How do I know if I need a proofreader? What will a proofreader do for me?

Before asking anyone to check your text – which I am assuming is a commercial document of some kind rather than a work of fiction – it’s a good idea to step back a moment to be sure that you’re following the best course. So here is a checklist of things to consider when deciding if, or how, to proceed with getting your document proofread/edited.

 

What can I expect a professional proofreader to do for my document?
What can I not expect a proofreader to do?
Should I consider asking a colleague to do the proofreading?
Will the contents of my document remain confidential?


How important is it for this document to be error-free?
Who are the anticipated readers of my document?
How well do I express myself in the language I am writing in?


How should I plan the work?
My document is so long that I don’t think there is enough time to get it all written and/or proofread before my deadline. What can I do?


I’ve taken everything into account, and I’m sure this text needs to be proofread. What next?
What file format should I send my documents in?
What other technical issues might be relevant?
What will it cost?


How soon can I expect to get my document back after I send it off for proofreading?
What if the proofreader can’t make sense of my text?

 


 

What can I expect a professional proofreader to do for my document?

On this website I use the term ‘proofreading’ fairly loosely. Rather than sending back a printout covered with specialized proofreader’s marks for a typesetter to follow (which published authors often still have to do), I offer a service which completely dispenses with this kind of proofreading. Of course, like a traditional proofreader I aim to identify basic errors of spelling and grammar, but otherwise my process has little in common with the traditional proofreader’s task.

I will go through your document, correcting the errors I encounter, and where necessary I will rewrite sentences in order to ensure that their meaning is clear, unambiguous and elegantly phrased. In other words, my input will have the further benefit of bringing about a general stylistic improvement. At the same time I will make a separate note of any queries that arise.

After my first pass through the document, I will read through it again to resolve any errors, inconsistencies or other problems that were unresolved or unclear the first time around. Anything I cannot fix at this stage will be referred back to you for clarification. Wherever the original contains an ambiguous sentence, I will usually supply the wording for any alternative interpretation in a comment, letting you decide which meaning fits the context best. This approach will almost always eliminate the need for an exchange of queries and responses. It will save us both time, and you will have the final result sooner. (See What if the proofreader can’t make sense of my text?)

Before I begin, if the document is in Word format I will switch on ‘Track changes’ so that you can easily see what amendments I have made. You can then review and approve them individually if you wish to do so.

I will also set the correct variant of English for the location of your target readership if I have this information. This helps to ensure that the spelling will be in accord with your readers’ expectations.

In essence, my function combines the tasks of proofreader and content editor, with my primary focus being on the linguistic content of the text and its clarity of meaning.

Unless it has previously been agreed otherwise, I will leave the layout or overall formatting of the document unmodified.

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What can I not expect a proofreader to do?

Even when a proofreader is generally familiar with the subject matter, it is ultimately up to the client – the author of the document – to make sure it is properly drafted, and that its factual content is correct. However, I am frequently able to spot and correct inconsistencies, omissions and ambiguities. If there are any that I cannot resolve, I will insert comments describing the problem(s) in the proofread document. (See What if the proofreader can’t make sense of my text?)

Unless otherwise agreed beforehand, I will apply only basic formatting to the text – just whatever is needed to ensure that it reads without ambiguity, such as italicizing the title of a journal or making the capitalization of headings consistent.

In my experience, text that has been machine-translated is usually in too crude a state to be proofread without substantial post-editing by a human translator to remove obvious mistranslations and other errors. For me to clean up such a text, the time required (and hence the cost) will typically be about four times that for amending a text that a human being has written.

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Should I consider asking a colleague to do the proofreading?

Until fairly recently, many people were lucky enough to have a professionally trained secretary available to help them produce respectable documents. If you are among the fortunate few who still have one, this will be a likely route for you to follow.

Getting a colleague to check your document could be a sensible choice in some other situations. In the best possible scenario, your colleague will:

- Be familiar with the subject matter;
- Have a good reputation for the quality of their written output, and you will have confidence in their abilities with the language that you are writing your document in;
- Have nothing else more urgent or important to distract them, and will not mind helping you out;
- Have enough time available to finish the corrections for your approval before the document deadline;
- Be able to cope with the demands of your document in terms of its length and the extent of the corrections needed;
- Be easy to confer with and keep track of, usually because you share the same workplace.

However, you should still consider whether your colleague’s time would be better spent doing something more productive. For instance, it doesn't make much sense for a person to be paid $80 an hour for what would cost $40 an hour to outsource to a professional who would both do the job well and give it their undivided attention. This is especially so if your colleague's output in the job they were originally hired to do is actually worth $170 an hour to the organization that employs them.

