11 Jan 2024

What is proofreading?

Find out what proofreaders do, how they work, the kinds of edits they make, how long proofreading takes and the standards they adhere to.

Proofreading’s place in publishing

In traditional publishing, proofreading is the stage in the workflow that comes after copyediting – once the text is in layout and before publication.

Often the word ‘proofreading’ is used more loosely – to describe almost any editorial intervention and correction to a text.

However, proofreading and copyediting are different tasks and need professionals with specific skills. It’s therefore important that you understand which service the text needs.

  • A proofreader helps to ensure that a text is ready to be published. You can think of it as the final quality check.
  • Because the proofreader works near the end of the publication process, they are usually looking for remaining errors that must be corrected.
  • Unless they’ve been briefed and paid accordingly, the proofreader won’t be rewording sentences, making larger structural interventions such as reordering blocks of text or inserting headings, or fact-checking (though they may raise a query about anything that seems wrong).
Learn how to proofread

Learn how to be a professional proofreader by taking our suite of online training courses, which will equip you with all the skills and knowledge you need for a succesful career.

Understanding house style

Many changes at proofreading stage are made for consistency, either within the document or publication or to comply with a client’s style guide.

Learn how to create a style sheet by reading our handy guide, Your House Style.

What does proofreading involve?

A professional proofreader should find and correct almost all of these in a text:

  • spelling errors (where different spellings are acceptable, the word should be spelled consistently within a document)
  • serious, unarguable errors of punctuation, especially where they allow ambiguity or obscure the meaning
  • inconsistently spelled or hyphenated names
  • bad word breaks that make reading the text difficult
  • incorrect text headings and page headers/footers (checked against the contents list if there is one)
  • incorrect page numbers and cross-references
  • missing text
  • repeated text
  • wrongly placed or incorrect captions and annotations.

How do proofreaders work?


The proofreader marks up a ‘proof’ – which is a copy of the text laid out in its final format. Usually this is a PDF. Most PDF reader programs (such as Adobe Reader) have built-in editing tools, and these are commonly used for proofreading markup.

BSI marks

The British Standards Institution (BSI) publishes proof-correction marks (BS 5261C:2005). Until fairly recently, this was the standard system of proofreading markup in the British publishing industry, with similar systems in use around the world.

Proofreaders are still routinely trained to use the marks because:

  • they’re required by clients
  • they’re sometimes the clearest and most effective way of marking corrections.

Digital PDF stamps

You can use pre-prepared ‘stamps’ to mark up proofreading corrections on a PDF. CIEP members Louise Harnby and Claire Ruben have produced stamps that can be imported into various PDF reader programs.

This allows the proofreader to mark up the PDF using industry-standard BSI proof-correction marks. However, there’s a risk that the stamps move. Plus, not all clients insist on or understand BSI marks.

At the start of a project, the proofreader should check with the client what markup method is preferred.

In Word

Sometimes proofreaders work directly in the layout file, such as in Word with Track Changes switched on.

On hard copy

Less commonly these days, the client may want the corrections marked on a printout (hard copy). Someone else then makes the proofreader’s corrections to the actual layout document.

In other software

Sometimes proofreaders work directly on the layout itself, in software such as InDesign, PowerPoint, a content management system or a web editor.

Who’s responsible?

While a professional proofreader will always aim for the highest standards, any remaining errors are ultimately the responsibility of the publisher.

Will a proofreader make your text perfect?

No professional proofreader should promise to make your text perfect.

No matter how well trained, experienced and diligent they are, they are still human.

Furthermore, perfection is a subjective concept. While some errors are indisputable, others aren’t. At proofreading stage, many changes are made simply for consistency or based on style preferences.

Is there an acceptable rate of errors for proofreading?

Proofreaders should catch most errors because that’s the main purpose of their work. Some people will assert that they should catch a certain percentage of errors, but we don’t believe this is helpful because:

  • some errors are subjective in nature
  • the proofreader will be working within other constraints such as budget and schedule.

We recommend thinking in terms of whether the proofreader has made the text ready for publication – suitable, and of a high enough standard, for the purpose and audience required.

There should be consistency and clarity, and no barriers to the reader understanding the message of the text.

Upholding proofreading standards

 The CIEP is committed to upholding and promoting high editorial standards, which is why all our members formally agree to abide by our Professional Practice Code.

We also have a formal procedure for complaints and appeals on the rare occasion we receive them.


How long does proofreading take?

Complexity factors

How complex, difficult or badly written the draft text is will determine the pace at which a proofreader can work. Unless the material is straightforward, the proofreader will probably need to go through it at least twice – once for headings, numbering and layout, and once for content.

Efficiency factors

A proofreader cannot work for hours at a time and remain efficient. It also takes time to get up to speed, reading or rereading the brief and style guide, so short jobs are proportionately slower.

Estimated speeds

With the caveat that each job is different and must be assessed on its own factors, an experienced professional may proofread around 2,000 to 3,000 words per hour on a typically straightforward text.

If the text needs editing, the work will take longer (and should be done by a copyeditor, not a proofreader).

If the budget or schedule is too tight, the concept of ‘good enough’ may need to be adjusted accordingly and agreed with the client.

In that case, the proofreader will minimise and simplify any changes, to reduce the time needed to take in corrections.


How should I brief a proofreader?

Make sure the proofreader understands your needs, so they can meet your expectations.

You can find guidance in our free booklet Proofreading or editing? A quick guide to using editorial professionals.


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