I’ve had several people ask how to break into editorial freelancing. Freelance proofreading can be a good way to begin working in the publishing industry, but rarely is there enough proofreading work to make it a sole income source. University presses often spread the work out among many freelancers, carefully matching each book to the person proofreading it. If you look at my list of completed proofreading projects, you’ll probably notice a pattern. Moonlighting as a proofreader while working at a regular job or combining freelance proofreading work with indexing and other levels of editing can help smooth out the low spots.
I hope this post will be helpful whether you’re a proofreader wanting to compare my proofreading process with yours, an author wondering about the stage, or a project editor considering how to train new proofreaders. If you have questions or your process is different, I’d love to hear about it.
These are the procedures I go through when proofreading nonfiction page proofs (also called first pages or galleys) for a publisher. Proofreading fiction has fewer steps (no references, figures, and such), and proofing an ebook onscreen will be different, too. This kind of proofreading, also known as a cold read, is different from checking against a marked-up manuscript. If you’d like thorough, step-by-step instructions for proofreading with no personal anecdotes, I’ve also written up the best practices I’ve found.
Before I begin to read
When I get a book to proofread, it’s an unbound hard copy (also called first pages, page proofs, or an unbound galley). The publisher usually provides a checklist. There is a style sheet from the copy editor (the best style sheets list all place names and people names as well as terms of art) and a standard form that tells the proofreader what style to use for dates, plural possessives, etc. If your publisher does not provide this, it’s a good idea to make one yourself, choosing the first instance as the example—date style might be 23 April 2016 or April 23, 2016. There also may be a list of text for running heads on each chapter’s recto (right-side pages) and verso (left-side pages). The publisher also provides flags, which have gum on one edge that you need to moisten to attach to a page when you have a question for the project editor. Post-it notes do NOT work as flags, because they come off too easily. You stick the flag to the back side of the page you’re querying and fold it over to the front.
First, I gather my proofreading tools and read through all the style sheets and instructions. This step sounds terribly boring, but it engraves unusual spellings or style choices in my mind so that I don’t waste time correcting it. Then I count the pages (roman and arabic) and add up the numbers. This is on the publisher’s checklist. As I’m counting, I put a Post-it note at the start of each chapter. I reuse those notes many times; they are simply labeled 1, 2, 3, Ack, TOC, Intro, etc. This set of Post-it notes is just a tool; I remove them before returning the pages to the publisher.
The Post-it notes are helpful when I check or add the page numbers and compare chapter titles in the table of contents with those at the head of chapters. I set aside the front matter and carefully check that the chapter titles and page numbers in the table of contents match what’s on the actual page. At this time, I also hold the opening page of each chapter up to the light along with the one that came before, to ensure that the sinks (top margins) and other formatting of the chapter titles are consistent. I check for things like font size, caps, line spacing, etc. I note any discrepancies by putting a check mark next to the lines involved in both places and attaching a flag. On the flag, I write a brief query (e.g., “Chapter title does not match TOC”) and the page number (in case the flag is somehow separated from the page it refers to). The lead pencil, not the red pencil, is used for marking up the pages and writing on the flags. At this time, I also check that the running heads match the list provided and flag the ones that don’t.
I also look at the front matter carefully to see if there are any blanks; usually the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication information is not yet complete at this stage, so I add a flag that says “CIP TK” with the page number.
Start at the end
After the table of contents, running heads, and chapter openers are checked, I head to the back matter. I use a piece of colored paper to isolate each line as I read. I still don’t need the red pencil; I mark any errors found back here in lead pencil. Glossary, notes, bibliography, and such are not the most exciting reading material, so it’s good to read them through while I’m fresh. They further engrave unusual names and terms of art into my mind so that they make more sense when you read the main body. Usually the running heads on the notes pages are “Notes to Pages 000-000.” These get filled out last, after the main body has been proofread, another reason I leave the Post-it notes with the chapter numbers in place until the end. In the bibliography and notes, I check for loose lines and incorrect line breaks, especially in URLs. When I wonder how to break a URL or how to style an unusual reference, Chicago has answers. The best style sheets provide examples of unusual references, too.
If anything seems odd, I have learned that it’s best to ask my project editor about it. I’ve had to redo the notes section for a book I worked on because I thought note numbers had been left off; instead, I was supposed to fill in the page number each note refers to. No fun. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle with a quick e-mail query.
Proofreading for sense
Corrections to the text are signaled by a slash mark (in lead pencil) in the text, with the correction out in the right margin. To be sure the corrections line up, I read one line at a time, moving a colored piece of paper down the page. Publishers do not want the corrections written between the lines, because they are too hard to see and decipher that way.
Finally, I start proofreading the main text. I use binder clips to separate what has been proofed from what has yet to be done.