In other words, the opportunity cost needs to be considered. In this example, the true cost of having an otherwise busy colleague do the proofreading is at least $130 an hour, or even more if they do the task poorly. In sum, how does the ‘colleague solution’ fit in with your organization’s overall priorities for its use of resources?

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Will my document remain confidential?

I will not pass on your documents to any other party, including other individuals in your organization, unless you specifically request this in writing (e.g. if you ask me to email them to a graphic design company). I am happy to sign a confidentiality agreement if required.

If confidentiality is especially important to you, I recommend that you password- protect your document (making sure to send me the password in an email separate to the one containing your document), and/or send it in an encrypted email. If required, I will delete both versions of the document (your original plus the proofread version) from my hard drive 30 days after sending it back to you.

If you send me an enquiry containing a document or sample that does not result in my taking on the job, I will delete your text as soon as it is clear that I will not be proceeding with it.

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How important is it for this document to be error-free?

Documents that will be read outside your organization are likely to be the main candidates for professional proofreading, especially if their quality is likely to affect either an existing business relationship or the image of your organization with a readership that matters to you. Typical examples might be marketing and promotional material (including website pages), press releases, tenders for contracts, and consultancy reports. Material that is intended for journal or book publication will generally be copy edited by someone employed by the publisher before it appears in print, but this will only happen after acceptance of the manuscript. If the submission is too poorly written, it will probably be rejected altogether by the publisher.

Clearly, the higher the potential penalty (financial or otherwise) for submitting a mediocre document, the stronger the case is for it to be professionally proofread.

Even internal company documentation can be important enough to justify being proofread, especially if it will frequently be referred to by many people (e.g. a company policy or other key document, including documents that will be posted on an intranet).

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Who are the anticipated readers of my document?

Experienced or senior-ranking readers are liable to be the most critical of both the content and the presentation of your material. Non-native speakers or readers of the language in which your documentation is written will tend to be somewhat less critical, as will many teenagers and young adults, being more accustomed to communicating in an informal style. But that is not the same as saying that you can take these readerships for granted: while an informal style may be acceptable to your readership, it may still be less effective in getting your message across.

It is helpful if you are able to let me know where your intended audience is located: for instance, whether you are addressing readers in the USA, Asia, a multilateral organization, or an institution based in Great Britain or another European country. This is because in addition to some spelling differences, certain words or expressions that are common in the USA are not well known in Great Britain, or vice versa (or they may mean something different in each case).

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How well do I express myself in the language I am writing in?

Be realistic about your writing abilities. Unless you are exceptionally gifted, if you are not writing in your own language your command is unlikely to match that of an educated native speaker, even if you have been living where that language is spoken for a number of years.

Also, the longer and the more complex your document is, the more effort you will have to put into ensuring that your use of English is correct. Apart from the likelihood that the result will still be unexceptional and may therefore still not impress your intended readership, the effort required will be a distraction from the main task of thinking about and putting together the content of your document.

Of course, you should still take advantage of all the tools you have available to eliminate the most basic errors, such as your word processing program’s built-in spelling checker, and possibly its grammar checker.

Here is an example of a well-known public figure grossly overestimating her ability to be comprehensible.

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How should I plan the work?

Ideally, you should aim to achieve the following:

- Agree the proofreading arrangements at an early stage.

- Make sure all parties involved are aware of the relevant deadlines. This will include any colleagues or other parties whose input will be needed in drafting or manipulating your text at a later stage.

- Avoid embedding text in graphic images until after the proofreading stage is complete, because otherwise it can be difficult or impossible for a proofreader to edit. Avoiding this problem will speed up the proofreading process and keep down the cost. Captions should therefore be submitted as normal text, and inserted in your graphics only after they have been proofread. (See What other technical issues might be relevant?)

The following section discusses the first two issues in more detail.

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My document is so long that I don’t think there is enough time to get it all written and/or proofread before my deadline. What can I do?

Inevitably, sometimes there is just not enough time for a document to undergo all the usual production stages in their entirety before a looming deadline. Clearly, this can create problems with the effective management of the project in question.

Advance planning is particularly important for avoiding this situation, and so is efficient communication concerning the issues raised by the apparent time shortage with everybody who will be involved in the document production cycle down the line. Otherwise, control of the situation may be lost, with the risk that a critical deadline is missed. One or more of several possible resolutions are possible – many of these are also applicable when formatting or desktop publishing the document, or posting it on a website:

- Make an advance booking with any specialized units or individuals whose input will be required in due course (e.g. translators, proofreaders, printers, DTP departments and graphic design studios). Secure their agreement concerning any schedule revisions as soon as realistically possible.

- Send the document for proofreading in individual chapters or sections instead of submitting the whole document in one go. This enables the earlier parts of it to be proofread while the later ones are still being written.

