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How to be a better proofreader

When hours of work are spent crafting a compelling legal brief, contract, or report, it can be very disheartening, not to mention embarrassing, to have all credibility instantly erased with one misspelled word.

Of course, typos happen. Human beings make mistakes. And we can’t rely on technology to save us either, unfortunately. For example, spell check would not have caught the typo—dubbed by Huffington Post as “the world’s worst”—that appeared in a pasta cookbook published by Penguin Group Australia. The typo not only had staff cringing, it also cost them thousands of dollars to reprint the cookbook, as well as years of bad press that will not go away. The cookbook contained a recipe that called for “salt and freshly ground black people” instead of, of course, black pepper.

How do errors occur?

So how did that happen? We’ll never know for sure. Perhaps the proofreader missed the typo, or perhaps the proofreader caught it but the typesetter missed the note to make the correction.

While it’s easy to cast stones at the writer or the proofreader, the reality is that there are many people involved in creating documents. In fact, sometimes there may be too many people involved, including some who aren’t even supposed to be part of the process.

For example, editor Maureen Nicholson of Trelowarren Texts tells of an article she wrote for a magazine. “The topic was working in prisons,” says Nicholson. “The accompanying photos were ‘doctored’ images of men in prison garb and doing the usual male posturing thing that was important there. So, body language was really important, and who they were wasn’t. We obscured their faces. The printer, being helpful, cleaned things up so that the men were identifiable. Some of the photos had very strong cutlines (‘I killed my kid …’) and could result in really damaging things like getting beat up or families being horribly embarrassed or worse. We had the issue reprinted.”

Of course, it’s not always someone else’s fault. Problems creep in when you proofread your own work or when the suggested corrections don’t make their way to the final copy because they were not clearly marked.

How to become a good proofreader

In this age of communications many people earn a living proofreading websites, manuscripts, and books. But besides being a career, proofreading is also an essential skill for anyone who drafts or transcribes letters, reports, financial documents, or technical papers, or who checks what’s been typed from a draft or dictation.

In the law office setting, proofreading generally means checking for typographical and grammatical errors, misspelled words or words used incorrectly, punctuation problems, and places where the meaning is unclear or confusing.

A good proofreader must:

  • have a strong knowledge of language (as well as an honest awareness of his or her own personal strengths and weaknesses);
  • know what errors to watch for and where to find them;
  • know how to mark the errors properly so the corrections are easily understood; and
  • work efficiently.

It’s also important to have centralized resources for everyone in the office to turn to for answers. This helps ensure consistency in all of an organization’s materials.

How to start the task

If you’re asked to proofread a document, there are three things you need to know first:

  • What exactly are you being asked to do? Are you really supposed to only proof the document, looking for typos and grammatical errors, or are you being asked to check facts? Are you being counted on to ensure that all components of the brief are in the package? Are you supposed to be proofing any appendices?
  • What stage of production is the document at now? Is this the final proof, in which case only nonsubstantive essential corrections should be made? Or is this the first draft of a document, in which case substantive errors can be fixed? If this is a second proof, should you be checking that errors caught in the first proof have been changed? Should you be watching to see that none were introduced in the correction stage?
  • Who is the audience? The target audience of a document affects its tone, style, and even point of view. For example, you may have heard that writers should always avoid the passive voice; however, in academic or scientific writing, the passive might be the most appropriate. If the document addresses a specialized topic, is the target audience familiar with that topic? Will they need abbreviations spelled out or would they be offended by that?

Once you have all the background information and are ready to start proofing, make a copy of the original material so that you don’t mark up the only copy.

If possible, proofread three times:

  • First for errors in spelling, grammar, and usage;
  • Second to catch bad breaks, misalignment, and inconsistent spacing between characters, words, and lines; and
  • Third to ensure that the words and their presentation make sense.

If you are tired or are concerned that you might miss something, try one or more of these proofreading tips:

  • Proofread the material backwards, last line first;
  • Proofread segments of the material out of sequence;
  • Set the timer before you sit down to proofread and promise yourself a break after, say, 10 minutes;
  • Proofread out loud; or
  • Proofread in pairs.

Where do errors occur?

Readers are most likely to notice errors in precisely the places proofreaders are most likely to miss them. These include:

  • on a title page;
  • in a header;
  • in a caption;
  • in the first line;
  • in the first paragraph;
  • in the top line of a new page; and
  • in the email subject line.

It’s crazy, but true: Errors love company and will often appear in a cluster. So when you spot one error, look for its mate somewhere nearby.

In addition to typographical and grammatical errors, other common errors to watch for include:

  • punctuation errors;
  • noun/verb disagreements;
  • incorrect use of hyphens and dashes; and
  • incorrect or inconsistent capitalization,

Check that page numbers are correct. Do graphics and text match? Is the heading hierarchy correct? What about the headers and footers?

If you are proofing a document that was created with layout software, check that copy hasn’t been lost in the “cut and paste” step or is obscured by a graphic.

Arm yourself with resources

To be a good proofreader, you don’t need to know all of the rules, but you do need to know where to find them.

When proofreading, you must have access to:

  • the firm’s chosen stylebook;
  • the firm’s customized style sheet; and
  • the firm’s selected dictionary. (If you’re using a print dictionary, be sure to check the date of publication. The English language has evolved considerably within the past few years.)

For legal briefs, you’ll want the court’s guidelines, as well as a current edition of The Bluebook.

Conclusion

It’s a common request in a law firm: “Can you give this a quick proof?” But it’s not a task to undertake casually. Give yourself plenty of time in a quiet setting to do the job properly. No one will see the errors you catch, but the ones you don’t catch may come back to haunt you.


Editor’s picks:

Commonly misspelled words


Model Tool: A firm-wide style sheet

Ten terrible typos


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