Saturday, 31 August 2013

Proofreading – what’s involved?

Perhaps surprisingly, August is one of the noisiest months here in the country! The farmers are working from dawn till dusk (and beyond) to get the harvest in, and for the past weeks, the combine harvesters have been rumbling away constantly in the distance. Like the farmers, I’ve been working most of August – one of the big benefits of being a freelancer is that you can choose to space your holidays out and avoid being off work at the same time as everyone else.

Proofreading – what’s involved?

At this time of year, I routinely receive requests for proofreading from people with dissertations or final theses that need to be submitted by the beginning of the new academic year. I often find myself explaining what my proofreading services involve, and so I thought this might be a good opportunity to summarise what I do when I proofread a text, and share some tips for things to try before hiring a proofreader.
When I proofread, this usually involves three rounds of going through a text.
·      Round One: A first, extremely thorough read on my computer, where I make corrections to grammatical and spelling errors in the text. I also make small amendments to the text to ensure it “flows” better, and insert comments where I think more major intervention is required – for example, if the argument does not make sense, or information is missing (such as references) that I am unable to locate. If requested, I will also adapt references and citation to a particular style. Usually these changes are made using the “Track Changes” function in Word. If I am sent a PDF document, I will highlight passages that need correction and insert the correction as a comment.
·      Round Two: I print out a hard copy of a “clean” version of the text (i.e., one where all my suggestions have been accepted) and read it again on paper. It is always surprising how many more errors I am able to find when I read a text on paper rather than on a screen! I write corrections and comments into the hard copy by hand, and then return to the computer to add them to the original file.

·      Round Three: By now, the text is usually in pretty good shape. I now use computer magic to go through the text again with a spellchecker. This will often pick out a few last typos. Sometimes I will search for particular terms to make sure they are used consistently throughout the text (e.g. “dataset” versus “data set” – the spellchecker won’t pick up something like this). Last of all, I run a search for multiple spaces – these are often hard to see on screen and are often not obvious on paper, either, especially if the text is justified. Once all of this is done, I scan the text one last time just to make sure of everything.

My top 4 tips for DIY proofreading

Some of these steps can be applied to a text before passing it on to a professional proofreader and may in fact reduce the overall cost of your proofreading bill.
·      Number One: Run a spellcheck. It’s so simple it almost sounds stupid. But computer tools like spellcheckers really can be a big help, picking up on a number of mistakes you may not have noticed. They can be especially useful when you’re writing in a language that is not your native tongue. Remember: If your word processing programme is set to a language other than the one you are writing in, you will have to change the settings of your spellchecker.

·      Number Two: Run a search for double spaces. The convention in printed English these days (including on the web) is not to have more than one space after a word or a punctuation mark in a running text (back in the days of typewriters, it was common to leave a double space after a full stop to provide a clear break between sentences). Double spaces tend to sneak in when you copy and paste parts of text. Run a search to help find and eliminate them.

·      Number Three: Print your text out and read it in hard copy. Nothing reveals mistakes like a paper copy of your text. Yes, it means you have to use up extra toner and extra paper. Yes, it’s going to take a bit more of your time. But it really will be worth it.

·      Number Four: Choose whether you are using British or American English…and stick to it! British English and American English are the two main variants of the English language, and as a writer you will probably be asked to use one or the other. If you haven’t been given any specification, you should choose for yourself which variant you prefer to use. Regardless which one you end up with, it is important not to confuse the two. Change the setting on your spellchecker to make sure you pick up on the differences! (You can find a useful list of differences on Wikipedia, and if you want something more thorough, the Economist Style Guide which devotes an entire section to the differences between UK and US.)

Here’s to many successful proofreading endeavours and a good start to the autumn!