Proofreading and copy editing are not always tasks that come as part of the same project, and it can be beneficial for them not to be undertaken by the same person. In this case, the project required the tasks to be combined, and it was a fascinating challenge that offered some valuable reminders for me about effective approaches to this kind of work.
1) Clarity and brevity
The first job of a proofreader is to approach the author’s work with a fresh pair of eyes and an objective stance. While the copy might make complete sense to the person who wrote it, there can be a tendency for clarity to get lost when a writer is buried deep in the project.
By identifying content that is superfluous, a proofreader can help the author to “trim the fat” off their copy, and enhance its readability significantly. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the reader’s understanding of the copy, or that doesn’t help to deliver the writer’s desired message, should be scrutinised and flagged up to the author.
For many projects, such as a technical manual, brevity is a key consideration, and a focus on lowering word counts where possible will naturally help to add clarity to the work.
2) Agree on a working method
It is vital that an agreement is struck between author and proofreader regarding the manner in which feedback is delivered. It might be that the author is happy for edits to be made directly to the copy, but it might be that annotations are preferred, or simply notes made in a separate document.
The agreed approach should take into account deadlines for returning copy, and the format in which the copy should be returned to the author.
Clear, agreed guidelines on how the proofreading should be carried out will allow the proofreader to work quickly and confidently.
3) Understand the author’s voice
Objectivity is a hugely important trait in a proofreader. Whilst I might have my own opinions about the way a writer should communicate with their audience, I need to put them to one side and focus on allowing the author’s voice to be communicated as clearly as possible, whatever the piece I’m proofreading.
Depending on the nature of the project, it can be beneficial for a proofreader to meet with the author and get a sense of their intentions for the work and the key message and tone they wish to convey to the reader. The more knowledge a proofreader has of their author’s true voice, the more effective they will be able to be in bringing that to light in the text.
4) Be a grammar fiend
It almost goes without saying that grammar and spelling should be paramount in a proofreader’s priorities.
However, it is important to take into account whether the work is targeting an audience in a particular country, and if the piece is written in English whether US or British grammar principles should be applied.
The process of proofreading and editing can serve as a powerful refresher in the rules of grammar, and there is no harm in a proofreader checking and double-checking any areas of doubt they might have. Also, where technical language is used, it can be valuable to refer to other publications for the correct use of terminology.
5) Don’t burn yourself out
That fresh pair of eyes a proofreader brings to a project need to be kept fresh. Long sessions spent reading, annotating, and editing can lead to a decline in the proofreader’s ability to spot errors or inconsistencies.
Taking regular breaks is essential, and it can be valuable to revisit any sections of proofreading from the end of the previous session, to ensure fatigue didn’t affect the quality of the work.