Proofreading Explained

As promised, today we have another guest post from editor Robert Doran, whose ‘copy-editing explained’ post on Tuesday gave this blog a visitors spike. (As did his previous guest posts on the subject of all things editing —Structural Editing for Self-Publishers and Why Hire An Editor?). This morning, his focus is on proofreading…

“There exists a common misconception that if your manuscript isn’t in great condition, it needs a structural edit; if it is in reasonable condition, it needs a copy-edit; and if it’s in pretty good condition, a proofread is all that is required. Well, I have some bad news. The truth is rather different, and it goes something like this: every manuscript needs all three, because each of the three contributes something distinct and valuable to the project. OK, Ian McEwan or John Banville will get away with skipping the structural edit, but there are very few manuscripts that wouldn’t benefit from one.

Copy-editing and proofreading, on the other hand, are both essential if you want your book to reach the minimum industry standard. I think that bears repeating – the minimum! In previous posts we’ve looked at structural editing and copy-editing; now we’re going to take a closer look at proofreading and its place in the publishing process.


The clue is in the name, really: the original function of the proofreader was to read the typeset manuscript (proof) and check it against the copy-edited one. They made sure that the copy-editor had marked up the manuscript correctly and that the typesetter had interpreted those marks as intended. Essentially, they were the quality controllers, ensuring that the editor and the typesetter had done what they were supposed to and correcting any errors that remained.

Today, this quality-control function continues to be central to the role but the manuscript is generally read ‘blind’ (i.e. without reference to the copy-edit). Checking the typeset manuscript independently speeds up the process and also, in my opinion, takes greater advantage of the proofreader’s skills: less time checking one script against another means more time spent finding errors and inconsistencies.

In addition to correcting any typesetting errors and any errors that have slipped through at copy-edit stage, proofreaders are responsible for making sure that the layout and design, pagination, cross-referencing, images and captions, front and back matter (acknowledgements, imprint page, contents page, bibliography, index, etc.), headings and basically everything that goes into making a book are present, consistent and correct. That’s quite a long list, and it’s not even an exhaustive one. It’s also a list that clearly distinguishes the proofreader from the copy-editor, who is more concerned with the correctness and effectiveness of the author’s writing. Much of what the proofreader is responsible for checking didn’t even exist at the copy-editing stage, and it’s not uncommon for the copy-editor to never even see the typeset manuscript before publication.

You can see where I’m going with this: these are different jobs, so don’t expect your proofreader to copy-edit your book. Proofreading is not a lesser function, it’s a different one, carried out at the end of the publishing process.

Your manuscript should already be both complete and very clean by the time it reaches the proofreader (i.e. it should be edited). There are several reasons for this. First, it is expensive to make changes to a typeset manuscript (typesetters don’t work for free), so the proofreader is generally instructed to stick to correcting errors and to make only the changes that are absolutely necessary. This means that it is not the time to rename characters, to introduce a new plot element or to rewrite the introduction. All that should have been put to bed before the copy-editing stage.

Also, any substantial changes or rewriting need to be carefully checked, not just to make sure that they are correct but also to establish that they fit within the context of the paragraph, the chapter and the book. I have worked with authors who have made last-minute changes that introduced a glaring contradiction because they forgot to make a corresponding change in a later chapter. Essentially, such changes create the need for a new copy-edit, but because nobody is prepared to pay for that, things get missed.

The greater the number of errors that remain in your manuscript the more likely it is that some won’t be corrected. If you didn’t have your work copy-edited, and the proofreader is faced with, for example, page after page of incorrectly punctuated dialogue, that is likely to become their focus – to the detriment of other issues.

So it’s important to think of proofreading as a final check, not as an opportunity to make your manuscript better – that’s the purpose of editing. By hiring a proofreader you are accepting that you have moved beyond this point and are ready to publish. And it’s important that you proofread your own manuscript too. Although you are likely to have a degree of copy-blindness by the time it gets to this stage, you should never publish without having parsed the final version yourself. To that end (and to show that this slightly ranty post has a practical purpose!), here’s a list of things you should look out for:


  • Be particularly aware of homonyms. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’; ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’; ‘their’, ‘there’, and ‘they’re’, etc. These slip through easily.


