Image Description

Special Proofreading Situations

In this lesson, we'll discuss troublespots that are not language elements but rather circumstances that pose special challenges for proofreading.

The most head-banging case is where changes have been made at the very last minute. In the haste of making last-minute corrections, a misspelling might creep into the corrected copy without someone noticing. Or, more commonly, one change makes other parts of the text go out of whack, again without the responsible person noticing. For example, a date or product name is corrected in one spot, but the wrong date or product name remains in another spot. Or you change the present tense to past tense in one part of a paragraph without realizing that other verbs in that paragraph need to be changed as well. Or you take out a couple of words to make the text more concise, but the excision produces a grammatical mistake somewhere else nearby.

The cure for last-minute foul-ups is to carefully reread everything surrounding any spot where you make a last-minute change.

Repeated documents often foil the best intentions for proofreaders, as well. A repeated document might be a newsletter that you send to customers by mail or by email. You tend to focus on changing the content for the next issue, and you forget that parts of the format, such as the issue date, also need to be changed. It's March, for instance, but the newsletter you send out says February, which was the date for the previous issue. This confuses readers. The cure for this is creating and using a checklist for repeated documents to remind you what besides the actual content needs to be checked or changed each time.

The same goes for updates, which is where you have a web page or other digital document and change a price, an event date, or something else in the content while leaving everything else the same. What happens all too often is that you have in your mind one spot to make the change, and you overlook the fact that that price or date is referred to elsewhere on the page. You've changed the main spot where that element is referred to, but it's referred to elsewhere also, maybe in the middle of a paragraph someplace so that it's hard to find or way down on the page. There's an actual example that I came across while preparing for this course. The button you're supposed to click to register has the correct date, but farther down, just below Frequently Asked Questions, it has the date for the last time the event was offered. This is confusing, for sure!

One fix for this is to note the exact wording of the element you are updating, such as "June 24," and to do a search on the page or in the document for any other instances of that element, so you can update those at the same time you're updating the spot you're thinking of. However, that may not catch all the problems. Sometimes there are what we might call relative references to the element you're updating, for example, "last month" or "next year," which may no longer be accurate after you update the date. Or if you've updated a price from, let's say, $49 to $69, maybe someplace else in the copy, it says "for less than 50 bucks," which will now become an "oops."

Unfortunately, the only way to prevent that type of blunder with updated text is to reread the entire text slowly and attentively. I can tell you from personal experience that this is very aggravating if the page or document is long. But it's not as aggravating as hearing from a customer or a colleague who spotted the mistake and tells you about it months or years later.

Another tricky situation for proofreading is where you have a boilerplate copy or a template. A boilerplate copy is where you have a document, such as a contract, with standard wording and blanks where specific information needs to be filled in. Boilerplate documents can save you a lot of time. Always start from the original boilerplate document. However, the version with the blanks, not from your last usage of the document with the specifics filled in. When I received the first draft of my will from my attorney, I was shocked to see someone else's name deep inside the document. Obviously, they had reused someone else's will as a framework for constructing mine. Not only was this a distressing violation of the other client's privacy, but it also made me worry about what the firm would do with my personal information. When it comes to proofreading boilerplate, make sure you're primed to find any such information that is out of place.

As for templates, perhaps you – or your boss or client – bought a website template that includes instructions for what to insert where. I have seen many instances where people have obviously forgotten to fill in the missing information. You can still see the user instructions in headings or the content taking the form of "lorem ipsum" placeholder text – what looks like Latin gibberish meant to be replaced by real content. It might be in

English, such as "interesting caption goes here," "fill in the date here," or just the word "date" instead of the actual date.

Some journalists who have been trained to write on deadline write whatever they know so far and leave a space for facts they'll look up or find at the last minute by writing the code "TK," which means, believe it or not, "to come," as in "this info is to come." They're also trained to search for any TKs in their article before they submit it, but if, as a proofreader, you encounter this strange pairing of capital letters, you now know how it came about.

When you have something that more than one person worked on, you need to be especially alert for inconsistencies in style choices (the sort of thing I talked about with reference to style sheets) and corrections of one thing that made something else go out of whack. Indeed, the more people who have had their hands on a piece of writing, the more likely it is that someone "corrected" something that was already correct, creating a mistake. It's essential that the workflow makes it possible for one person to do the proofreading as the final step before publication, and not to let, let's say, the president of the company or the office know-it-all to tweak things that they think are wrong but are actually just right after it had been carefully proofread.

And finally, certain kinds of documents, such as books or annual reports, are highly formatted in such a way that the formatting needs to be checked as much as the content does. It won't do to have two page 5's or some chapters justified (that is, squared up on the right-hand margins) and others not, or Verdana Bold used for some subheads and Times Roman Italics used for other subheads at the same level. For highly formatted material, I recommend that you create and use a checklist just for the formatting and to do a run-through looking just at the formatting, separate from your proofreading of the content.

If you're going to be proofreading regularly over time, I also suggest you make a list of the errors that you tend to make a lot and those you are finding it hard to catch. Use that as a reminder list when you proofread, and you'll gradually get better. For instance, maybe you tend to type "dinning" instead of "dining" a lot and often use texting shorthand instead of real words when you're typing fast. Put those items on your checklist, and you won't have the mistakes embarrassing you in your final published versions.

In the next lesson, we'll wrap things up with suggestions for continuing to improve your proofreading.

Image Description
Written by

Marcia Yudkin