Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

What skills does a proofreader need?

Are you considering starting work as a proofreader? Wondering whether it’s the sort of work for you? Aside from a love of reading and the written word, here are some skills that we at The Proofreading Agency think are necessary for proofreading well.


1. Knowledge of the English language

An in-depth knowledge of the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar is essential, especially since English has so many similar words, phrases and ways of presenting things that can completely alter meaning. Many of these are undetectable by even the best computerised spell checker.

Do you know the difference between confectionary and confectionery, climatic and climactic, or respectfully, respectably and respectively?

Do you know when and when not to use a colon/semicolon, or hyphen / en dash?

Do you have the confidence in your knowledge of vocabulary to know not just which words are spelt incorrectly, but which words are not even words at all?! E.g. ‘successfulness’, ‘overexaggerate’, or (infamously used by George W Bush) ‘misunderestimate’.


2. Familiarity with the British Standard marks for proof correction

This nationally recognised set of proofreading symbols is essential for proofreading on paper. You can buy a copy here.


3. Good communication

Proofreaders need to be able to communicate with editors, authors, typesetters, potential clients, etc. There are always going to be times when a query cannot be solved simply by applying your proofreading marks; you may not be sure what the answer is yourself! In this case the query is bound to be redirected to the author, editor or another relevant party, and they will need to know exactly what it is you are unsure about.


4. Ability to concentrate for long stretches at a time

Proofreaders spent a large part of their day in one spot, reading a long document word by word. Unlike reading for a hobby, for which you can select the material yourself, there is no guarantee that the work you are proofreading is going to be interesting or even that you fully understand the subject. If you are the type who gets easily bored or who can’t sit still for long periods of time, this is not the job for you.


5. A good memory

A proofreader, for example, spots that, on page 50 of 80, a character’s surname is spelt Thompson. The proofreader remembers that on page 20, that same character’s surname was spelt Thomson. Details such as this can easily go unnoticed by authors, editors and even readers, but nonetheless correcting these is part and parcel of a proofreader’s job. Nobody’s memory is perfect, of course, and it can help to make a comprehensive list as you work of names and other details in a document that you will need to ensure are consistent.


6. IT skills

For proofreading on-screen, familiarity with word-processing programs is needed. In MS Word, the ‘track changes’ function allows the client to see all the changes you have made. Use the comments function to highlight queries. Use ‘Find and Replace’ to correct consistent errors. You may also be required to use the ‘TextEdits’ tools in Adobe Acrobat to mark up PDFs.

Many of these skills are quick and easy to pick up, and there are numerous courses or even free ‘How To’ guidelines accessible online with a quick search. The more of these weapons you have in your arsenal, the more useful you are to clients and employers.


7. A little bit of paranoia!

Lastly, a spot of paranoia ensures that the proofreader always questions what they read. Is that word spelt correctly? Is that use of the word appropriate in this context? Is that date the same as the one mentioned three pages ago? Always check and double check!


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