the client requests that I check for layout and design issues in additional to standard proofreading corrections. For example, I may be required to check the consistency of the design, margins, running headers and footers, the order of page numbers, awkward word breaks, widows and orphans, rivers and stacks, loose or tight text, and so on. If the book has illustrations or tables, I proof them against the originals and ensure their consistency in the text.

Proofreading a Word document

Manuscripts are proofed in Microsoft Word when the book is going to be published as an e-book only (no print edition) or if the publisher has specifically requested the book be proofed before it is typeset. Proofreading the manuscript before it is formatted for e-book distribution is ideal, since it’s typically easier to make the corrections in Word before the file is formatted.

Proofreading an e-book

When proofreading an e-book, I ensure all content is present, verify internal and external links, and check for formatting problems that are common as a result of the file conversion process.

I default to the client’s requested method for proofreading the e-book file. Some clients want me to review the file on particular e-reading devices, others are fine with me using a desktop application, such as Kindle for Mac or Adobe Digital Editions, and some clients request every available format to be proofed to ensure the text displays correctly on each.

What happens after the manuscript is proofed?

After the proofread is complete, the proofreader’s corrections are sent to the project manager, typesetter, or author. Depending on the publisher’s process, the author may have the chance to review and approve the proofreading corrections—usually if there are any substantial changes that might require some rewriting. The project manager or typesetter will insert the corrections into the layout.

If the proofreader found a high volume of errors, additional rounds of proofreading (preferably by different proofreaders) are recommended. After the corrections are entered, they need to be verified, which means someone, usually the project manager or proofreader, needs to ensure the corrections were inserted correctly. Once the corrections have been entered and verified, the file is prepared for printing.


Are you looking for an experienced freelance proofreader? I’d be happy to help you with your fiction or nonfiction manuscript. Contact me to talk about your project.

{image via Mathieu Nicolet}

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