I need to get better at proofreading/copyediting.
November 28, 2017 10:53 AM   Subscribe

I am not one of nature's proofreaders. But my job would be a lot easier if I was, as I have to review a lot of long, complicated documents for inconsistencies. Tell me what tools, tips, exercises and style guides I can turn to to help me improve my skills in this area.

Additional details: I do know the trick of printing stuff out instead of reviewing it on a screen, which helps but is insufficient.
Many of the documents inconsistently apply a house style for which no guide exists. We do not have an external standard reference that we use (e.g. Chicago, AP).

If anyone has any tips on how to easily and effectively proof documents in U.K. English in America with an American computer, that would be especially useful.
posted by Diablevert to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I really like Grammarly and have found the Pro subscription valuable for both work and academic stuff.
posted by teststrip at 10:57 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think you need to choose a style guide - if your organization won't do that, choose one to use for your own work. It's really the only way to maintain consistency long term. There are some differences between US and UK usage and punctuation, so you need to use one that's specifically for UK English. I found this listing some possibilities.
posted by FencingGal at 11:15 AM on November 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

Also, if you're in a physical space where it's possible, reading things out loud can help a lot.
posted by FencingGal at 11:16 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Checklist for the main common issues, where you review the document for item 1, then review it for item 2, and so on.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:19 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the best pieces of proofreading advice I've ever gotten: The place you're most likely to miss a typo is immediately after another typo you successfully caught. Your brain subconsciously goes "Welp, that's that sentence/paragraph/page fixed" and forgets to look as closely at the rest of it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:24 AM on November 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Many of the documents inconsistently apply a house style for which no guide exists. We do not have an external standard reference that we use (e.g. Chicago, AP).

It might help to start compiling a style sheet as you work through the documents. When you make editorial judgment calls (especially based on the in-house style) on issues that you think will recur throughout the text, record them in a document. For example, if you decide not to capitalize clauses that follow a colon, put that information in your stylesheet. When it comes up again, you can review your stylesheet to make a consistent call.

Here's one example from Technical Editing.

Eventually, an ad hoc stylesheet like this could become the basis for a small in-house style guide. Often, organizations will have a small in-house guide and default to a comprehensive manual like AP or Chicago on issues that the in-house guide doesn't cover.

All of these measures will ensure consistency and save brainpower for other editorial tasks.
posted by Gymnopedist at 11:25 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you’re really just proofreading (and not editing for flow, etc) I like reading documents out of order — I find that you concentrate less on the content/storyline and more on the words and sentences as such. You still have to read from start to end at least once, but I find this helps.
posted by andrewesque at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hmmm. I do some proofreading for an academic journal (in the humanities, not a technical field, so this may not apply to your situation). Things that make me good at the job include:
- definitely work with hard copies, not screens
- go through each paragraph/medium-size-unit twice: once on a sentence by sentence level (checking grammar, syntax, diction, sense, flow, etc), and once on a line-by-line basis (reading not for sense or meaning, but looking for typographic, style, technical, etc errors or inconsistencies). When I'm doing the first task, I physically follow along on the page lightly with my pen, so that my brain doesn't drift into the habit of automatically or unconsciously filling in blanks, or correcting errors, or rearranging words (it's amazing how often we do this without necessarily realizing it). The physical connection with the pen/page makes sure that I read what is really there, not what should be there. When I'm doing the second task, I physically cover up lines below the one I'm working on, which helps me focus not on bigger units (sentence, clause, word), but on individual characters, and helps to keep my brain focused on technical aspects (kooky punctuation, font things, spacing and layout things, etc) that I would otherwise easily miss.
- When there are parts that I'm unsure about when I'm doing my first pass (where I'm checking for sense and readability/clarity), reading aloud is a great way to affirm when something feels off. Your ear is likely a better guide for grammar/sense/flow than your eyes.

