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Qualities of a professional proofreader

I know, I know it’s been a while. Apologies, I’ve been very busy. I haven’t forgotten you all. Here’s a little post to keep you going. Enjoy!

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Qualities of a good proofreader

OK, it’s a given that a good proofreader must have an excellent command of the English language, but what else does she require? (For the purposes of this post, let’s call the proofreader ‘she’ !)

– Her attention to detail must be exemplary.  Naturally she has to be able to spot that a colon should be used and not a semicolon, but if a glaring mistake escapes her, such as transposing two words, which do you think the reader is going to notice first? e.g. ‘Jimmy went to school 1993 in.’

– She is hawk-eyed, so notices things which slip through spell check like ‘gain’ for ‘again’, ‘whist’ for ‘whilst’, which are valid words in their own right, just not in your context.

– She exercises restraint and doesn’t overly intervene. She doesn’t change what’s correct, simply because it’s the way she would do something herself:

Hyphenation – nowadays there are often several ways to spell a word which in the past was generally hyphenated. Sometimes it can be two words or hyphenated, or one word or hyphenated, e.g. ‘on-line’ and ‘online’, ‘e-mail’ and ‘email’.

Whether it’s hyphenated or not can also depend on the word’s function in the sentence, e.g. lunch-time and lunchtime.

Then there’s the scenario where it’s simply one word or two, requiring no hyphen – dinner time or dinnertime.

If the proofreader doesn’t have a style guide from the author/publisher to work from, then she ought to check first of all if the author’s spelling of that word throughout the text is consistent, and secondly she should consider the author’s attitude to hyphenation as a whole throughout the work.

Punctuation – she doesn’t liberally pepper your work with commas, or other punctuation marks. Instead she amends them only when it’s necessary for the text to make sense.

– She remains true to the author’s style. If it’s a chatty, informal journal-type book, the proofreader doesn’t necessarily amend prepositions placed at the end of sentences, just to make the text grammatically correct, as this could make it stylistically wrong. Likewise if the novel is written in the first person, where the author’s voice should be heard in a particular dialect, the proofreader shouldn’t necessarily change words like ‘never’ to ‘did not’.

– Great communication skills are a prerequisite. If in doubt, she should query the item in question with the author, but never guess, as this could change the author’s meaning.

– She must have the ability to spot words used in the wrong context, such as ‘clamoured’ and ‘clambered’, ‘poured’ and ‘pored’, ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, ‘all together’ and ‘altogether’.

– Humility must play a part. No one knows everything. The best proofreaders have a good dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary or similar) and an equally good grammar reference book to hand, e.g. the proofreaders’ bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, and they’re not afraid to use them!

– She enjoys her work and derives satisfaction from identifying mistakes. Often she will spot errors in newspapers, TV subtitles, supermarket billboards and restaurant menus. It’s very difficult to switch off, you know!

– Oodles of patience is a must. Proofreading is a painstaking business, as we pore over every word written.  There’s no racing ahead to find out what happens next, no skipping the dull bits(!), we examine every single word – twice, as most proofreaders read through the entire text at least twice.

– The best proofreaders will take their time. Although it takes a little longer, printing off your work, marking up the errors, and then transferring the changes to their computer means more errors are captured. Reading through your work only online means mistakes can be missed. As an author, I know the value of printing off my novel and reading it through on paper. Errors seem to jump off the page!

This is not an exhaustive list, but instead should give you a flavour of the qualities a professional proofreader should possess. We have many more attributes: juggling, fire-eating – kidding!

However, bear in mind a proofreader is there to check your final version, (not your first or second draft) and you as an author will benefit most if you realise this. If you require assistance before your final draft, it’s an editor you need, not a proofreader.







  1. rjwhittaker says:

    Particularly liked the final paragraph. Fifteen edits after I finish writing a book and I am usually still nowhere near finished. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Temi says:

    This will go a long way in helping me even as a freelance proofreader.

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