  • Check that full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, etc., are used correctly.
  • Quotation marks and apostrophes are sometimes reversed. Check them carefully.
  • Check for double spaces, particularly after full stops.

Typesetting [for print books]

  • Check that the font is consistent throughout the text.
  • Check that the leading (space between lines) and kerning (space between characters) are consistent. Because the text is justified, the tracking (space between words) will vary, but it should be neither too loose nor too tight.
  • Ensure the paragraph after a section break is not indented.
  • Paragraph indents ought to be consistent throughout.
  • Mark any orphans and widows (a single line at the bottom of a page or part of a line at the top of a page).
  • Running heads need to be consistent and have the proper information, e.g., book title, chapter title or author name. It’s easy to make a mistake with these, so check them thoroughly.
  • Chapter openers should also be consistent. Does each chapter start in the same place on the page and contain the same elements in the same order?
  • Check that subhead spacing and alignment are uniform. Also, check that chapter numbers are in sequence and word ‘Chapter’ is used (or not) consistently.
  • Check that page numbers are present and in sequence. Odd-numbered pages should be on the right. Check that numbering is consecutive.
  • Blank pages should have nothing on them – including no folios or running heads.
  • Check page references. If you refer to something as being in Chapter 3 or on page 98, is that still correct in the final version?
  • Check that all necessary information on the imprint page is present and correct, including ISBNs.
  • Check that the page numbers on the Table of Contents correspond to the chapter openings. Check the vertical alignment of the page numbers.


  • Check that the title, subtitle and author name are correct on the cover and the spine, if applicable. Check the direction of the text on the spine.
  • Check that there are no typos or inconsistencies in the blurb.
  • Check that the ISBN is correct, if applicable.

Authors have come to expect an awful lot from proofreaders, and proofreaders sometimes go far and beyond their remit. The rise of self-publishing has broadened the scope of the function, pushing the proofreader into areas traditionally occupied by the editor. I’m not sure this is a good thing. It’s worth remembering that proofreading developed as a specific editorial function for a reason, and that it should be carried out as an individual task because it’s an essential part of the publishing process that consolidates the work of the author and the editor.”

Robert Doran works as a freelance editor and is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits or visit .

24 thoughts on “Proofreading Explained

  1. Louise Harnby | Proofreader says:

    Well put, Robert. “The rise of self-publishing has broadened the scope of the function, pushing the proofreader into areas traditionally occupied by the editor.” That’s something that as a proofreader I’ve noticed. Too often I’m presented with self-published manuscripts that simply aren’t ready for proofreading; even if I do my job to the very best of my ability, the book won’t be ready for market. I appreciate that cost is a huge issue for some authors and that it’s tempting to cut out the earlier stages, but this can be a false economy.

    Series like this are superb educators for our authors. But editorial professionals need to take responsibility, too. My own feeling is that any specialist proofreader considering working with an independent writer needs to establish, right at the outset, what their service includes. I address this issue when I’m responding to requests to quote. And even if the author confirms that they want a proofreader, I always ask to see a couple of chapters so that I can assess whether I’m a good fit for the job. If I don’t think the book is ready for proofreading, I won’t take the work and I’ll encourage them to seek editing help (and direct them to how they can find someone suitable).

    • marilynslagel says:

      Louise, how do you handle a newbie who thinks their ms is fine – they can’t afford an editor?

      A lady recently asked my opinion on her first chapter. i told her I liked the storyline and with a good editor and proofreader the book might do well. She informed me the book was going out as is, no proofer, no editor.

  2. mary says:

    Great article Robert, Thanks. Would you please give us some idea of the approximate cost of a structural edit, copy edit, and proofread? Just a guideline price an author might expect to pay.