These methods might seem a bit cumbersome/slow at first, but they've made me MUCH faster and (more importantly) more accurate now that they are habit.

But honestly, the lack of an established style guide makes proofing a bit of a crap shoot. There are many things for which there are no hard and fast rules, but which just rely on conventions within and sometimes unique to individual publications/institutions/whatever. If this is a big part of your work, and if consistency within and across documents/publications is important to you/your company, you need to establish and agree upon at least a consistent external style guide, and (even better) take the time to clarify AND DOCUMENT your internal house style. If you're being asked to check for an apply a house style for which the details have not ever been clearly laid out, I think your job is impossible. Proofreading is so much about details.

At the very least, pick an external reference for yourself that is suited to your field, and apply it consistently in the proofing you do for now. More importantly, talk to your boss/coworkers/whoever is appropriate about the necessity of having a house style sheet if they want you to continue doing this kind of work. This is a necessary tool for this job, and they haven't provided it. Offer to put it together yourself (if it's something you're willing to do, and if your compensation situation makes that reasonable for you to take on); it needn't be a huge task, as there will likely be a reasonably limited number of situations/cases/areas unique to your company/institution that another style guide doesn't already cover. Your style sheet then just acts as a supplement to the CMS or whatever guide you're otherwise following.
posted by Dorinda at 11:32 AM on November 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

I also use "find and replace" before I begin working on a document. For instance, since our house style is not to hyphenate after most prefixes (non, re, co), I do a find and replace on the most common prefixes with hyphens. That way, I can make sure I don't miss any. It's also good to check for things that are always wrong, like spaces preceding commas and periods. It's very helpful to make a checklist of things like that to go through before you start editing. Then you won't have to use mental space correcting those when you're actually reading. The more things you can catch by searching, the better.

I always do two reads of each document - once on the computer and then using a hard copy.
posted by FencingGal at 11:38 AM on November 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

I use a mashup of software and pen/paper. The pen/paper is to develop a style sheet and list of queries as I go; the software depends on which format I get the doc in.

The best proofing/editing trick I can offer is to avoid multitasking. Large documents may get a half-dozen passes. First I compare the TOC with how things are laid out. Then I'll go through and look at pagination/headers and footers. Then all titles, heads, subheads and teaser copy. Then again for pullquotes, sidebars, captions and other repeated elements. If the doc is research or data-heavy then I will go through again just to look at tables and charts ... and will look at each again later to compare any text references to the data. Then finally I will read the document.

If I am leaving something out I apologize; I have moved into marketing and content development and I hardly ever get to do this kind of work anymore* but you get the idea.

*I am so jealous of you right now.
posted by headnsouth at 11:42 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the tricky things about proofreading for things like punctuation, grammar and spelling is that it is basically the reverse of reading for meaning. If the heart of reading for meaning is finding the signal in the noise as quickly and efficiently as possible, proofreading is trying to find the places where the noise is loudest and smooth them out. If you're reading for meaning, there's a strong tendency to see what you expect to see, and gloss over errors. Conversely, when I'm really in the zone on proofreading, I often finish a page and realize that although I've read every word closely and found a bunch of errors, I couldn't tell you anything about what the page actually says.

To that end, a lot of the proofreading tricks that I find work for me involve disrupting the tendency to read for meaning. I think Dorinda's tips above are really good, and I'd add one more: when you're reading sentence by sentence (or clause by clause if the writer tends towards verbose sentences) try working backwards: start with the last sentence in each paragraph and then the next to last, and so on.

Also, it's important to recognize that proofreading requires a lot of attention, and is generally really boring, so all the techniques that help with attention apply (find a quiet space without distractions, frequent breaks [consider something like the Pomodoro method], rewarding yourself ["I'll read 5 pages and then eat that candy bar I've been saving"] etc.)
posted by firechicago at 11:45 AM on November 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

Read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.

