Tips from professional proofreaders

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From:

12 Responses to Tips from professional proofreaders

  1. Good post, Stan. I’d highly recommend RL Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation for those who need solid but concise advice.

  2. Sound advice, particularly on the reading aloud point. It would cut out a lot of the nonsense about eg relative clauses – lack of vocalising & not knowing when to pause or punctuate is often a problem, I have found.

  3. jecgenovese says:

    Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    “proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party.” How true, how true.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Thanks, Louise, and for the book recommendation. Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style is also helpful and modestly sized.

    Ed, that’s a good point about clause structure. Too many writers get tied up in rules and forget or neglect to trust their own voice.

  5. Timothy Gwyn says:

    I was so glad to see a couple of punctuation guides mentioned in the comments. I’m going shopping now. I cannot resist the urge to mention the wall fan provided for the wearer of ‘the isolator’; it seems unlikely to be effective.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Excellent post, Stan. It is second nature to me now to read aloud to myself, even when the material is quite dry. Hearing the inflections highlight the trouble spots like nothing else could.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    Timothy: The wall fan is a curious prop! Maybe it’s on standby for when he takes the Isolator off and needs an immediate blast of air.

    Thanks, WWW. I’m not surprised you’re such a believer in the value of reading aloud to oneself; it shows in the ease of your prose.

  8. jimtgammill says:

    Great post! I hope you don’t mind if I post a link to your blog on my twitter.
    Keep up the good work!

  9. Genevieve says:

    Awesome post. I’m interested in proofreading professionally but haven’t found all that much advice on the subject. Thanks for this.

  10. […] 18/12/2014 Tips from professional proofreaders by Stan Carey (Sentence first) […]

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