At your end, you may consider one or more of the following:

- Shortening the document, possibly by covering peripheral topics less extensively or more superficially.

- Splitting the writing of the text among several individuals who will each take charge of their own section(s). (If this approach is followed, it is advisable for any technical terms that will be used to be decided on in advance, with a designated senior individual having ultimate responsibility for the selection of the terminology. This helps to ensure consistency.)

- Negotiating an extension of the original submission deadline with whoever needs your document. For instance, a Friday deadline might be extended to a Monday, thereby adding two days to your production cycle (though this can be at extra financial cost if overtime payments have to be made as a result). Deadlines are sometimes more flexible than they appear at first, depending on what underlying factors are driving them.

- Agreeing separate, later deadlines for less important parts of the document (e.g. appendices, drawings, lists of references or terms of trade).

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I’ve taken everything into account, and I’m sure this text needs to be proofread – what next?

You can either:

• Call me on

• Send me an email at – preferably with the document itself attached, or else a representative sample. If the document is not yet ready, please give an estimate of the total number of words or pages. Also specify the date by which you require your document(s) returned.

I will then review your document and inform you as quickly as possible about the approximate cost and the estimated date of completion/return (which may be earlier than you specify).

Please also see the Pricing page.

• Or, if you prefer, you can use the web-based enquiry form on the Contact page.

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What file format should I send my documents in?

Word-processed documents that are exchanged between businesses tend to be in Microsoft Word format. I normally use Word in the course of my proofreading work, although I can also work with HTML and Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files.

If you are not using a standard WP (word processing) program, I would appreciate your first sending me a sample document saved in that program’s native format.

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What other technical issues might be relevant?

Transmitting large documents electronically

If your document is too large to email, I suggest using a third-party file transfer service. Alternatively, I can retrieve it using FTP.

Graphics and graphics captions

Please bear in mind that the editing capabilities of word processing programs for figures like pictures or graph captions, including Word, are usually cumbersome and laborious to use; often such images are impossible to edit at all. (Tables, on the other hand, are usually OK.)

If you anticipate that you will be embedding figure captions in the final version of your document, I recommend that you first have them proofread as normal text, and afterwards incorporate them in the figures at your end.

Though you might not consider this to be an important issue, it could become one if it the additional time taken to process such graphics elements starts squeezing your deadlines. It will also increase the proofreading cost. Basically, having to redo graphics captions is slow and expensive.

Hard-copy text

If your text exists only in the form of hard copy, you will first need to have it scanned in and converted from image to text using an optical character recognition (OCR) program so that it can be sent as a normal WP file. Be prepared for the additional time and cost of doing this, as the OCR process tends to generate character translation errors which will need to be corrected either by you or by your proofreader.

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What will it cost?

Please see the pricing information here.

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How soon can I expect to get my document back after I send it off for proofreading?

This largely depends on the extent of the changes required. A document needing a lot of amendments is likely to need a full working day for the correction of 35-40 regular pages (i.e. about 8-10,000 words), plus a few additional hours for a final double-check of the document as a whole.

The most fruitful approach you can take to enabling the final version of the document to reach the required standard builds flexibility into the process. This involves planning ahead so that as many deadlines as possible – including interim internal deadlines – can be met without the haste, stress and potential for miscalculation that is liable to arise if each stage is left until the last possible moment.

Advance planning will also make it less likely that a preferred and trusted proofreader is unavailable when the proofreading stage arrives. With lengthy texts, it is usually also a good idea to arrange for sections that you know will not need further changes to be submitted for proofreading as soon as they are finalized. This gives the proofreader extra flexibility by enabling him to deal with them immediately, especially if the time available for finalizing the last part(s) of your document is short, or if the proofreader has limited time slots available.

Of course, nowadays email makes the electronic submission and return of documents almost instantaneous, barring technical problems.

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What if the proofreader can’t make sense of my text?

I always make notes concerning any apparent problems with the content or meaning of the document as I go along, and will usually insert them as separate comments. There can be a variety of such queries, ranging from missing dates and references, inconsistent percentages cited in different parts of the document, sentences without verbs whose basic meaning is unclear, unexplained abbreviations, and repeated occurrences of similar paragraphs. The appropriate solutions often become apparent from the overall context of the document; but if not, my queries will be submitted to you either while work is still underway (if I need your help to resolve them straightaway) or when I send you the document with completed corrections. Sometimes I will be able to provide two or more possible alternative wordings for you to choose from, thereby avoiding your having to send the text back to me for final corrections.

In addition to making use of obvious resources such as dictionaries, I also use the information that is readily available on the World Wide Web to resolve independently as many queries as possible (such as those involving unfamiliar acronyms or terminology) instead of passing them back to my clients to resolve for me. This is generally more efficient all round and saves everybody’s time.

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