Copy-editing and proofreading

Ten steps to take now

You've just finished an email, letter, article, booklet, Web site and are short of time. I mean, really short. You have just five minutes, perhaps less, to fix anything that's wrong with the text (it happened to me the day before I wrote this). So how do you go about it?

1. Take the time to read the text again.

I know this sounds obvious. You'd be surprised how many people don't. The operative words are "take the time". i.e. make sure you have no distractions. Go to the cafeteria. Take your text outside. Go for a walk with your text. Sit on a park bench. Anything to make a break from composition to review.

But maybe you can't do that. What do you do then?

2. Don't check the text.

This sounds like contradictory advice. But my point is that if you are going to let errors through, concentrate on the faults that your reader would find most annoying. These are not likely to be a few typos in your message. There are other things more important:

3. Check all the numbers you can.

These are the things that could seriously mislead someone if you make a mistake. Perhaps you have got into the habit of checking, say, ISBN numbers of book references as you enter them. If not, try to go back and check them. Or cut them out. The point is: make a deliberate step of it.

4. Check all proper names.

Obvious, really, but easy to miss. If you make a formal step of this process, it won't take as much psychic energy to do. It's the most embarrassing mistake to explain (or be unable to).

5. Check all addresses.

Bet you're really disgusted by now. The advice is so banal. Sure, but the key is in doing these things separately. Sometimes I even go through the text with a pencil and check off the bits I have cleared, particularly if someone might ask me to prove that something has been checked.

6. If your text has been laid out, check the bottoms of columns.

This is a staple for any editor. It's easy for lines to be dropped or remain hidden. Check that the end of a column of text is continued where it should be.

7. Check the page numbers, and order of pages.

If you have a computer that puts these numbers in automatically, fine. If not, you should do it now.

8. Re-read the headlines.

This requires some effort. You have to slow yourself down and go through each one deliberately.

9. Re-read the captions to any illustrations.

This is a favourite place for mistakes to lurk. Captions and headlines are often written or re-written last and in a hurry. Yet these may be the only things your readers will give any attention to. After all, you can't force them to read your text.

10. Re-read anything to do with you or your organization.

These days computers can make your boiler-plate text easy to insert — or to get wrong. Old addresses, old price lists, mistyped lines have a habit of surviving all attempts to eradicate them.

Does it matter?

One penetrating observation from Debra Hart May in Proofreading plain and simple (1997): "The sad truth about simple proofreading errors is that they always make an impression, and never a good one" (p18).

Here's my list of the things that a proofreader spotted on a text I had to deal with the day before writing this. Please note, they were not my mistakes, and some of these so-called problems were differences in house style (United Nations versus the rest). It was a six-page leaflet.

  1. Organization misplaced in list of sponsoring bodies
  2. Repetitious phrase
  3. Irrelevant reference
  4. Comma after "Since the 1980s" (a house-style question)
  5. Word capitalized in title, not in text (house style)
  6. Word split in dictionary not in text ("front runners" — another house-style issue)
  7. Gross Domestic Product capitalized as here (house style)
  8. Authorial footnote queries still in text
  9. One-tenth with a hyphen (house style)
  10. Long dash instead of short (a quirk of automatic formatting in the layout programme)
  11. U.S. with periods (house style)
  12. States with upper case in "African States" (U.N. style)
  13. Percent missing from list
  14. Typo: government instead of governments.
  15. Hyphenated least-developed countries (house style)
  16. Organization initials before name in parentheses (personal choice)
  17. Wrong contact person listed
  18. 2ND instead of 2nd floor
  19. No space after colon in email address.

In all, around 40-50 changes to make to a text that had already been seen by three people two times. Which of these changes were essential?

The author's queries were obviously not a mistake: they just needed to be deleted and would have been — if the same person was working on the text throughout. Note, though, that often these are the errors that slip through. I once queried an author with an in-text annotation ("Jan: Do we have anything more on this?") and it duly appeared in the magazine.

Number 17 is the big one in the list above: the wrong contact person was listed (in fact the contact person wanted to be taken off the list).

How do you ensure that you have taken care of the essentials without fussing about all those other details? Well, that's what editing is about.

My advice is to note these tasks on a separate sheet or note file as they occur to you before this final stage, then make sure you go through the list.


This is a ragbag collection of thoughts for now.


How much should you explain jargon? I use a common one-volume (desktop) encyclopaedia. If I can't find the word in there, I explain it. Thanks to the free CDs that come with computer magazines, I have the Oxford Reference Shelf, which includes a pocket encyclopaedia, and I regularly use that.

Recommendations and references

Judith Butcher (1992) Copy-editing: The Cambridge handbook, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-40007400-0.

Joyce M. Hawkins (1983) The Oxford Paperback Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-281-381-1. One of my favourites for quick and easy use. Admirably sparse with pronunciation guides, focuses on the words you need. But very British.

Debra Hart May (1997) Proofreading plain and simple, Career Prsss, ISBN 1-56414-291-4.

Julia Swannell (1992) The Oxford Modern English Dictionary, ISBN 0-19-861267-2. My favourite dictionary for everyday. It offers phonetic spellings of words and etymology and is admirably clearly printed, and pretty up-to-date (which it writes "up to date"), technologically discriminating and useful for non-U.K. English (which it writes "UK" — wouldn't you know it?)