  3. Mahala Church says:

    I agree with Rhoda – pure gold. As an editor, I so often get manuscripts that authors think are ready for a final look when sadly what they need is a substantive edit or, at a minimum, a healthy copyedit. As an author, I know the cost of paying an editor can be daunting for many, so, I work hard to explain that without a solid job of editing, the book has no chance of success in the open market. Readers are a discerning lot, and after a few pages of misspelled words, poor sentence structure, and weak characterization, they throw the book in the rubbish-read stack and move on to another author. These are the types of material that never got out of the slush pile with a traditional publisher or agent.

    Too many people spend months, even years, creating their work and enormous amounts of money for indie publishing only to end with a whimper of no sales and disappointment. It’s a big hurdle in a drastically changed industry. Hopefully articles like this will get more people on the bankwagon. (Yes, it says “bank”) to success.

  4. lauraeflores says:

    I may be hyperventilating right now… But this is why I will definitely hire a professional to tell me how it is, that is to say edit the damn thing (my book) after I can’t edit it no longer.

  5. Liana Mir says:

    I just went through the process of pulling a short story from the publisher upload file to anthologize said short story and your idea of not proofing against the copyedit is a fallacy. One I was unfortunately taken in by. It is essential if you use styles at all or italics in any large quantity to double-check that formatting IS the way you intended it. Unfortunately, using extensive italics to represent flashbacks, etc. OR using Word styles can mess up the front or back end of your formatting, especially italics. I just discovered the hard way that the first or last paragraph of various flashback sections were not in italics and some things WERE in italics that shouldn’t have been.

    Proofing is essential.

  6. mwebster76 says:

    I recently had a writer attempt to hire me to edit his manuscript. When I asked him if he needed a developmental edit or just a copy edit, he said, “Why don’t you just go ahead and do both?” I tried to explain why I can’t “just do both” at the same time. Then he acted like he thought I was trying to rip him off by talking him into purchasing additional services that he thought he didn’t need. (I read his first chapter, and he is nowhere near ready for a copy edit. I even pointed him in the direction of several resources that he should take advantage of and suggested he do at least one more round of revisions himself prior to hiring an editor.)

    Needless to say, I am sure he walked away from the experience thinking that I was just some sort of con artist, while I walked away irritated at how difficult it is to obtain editing work with writers who understand exactly what an editor does and why we charge as much as we do. The fact is, most of us cannot afford to work for free or even at the steep discount that so many writers seem to expect. It takes a lot more time and effort to do a quality edit than many writers understand.

    I am sharing this series of blog posts on all of my writing pages. It is SO important for writers to understand the difference between developmental editing, copy-editing, proofreading, etc. Otherwise you might offend an editor when you expect him or her to do it all for the price of one. Plus, you’ll end up feeling ripped off when you don’t get as much out of an edit as you had expected.

  7. Marianne Knowles says:

    Robert and Catherine, thanks so much for this series of posts, which I’ve only discovered today. I’ve linked each post to the writer resources page we maintain on our group blog for children’s writers and illustrators. So many people start out knowing nothing except they’ve written a story; it’s so helpful to have a place to send them to find out what’s next.

  8. profesorbaker says:

    Reblogged this on Profesorbaker's Worldwide English Blog and commented:
    This is a fantastic resourcethat even seasoned veterans should have a look at. Editor Robert Doran explains what every manuscript needs: “There exists a common misconception that if your manuscript isn’t in great condition, it needs a structural edit; if it is in reasonable condition, it needs a copy-edit; and if it’s in pretty good condition, a proofread is all that is required. Well, I have some bad news. The truth is rather different, and it goes something like this: every manuscript needs all three, because each of the three contributes something distinct and valuable to the project…”

  9. Mark Boone says:

    Excellent article. Too bad that those who most need to read it lie outside the audience for this post. In general, first-time authors don’t understand the distinction between editing and proofreading. Invariably, I am asked to proofread a manuscript, when an edit–whether it be structural or a copyedit–is needed. When I point out that they’re putting the cart before the horse, they get offended and think that I’m trying to rip them off. Sadly, writing as an art in our culture is so devalued that anyone who puts black marks on a piece of paper fancies himself as a writer ready for publication on par with a professional who has honed the craft for years.

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