Word Mean Things: Proofreading

Word Mean Things: Proofreading

You knew this was going to come up sooner or later. This is a term I see tossed around all the time, by people who should probably know better. As a professional editor and proofreader myself, it really ticks me off when people use the term proofreading as a catch-all for editing.

A Common Mistake

We’ve all been guilty of it at some point, really. I mean, there was definitely a time when I didn’t know any better. I’d say to my friends, “Oh, hey, can you just give this paper a quick proofread for me?”

It makes sense. We don’t really want an “edit”—which we think is a heavy-duty, rip-this-to-shreds endeavor. But when you let your friend look at your document in iCloud or glance over your email before you hit send, you’re not proofreading.

A paper showing heavy editing.


You’re copy editing.

A Fine Distinction

See, here’s the thing: There’s a bunch of different levels of editing. When we think of editing, the first thing that jumps to mind is usually substantive or structural editing. This is your big, heavy-duty edit, the one where you may not see your original text under the sea of red that shows the editor’s changes. Paragraphs get moved around, whole sentences rewritten. The paper is evaluated for logical flow, for ease of reading, for structure.

Copy editing can be pretty heavy, don’t get me wrong. But it can also be very light. A “light” edit—or a mechanical edit—will usually just fix your typos and your spelling mistakes. You might recast a particularly awkward sentence, or suggest cuts or rearrangements, but you do not usually end up rewriting the whole damn thing.

When someone asks you to proofread their essay or their email, this is often what they’re asking for. So why don’t they just say, “Hey, could you edit this?”

The Limitations of Proofing

I can’t proofread something unless it’s been typeset. Yes, proofreading is technically the lightest of all possible edits—because the paper or book or magazine article has been typeset. Traditionally, once you’ve typeset your text, you don’t mess with it. This comes from days of yore, when typesetters had to create the printing plates by hand, adding each individual letter stamp to the plate that would go into the ink, then stamp your text on the page.

You needed to proofread, because typesetters are human; they’d mix up their letters just the same as you sometimes make typos. But each correction, since it meant the typesetter had to go back and physically move the letters, cost you money. So proofreaders were (and often still are) told to use as light a hand as possible. You only fix critical mistakes when you’re proofreading.

We’ve since moved out of the stone ages, in that most typesetting is done digitally, so it’s a lot easier to make changes. Some typesetters are even getting away from the charge-per-change model, but there are a lot of them that still do it. So proofreaders still use a lighter hand than any other editor.

What You Want and What You Need

So far, proofreading sounds exactly like what you want for your paper or that quick note you’re about to fire off to your boss, right? Well, here’s the catch: Proofreading can only be done on typeset pages, as mentioned before. Why?

A typeset page, ready for proofreading.

A typeset page, ready for proofreading.

Because the proofreader also looks at the actual mechanics of the typesetter’s work: the kerning, the spacing, the widows and orphans. They’re looking at the optics of the page: Is the typesetting neat and tidy? Is this the wrong font here? Should this word be in italics? Do you want the chapter to start on a verso page, or should it be moved to a recto? Is this line too long, does the text look cramped and crammed? These are questions proofreaders ask.

You’re never going to ask your friend to look at this stuff when they re-read your essay. Why? In part, because word processors like Word just don’t offer you the controls to fix stuff like crashing type. It’s hardly ever a concern, in fact. Typesetting is the art of book design, so there’s a more graphic element to it that documents done up in Word or whatever just do not have.

So no, I won’t proofread your essay. I will, however, edit it; I might copy edit it or perform a mechanical edit. I’ll even re-read it or give it a once-over. But I won’t proofread it. You don’t want me to.

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