Proofreading and Its Pitfalls

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Every writer has had the experience of submitting a piece of writing in the certainty that it is free of error, only to find at least one embarrassing typo or other fault in it as soon as it has been published.

Sometimes I could swear that the errors that survive numerous proofreadings must be the result of spontaneous generation.

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, says we don’t catch errors because we don’t see them. The brain generalizes the simple components of sentences so it can focus on complex tasks, like combining sentences into ideas. The small stuff is filtered out.

Proofreading is different from editing.

To edit a written work is to select and arrange the contents after a draft has been completed.

To proofread a written work is to read it over (and over and over) to find and mark errors for correction.

The proofreader looks for errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, formatting, and consistency.

Ideally, the writer of a long work, say, a novelist, will find and correct all such errors before the work is submitted for publication.


In practice, the most conscientiously proofread manuscript will still contain elements that need to be corrected. For that contingency, publishers provide galley proofs.

A galley proof is the finished manuscript set in type formatted exactly as it will appear in book form. By the time the work has proceeded to this stage, the remaining faults had better be few and easily corrected.

The galley in “galley proof” comes from the days of letterpress printing. The galley was a long oblong wooden or metal tray. The typesetter composed lines of type in a composing stick and then transferred them to the galley. The type in the galley was then inked and an impression made on paper. The galley proof for my first published book came as a long roll of paper, the width of a book page. The galley proof for my most recent novel, The Fabergé Flute, came as a pdf attached to an email.

Before submitting my final draft to the publisher, I had read the entire manuscript so many times, I was sure no errors could possibly remain. I was wrong. Despite my best efforts, several corrections had to be made. Even now, I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that none remains to embarrass me.

The ideal approach to proofing is the old-fashioned way, with hard copy and pencil. Many writers, however, will proofread from the computer screen.

When proofing from the screen, reading aloud is a good way to catch typos. Another trick is to read the book from back to front. This way, you aren’t as likely to overlook an error because you are following the story.

Two of the errors I had to correct in the galley had to do with trademarked names. Between writing the book and reading the galley proof, I’d learned that Band-Aid is still protected and requires capitals, whereas dumpster has become genericized and may be written in lowercase. Another late catch was a reference to shillings. The story is set in 1980s London. British currency was decimalized in 1971, and the shilling was no more. These, of course, are the kinds of things that should be checked out before submission. (Emoji: red face.)

Although time-consuming, the best way to approach the targets—grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, formatting, and consistency—is one at a time.

For grammar, pay special attention to pronouns and irregular verbs. For punctuation, beware especially of apostrophes and hyphens. Spell-check apps will catch most spelling errors, but pay attention to words that have homonyms, like hoard/horde and peek/peak/pique. Ordinary capitalization should present few problems, but double-check the words for products that may require capitalization, for example, Adrenalin, Allen wrench, Bush Hog, ChapStick, Chyron, Clorox, and Crock-Pot.

Proofreading is a tedious, but crucially important process. Fortunate is the writer who can enlist the aid of one or more writerly friends who can bring fresh eyes to the chore.

Related post: The Lapsus Calami of “Principle” for “Principal”

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2 thoughts on “Proofreading and Its Pitfalls”

  1. As a former proofreader, I’m disappointed in this description, which lacks historical context. Proofreading as described here is what I would still call copy editing. I realize the definition of proofreading is changing, but it used to be a careful comparison of edited copy to typeset proofs. As proofreaders, we took some pleasure in finding errors that editors missed, but our job was to ensure the typesetters got the text exactly as edited.

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