His language rules = your how-to guide for editing, revising, and proofreading.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 1:37 PM on November 28, 2017

I would like to introduce the ugliest useful font you will ever see. DPCustomMono2 was created for proofreading. It's horrid. It hurts your eyes. But you can instantly spot the difference between 1 and l, between O and 0, between periods and commas. And you aren't tempted to get lost in reading the text because wow is that one ugly font.

One tip to avoid reading and instead focus on the words and punctuation is to start at the end and work backward. There's nothing linear to follow, that way.

The best proofreading reference work I've ever met was the Gregg Reference Manual; the company I worked for that used it, had it extensively flagged with post-its for both "things we use often" and "marked-up pages where our standards are different."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:34 PM on November 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

I don’t do any proofreading, so have nothing to add to the good advice you’ve gotten so far, but at times I’m working with one particular simplified style guide. Here are the main things it touches upon:

1. Decide on AE vs BE; set your spellchecker (it sounds like you need to set it to 'English (United Kingdom)' - it should be available in Word, I have it in Eastern Europe on a computer made for the Turkish market!). Decide on the dictionary you will use to check things you’re not sure about (I work with the OED, their own American English version when that’s what I need, but mostly their normal dictionary).

2. Do find and replace on frequent issues. My style guide indicates the following: double spaces (replace with one space), ‘isa’, ‘ise’, ‘isi’ changed to ‘iza’, ‘ize’, ‘izi’ or the other way round (depending on whether I go from BE to AE or the other way round – but pay attention to words like ‘visit’, ‘raise’ etc. – this has to be done on a case-by-case basis, which is a drag), and a few others – some of them will be specific to your organisation or even to the document in question (so, I might realise that I want to do a find and replace on something a few pages into the document, once it becomes apparent it is a frequently used but misspelled term or spelled differently each time).

3. If your doc has references, decide on their in-text format and their format in the bibliography. For example, my style-guide requires the following in-text format: ‘(Author name, YYYY: pp).

4. My style-guide draws attention to frequent misspellings, such as advice/ advise, practice/ practise, their/ there/ they’re, discrete/ discreet, proscribed/ prescribed, complement/ compliment, etc. You could set up your own list for misspellings or find one online.

5. Pay attention to logical issues; for example, if the author has announced that they will discuss 4 issues, make sure that they do so. Separate pen and paper help you keep track of this kind of thing.

6. Acronyms and abbreviation. Use a separate document to make sure that each of these is explained when they are first used and that they are used consistently. The list can be included in the doc if necessary.

7. Figures, tables, images. Make sure you decide upon a treatment for each of these and apply it consistently. For example, my guide wants captions under figures and images, sources for all images and where applicable for tables and figures as well, and titles above tables.

8. Headings, sub-headings, etc. I don’t need to do anything about formatting (though you might have to), but I need to make sure that titles and sub-titles have the right format, which is Caps at the Beginning of Every Relevant Word in the title, and first word only after a colon or en-dash in the title; subtitles have only the first word capitalised.

9. Punctuation. My style-guide gives me some general rules about punctuation, for example ‘full stop in lower-case or mixed abbreviations’ such as ‘a.m.’, ‘i.e.’, ‘Co.’ (I’ve never actually used these!), but not in upper-case abbreviations. It insists on apostrophe only for possessives (and NOT in plurals, dates, such as ‘the 1970s’, not in possessive pronouns – all frequently used), explains hyphen vs en-dash, and insists on the Oxford (serial) comma. It also discourages the use of semicolons (it actually says ‘the wanton overuse of semicolons’), is also not overly fond of brackets or en-dashes for parentheticals; it’s either commas or reword. Also, decide what you want to do about slashes and if you want spaces around them: is it ‘either/or’, or ‘either/ or’, or ‘either / or’?

10. It mentions several other frequently encountered issues, such as that vs which vs who. I’ve already spoken about they’re vs their, its vs it’s etc. You might be able to add your own.

