Standards in proofreading

This page explains what to expect from a proofreader: what they do, how they work, the kinds of errors they correct, how long proofreading takes, and what standards they adhere to. It also explains how to brief a proofreader, and how to objectively judge the effectiveness of their work.

What does a proofreader do?

In the traditional sense, in the publishing industry, proofreading is the stage in the workflow that comes after copyediting – once the text is in layout, and before publication. But often the word ‘proofreading’ is used more loosely, to describe almost any editorial intervention and correction to a text. However the term is used, and whatever the precise level of intervention, a proofreader should help you ensure your final text is ready to be published. You can think of it as the final polish.

What do proofreaders look for?

Because the proofreader works near the end of the publication process, they are usually looking for small errors, such as typos (mis-keying), errors of spelling and punctuation, bad line breaks and layout issues, problems with fonts or special characters and so on (you can find out more about proofreading, and copyediting, in our FAQs). Unless they have been specifically briefed to do so as extra paid tasks, at proof stage the proofreader will not be rewording sentences, making larger structural interventions such as reordering blocks of text or inserting headings, or fact-checking (unless something looks obviously wrong, in which case they will raise a query).

What do proofreaders check the text against?

Often, proofreaders only read the final text – with nothing else to check against. In this case, they simply have to put themselves in the place of the intended reader and ensure that the document makes complete sense on its own terms. Or, they might be provided with the manuscript against which to check the laid-out text. This is to ensure that all the text has been placed, and in the correct order. The proofreader might also follow a house style, or a style sheet compiled by the copyeditor if there was one.

How do proofreaders work?

Usually the proofreader marks up a ‘proof’ – which is often a PDF (onscreen), or it might be a printout (hard copy). In this case, someone will still need to make the corrections to the actual working document. Sometimes proofreaders work directly in Word, using Track Changes. Occasionally proofreaders work directly on the layout itself, either in software such as InDesign (for print), or in the content management system or web editor (for online publication). In this case, it’s harder to check the changes made by the proofreader, so a degree of trust is required. Once the proofreader’s changes have been made and checked, the text should be ready for publication. While a professional proofreader will always aim for the highest standards, it’s important to note that any remaining errors are ultimately the responsibility of the publisher.

PDF markup

Most PDF reader programs (such as Adobe Reader) have built-in editing tools, and these can be used to provide effective proofreading markup. The program produces a list of comments that can then be checked off by the person making the changes to the document for publication, to ensure none are missed.

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 there are times when they are required (for example for paper markup for publishers), and sometimes they are the clearest and most effective way of marking corrections. It is possible to use a set of pre-prepared ‘stamps’ to mark up proofreading corrections on a PDF. For example, CIEP members Louise Harnby and Claire Ruben have both produced sets of stamps that can be imported into the PDF reader program. This has the advantage of allowing the proofreader to mark up the PDF using industry-standard BSI proof correction marks. However, there is a risk that the stamps might move, and 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.

Will a proofreader make my text perfect?

No professional proofreader should promise to make your text perfect. This is partly because no matter how well trained, experienced and diligent they are, they are still human (and that’s a good thing!). It’s also because perfection is a subjective concept. While some errors are indisputable, others are not.

Is there an acceptable rate of errors for proofreading?

Having said that proofreaders can’t make text perfect, obviously it is important that they catch almost all errors, because that is the main purpose of their work. Some people will assert that proofreaders should catch a certain percentage of errors, but we don’t believe this is helpful – because of the subjective nature of errors, and also because the proofreader will be working within other constraints. Excellent work depends not only on the skill of the proofreader but on the budget and schedule being adequate for the job. Rather than using percentages to express an acceptable (or unacceptable) error rate, it’s better to think in terms of the proofreader making 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.

What is an error?

Some errors are subjective, but many are not. Here is a list of things that are usually considered ‘wrong’. Remember that the proofreader is tasked with ensuring a text is fit for purpose – not with making it unimpeachably perfect. And some errors are more important than others, for example where they relate to accuracy in the context of a technical document. 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 meaning
  • inconsistently spelled or hyphenated names
  • bad word breaks that make reading the text difficult
  • incorrect text headings and running headers (checked against the contents list)
  • incorrect page numbers and cross-references
  • missing text
  • repeated text
  • wrongly placed or incorrect captions and annotations.

How long does proofreading take?

This depends on how complex, difficult or badly written the text is. Unless the material is straightforward, it will probably need at least two passes – one for headings, numbering and layout, and one for content. 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. With the caveat that each job is different and must be assessed on its own factors, an experienced professional can typically proofread and correct around 2,000 to 3,000 words per hour. This rate only applies to the limited tasks traditionally done at proof stage. If the job is in fact a wrongly labelled edit, the work will take longer (and should be done by a copyeditor, not a proofreader). If the budget or schedule turns out to be too tight, the concept of what is ‘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?

To get excellent results from a proofreader, the client must do their bit. A good brief will ensure the proofreader understands your needs, so they can meet your expectations. If you want the proofreader to check that all the text is present in the layout, for example, it’s best to provide the edited manuscript as well as the proofs. If you have particular style preferences, it will help the proofreader if you can provide a house style, or the style sheet for the job that was compiled by the copyeditor (if there was one). And if there were particular problems or idiosyncrasies that arose during the production process, you can advise the proofreader of specific things to watch out for. You can find further guidance in our free booklet Proofreading or Editing: A quick guide to working with editorial professionals (PDF download).

Upholding proofreading standards

The CIEP is committed to upholding and promoting high editorial standards, which is why all of its members formally agree to abide by its Code of Practice. Although we receive few complaints about our members’ work, we have a formal procedure for complaints and appeals.