What a Proofread does and does not do

This post is the third in a series about different editorial services. Click for Developmental/Content editing and copyediting. Coming months will cover the manuscript critique and creating an outline.

closeup of medieval handwritten manuscript

CC image “Manuscript” courtesy of liz west on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

People assign characteristics to a proofread that actually belong to an edit. The two are not the same animal. Be aware of this, so you know what you are contracting (and paying) for, and so you are not disappointed with what you get.

Proofreading deals only with presentation. I cannot stress this enough. A proofread is not an edit and has almost nothing in common with an edit (though an edit may tangentially look at spelling).

The easiest way to distinguish proofreading from editing of any kind is that one of them deals with content, and the other does not.

What a proofread does

Proofreading does not care about content. It cares about looks. Think about your favorite snooty, picky Olympic judges—gymnastics, ice skating, diving, aerials. Their main job is finding places to deduct points. How did the athlete mess up? That’s proofreading.

Proofreading wants to know what is wrong here (factually speaking). It’s all about accuracy. When we proofread work, we check the following:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Formatting snafus—e.g., widow or orphan lines or phrases
  • Text that has been converted to a different file format with all formatting intact

That’s it.

You’ll notice this is a short list. That’s right: if you want to know whether your book is “good,” don’t ask the proofread, because it won’t tell you.

Weird things can happen when we move between applications and programs. You’ve probably had your share of formatting issues (Word is a great sinner in this respect). Checking this is proofreading.

Proofreading is the last step in the review process before the work goes to print or is digitally published. The proofreader doesn’t need to check with the author about any changes, because they are factual. An edit, on the other hand, always considers the author’s input.

What a proofread does NOT do

Proofreading cares about errors. It does not care if you are Emily Dickinson or Leo Tolstoy.

Proofreading does not deal with your content, whether it’s logically organized, cohesive, or interesting to read. Proofreading cares not whether the work is repetitious or filled with jargon and inconsistencies. Proofreading has no interest in whether you’ve produced the world’s most beautiful representation of written language.


Are you ready for a proofread?

When you have a manuscript that is complete, you are ready to consider a proofread. By complete I mean that all of your content is included in the document (including the Table of Contents, any References, and any images or graphics).

When you have a manuscript you want to print, that’s how complete it is, you are ready for a proofread.

If you are still playing with narrative structure, or if your manuscript is incomplete, you are not ready. If you are still considering the best way to phrase certain paragraphs or sentences, you are not ready. If you are waiting to hear back from beta readers, you are not ready.

If you think you still want to include photographs… you got it. You are not ready.

This page on the differences between copyediting and proofreading may be helpful for you to decide whether what you want is proofreading or not.

What happens during a proofread

Markup. Your proofreader will provide you with a marked-up Word or PDF file indicating changes that need to be made, as applicable. (If your situation calls for markup on paper, you might be working in a more traditional publishing arrangement.) You pass this on to your designer or publisher, as appropriate.

The bottom line

Editing cares about content. Proofreading cares about accuracy. The two are different, and this is also why one will cost you more than the other. However, neither one will replace the other.

Proofreading is the final step before you publish, and is absolutely crucial to your work. A book that looks like a mess, and is filled with typos and formatting problems, immediately destroys the author’s credibility as well as reader interest. No edit can replace a final proofread.

Make sure your manuscript looks as good as it is. Have it proofread.

Thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions, and blarney (bonus points for wit):