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Dos and Don’ts for New Proofreaders

You’ve brushed up on your grammar, read the dictionary cover to cover, and you want to become a proofreader. Good start! But while good grammar and spelling is essential, sometimes it’s small mistakes that trip up new proofreaders. To help you avoid common mistakes, we’ve compiled our top five dos and don’ts for new proofreaders:

  1. Make sure you set up the proofing dialect correctly before you start working on a document.
  2. Read through the document multiple times to make sure you don’t miss anything.
  3. Only apply formatting to the document if the brief requires it (and if you’re being paid for it!).
  4. Write comments in clear, complete sentences to ensure professionalism.
  5. Check your edits for introduced errors before returning any document.

We’ll expand on each of these dos and don’ts for new proofreaders below.

1. Don’t Forget to Set the Proofing Dialect

Before you start proofreading, make sure the proofing language is correct for the dialect of the document. New proofreaders often forget this step, causing them to make unnecessary corrections or miss mistakes completely due to the software using the wrong dialect. 

If a client specifies using US English and you’re working in Microsoft Word, for example, you would want to check that the proofing language was set to “English (United States)” before you started working on it. For how to set the proofing language in Word, see this guide.

2. Do Read Through Documents More Than Once

When proofreading, it’s essential that you don’t miss any errors. As such, you should read the whole document carefully at least twice. This should be standard when working on shorter documents, thus ensuring the version you return is 100% error free.

With longer documents, such as a book manuscript, finding time for multiple passes may be difficult depending on the deadline you have been given. But you should at least skim read through to get a sense of the writing style, structure, etc., before proofreading it in full.

In addition, if your client asks you to proofread any revisions after a first pass, you can use this as a further chance to check for consistency and correctness throughout.

3. Don’t Apply Major Formatting Unless Specified

Minor corrections to formatting, such as applying italics to a non-English word in line with style guide requirements, are a common part of proofreading. And if you spot a minor formatting error or inconsistency in a document at a text level, you should correct or comment on it.

However, significant formatting at a document level, such as changing page layouts, updating fonts and heading styles across multiple pages, or adding lists of contents or figures, is generally considered a separate service to proofreading.

As such, you shouldn’t apply formatting to a document unless:

  1. Your client has requested formatting when requesting services.
  2. You are happy to provide such a service and the fee paid reflects the extra work.

If a client does not request such a service but you think their document would benefit from significant formatting (e.g., changing paragraph and line spacing, adding section breaks, or changing page numbering), you can leave a comment for your client suggesting it. You could even give them a quote for your formatting services if you’d like to upsell!

4. Do Leave Clear, Correct Comments

When writing comments for your client, make sure they are clear and completely error free.

Clarity in feedback is vital because clients will need to check your revisions, or possibly even make further changes based on your comments, so they need to understand what you are saying. This means using a level of language appropriate to the client, which you should be able to gauge based on your communications and the writing in the document itself.

Perhaps most important is avoiding unnecessary technical jargon: e.g., while not everyone will know what a “sentence fragment” is, most people will understand “This sentence is incomplete,” after which you can prompt the client to address the issue as appropriate.

In addition, as a proofreader, you should always check your comments and other communications with clients for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Not doing so will undermine your authority as a language expert, not to mention your overall professionalism.

5. Do Check Your Edits

Before you return a proofread document to a client, it’s important to review the edits for:

  1. Errors you missed during the first pass of the document.
  2. Mistakes or inconsistencies you’ve introduced while correcting errors elsewhere.

Time allowing, it’s also a good idea to take a break between finishing your first pass on a document and reviewing the changes. But if your deadline doesn’t allow for this, you can try a few other tricks for maintaining critical distance while reviewing your edits.

Becoming A Proofreader

We hope you’ve found these dos and don’ts for new proofreaders helpful. If we’ve piqued your interest in becoming a freelance proofreader, you might want to try our Becoming A Proofreader course! In it, we cover everything you need to know to become a freelance proofreader, even if you’re a complete beginner. Sign up for a free trial today.

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