The red pencil
The red pencil is used for very specific things: to circle or put a carat under note numbers and write the number (also circled) in red in the LEFT margin. I circle references to figures and tables in red, too, and write and circle them in red in the left margin.
The lead pencil
I correct errors by marking them in lead mechanical pencil (some publishers might prefer blue) with corrections in the right margin, lined up with the error.
Circling something in the margin signals to the compositor that it is not to be included in the text. Writing “sp” in the margin without circling it, for example, means add “sp” where indicated instead of spell out where indicated.
If the publisher provides a searchable pdf of the pages, I double-check to be sure that I caught all instances of a frequent error.
After proofreading the text
When I have finished proofreading the text, I go through and make sure that the figure numbers, table numbers, and note numbers are in order. Note numbers usually restart at 1 with each new chapter. Figure numbers might be continuous or they might be numbered like 1.1, 1.2, 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, etc. If there’s a list of figures, I make sure the page numbers are correct or fill them in if they are 000.
I fill in the page numbers in the notes running headers. This is another place where the big, clean table surface is helpful. I can have four stacks of pages: one for the text I have yet to go through for note numbers, one for the notes section I have yet to fill out, one for the (turned over) text I have gone through, and one for the notes pages (turned over) I have already completed.
Finally, I remove all the Post-it notes and binder clips, put everything back in order, and return the pages to the press.
Outside the book publishing industry, the term proofreading can have many different meanings. When it comes to books, though, it is a very specific stage. Proofreading is the last thorough, page-by-page look at a book, usually done simultaneously by the author and a freelancer, before it is sent to the printer for folding and gathering.
Proofreading is not the time for the proofreader (or the author) to change voice or style or decide that figures should be moved. Every change after first pages are typeset will cost the publisher money, whether the designer is in-house or freelance. The book’s project manager will go over the changes suggested by the proofreader, and anything that is not absolutely necessary will be crossed off in blue pencil with a big STET (let stand).
But some changes are unavoidable. If the running heads in one chapter are wrong, they must be changed. If a name is misspelled, it should be corrected. Widows and orphans should be fixed, and every caption should be scrutinized to make sure it fits its figure. There are also some changes that are expected, such as page numbers added to the table of contents and list of figures. Proofreaders will also add page numbers to the running heads in the notes section.
Flags (provided by the publisher)
Red pencils and a small hand sharpener
A mechanical pencil
A finger moistener
A big pink eraser
My well-worn copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition.
A big, clean table with nothing else on it that allows for spreading out sections of the book if necessary.
A clean towel to spread over the surface to be sure that there’s no grease or moisture that could get on the pages.
Lately, I’ve been using a pair of adorable little reading glasses.
These are books that I have proofread for University of Texas Press. As I am affiliated with IndieBound, any purchases made via the links below will help support this site. You can also just use the links to learn more about the books listed.
High Museum of Art (2014), Wynn Bullock
Joe Holley (2012), Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game
Carolyn Tate (2012), Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation
John Tutino, ed. (2012), Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States
Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz (2012), Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture
Carolyn Tuttle (2012), Mexican Women in American Factories
Cristóbal de Molina (2011), translated by Brian S. Bauer et al., An Account of the Fables and Rites of the Incas
Ann Pollard Rowe, Lynn A. Meisch, and others; Ann Pollard Rowe, ed. (2011), Costume and History in Highland Ecuador
Fabio López Lázaro (2011), The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez: The True Adventures of a Spanish American with 17th-Century Pirates
Scott Comar (2011), Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juárez and El Paso
Robin W. Doughty and Virginia Carmichael (2011), The Albatross and the Fish: Linked Lives in the Open Seas
Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph (2010), Spanish Texas, 1519-1821
Aníbal Gonzalez (2010), Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel
Cheleen Ann-Catherine Mahar (2010), Reinventing Practice in a Disenchanted World: Bourdieu and Urban Poverty in Oaxaca, Mexico
Jaime Javier Rodríguez (2010), The Literatures of the U.S.-Mexican War: Narrative, Time, and Identity
David Montejano (2010), Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981 (recipient of the 2011 T. R. Fehrenbach Award from the Texas Historical Commission and the 2011 Tejas Foco Book Award from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies)
Richard Graham (2010), Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780-1860 (recipient of the Bolton-Johnson Prize for the best book in English on Latin American history published in 2010)
Stephanie Merrim (2010), The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture
Raquel Romberg (2009), Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico
Timothy J. Dunn (2009), Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement
Hugo G. Nutini and Barry L. Isaac (2009), Social Stratification in Central Mexico, 1500-2000
Carole M. Counihan (2009), A Tortilla Is Like Life: Food and Culture in the San Luis Valley of Colorado
Judith Noemí Freidenberg (2009), The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho: Villa Clara and the Construction of Argentine Identity
Anna Marie Sandoval (2008), Toward a Latina Feminism of the Americas: Repression and Resistance in Chicana and Mexicana Literature