11. Capitalisation – my style-guide is not too fond of upper-case use; it’s basically names and that’s it. I capitalise after colons.

12. Numbers – it’s letters for one to ten, then digits. Mixed sentences go all digits. Letters at the start of a sentence (so ‘She had 200 flitticks,’ but ‘Two hundred years later, nothing remains.’) Digits are also used for dates, exact times, money, votes, scores, percentages, fractions, ages, before units of measurement, negative numbers – used with an en-dash.

13. Dates – decide on format.

14. Symbols, such as ‘&’ and ‘%’ – do you want them written out in full? This could also end up being a find-and-replace job.

15. Lists – what format do you want for numbered lists? What about bulleted lists?

16. Quotations. How do you mark them? Single quotes? Double quotes? What about punctuation following the quotation? My guide wants punctuation after the closing quotes if the quotation is part of a larger sentence and inside the quotes if it stands as an independent sentence (same thing for brackets, actually). Longer quotations of 40 words or more are set off and indented, with the source underneath the quote and right-aligned. Three dots indicate ellipsis and square brackets indicate changes introduced into the quotation, like ‘[t]his was an upper-case letter but I changed it to lower case to fit it into my sentence’.

17. Footnotes/ endnotes. Which do you want? What’s the format?

A lot of these differ from organisation to organisation. If your organisation doesn’t want a style guide, you could just make a blank check list with the most important issues and take your cue from the document. So, for example, does the document use letters for the numbers one to ten the first time you encounter them? Make a note in the ‘Numbers’ row, and then make sure that all numbers are treated the same way throughout the document. Does it use ‘percent’ instead of ‘%’ at the first occurrence? Do a replace all, except, maybe, for tables and figures. Etc. You can even share a blueprint of a style check list with other colleagues who are in the same boat.
posted by miorita at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm a professional editor, and while I second a lot of this (checklist, find and replace, making your own style guide) my favorite trick isn't mentioned. I do a final pass over all documents with text-to-speech software. I have it set to fast, so fast that if you're not used to listening to it, you won't understand what's being said. It adds a couple hours, but gets me much closer to a clean product, and is absolutely worth it to me.

I worked up to this speed---I started at the fastest level that I could follow along with, and ramped it up as I got acclimated. After a while, you can hear the difference between a comma and a period in the text to speech, and it makes a lot of the things my brain glosses over very obvious.
posted by mishafletch at 5:42 PM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

You don’t mention what area you’re working in, but some style rules are specific to fields. For instance, in general, you spell out numbers one through ten, but that isn’t true for scientific research. Professional associations will be able to tell you which style guides are commonly used in specific fields.
posted by FencingGal at 6:32 PM on November 28, 2017

Read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.

Please don't use this as a style guide.

If there is no consistent style guide - can you just pick one?

Make a checklist. Include spelling & grammar, punctuation and layout, as well as any specific subcategories related to the document, such as page numbers, headings, etc. Check the document separately for each category, i.e. check one category, then go back to the beginning and move onto the next. (There are lots of good proofreading checklists available online to give you an idea.)

Add to your checklists as you go - if you notice an inconsistency note it down so that you can go back and check it later. Do not attempt to fix inconsistencies at the same time as checking other parts of the document, just flag them and move on.

As mentioned above, read very slowly - look at each word individually. Have a dictionary (online is fine) handy to check words that you unsure of.

Take frequent short breaks - you will begin to make mistakes if you stare closely at a document for too long!

And finally, I think it's fine to do some of the work on screen - I usually do the first few passes on screen where I can make quick changes and add notes and highlights, and then print out for the final few passes.

Good luck!
posted by drunkonthemoon at 9:38 AM on November 29, 2017

Hey, completely randomly found this just now - an online Taylor and Francis style guide for authors (very short), but, quite usefully, with a list of tricky words.
posted by miorita at 3:57 PM on November 29, 2017

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