Ward Nicholson

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Proofread Like a Professional Using the Six Proofreading Pathways

Part 1

Proofreading does take a certain amount of talent and knowledge of the English language, but it is not magic. The key is to follow repeatable, systematic procedures to make sure you actually take a look at everything on the page, and at more than one level. The core of the process is what I call the “Six Proofreading Pathways.”
Note: Most of this article was written in the early 1990s after desktop publishing software had largely supplanted the previous era’s traditional typesetting technology, but prior to widespread public awareness and use of the internet. A few of the observations here about proofreading’s role as it applies to print materials therefore may not apply to electronic-only media such as the internet.

Why is it that with all of today’s computing power, spelling checkers, and grammar analyzers, written material being published is more riddled with typos and grammatical errors than ever before? Why are you more likely to get tripped up by a misplaced modifier or crash headlong over a missing period than at any time in the past? How is it that the meaning of a sentence can leave you mystified and stymied even after repeated tries at comprehending its apparently hidden meaning? Is it just your imagination that there are more errors finding their way into today’s printed materials compared to yesteryear’s?

Perhaps even more to the point: Does it strike fear into your heart now that the responsibility for the accuracy of your company’s printed materials may have fallen into your lap? Or perhaps you’re now the resident wizard of your department’s desktop publishing system: Do you ever wonder how those traditional typographers of yesteryear — without benefit of today’s electronic proofreading tools — managed to turn out such consistently clean copy, taking it in stride even when they were sometimes made the convenient “whipping boy” for errors actually made by others?

While it’s certainly true that today’s personalized publishing technology has democratized the power of the printed word, one unfortunate result is that it has also democratized the rate at which typos and other errors are creeping into print. So if you’ve often wondered about it: No, it’s not just your imagination there are more typos out there these days.

What can be done about it? How can you protect yourself against those errors seemingly bent on sneaking past and spoiling your record? Well, if you’ve ever obsessed yourself silly over such matters, you’ve come to the right place. As a former ad typographer turned designer and copywriter, I can let you in on some previously well-kept secrets.

Don’t worry — no tedious rules of English to wade through here.

Before we get into the secrets of rigorous proofreading, though, don’t worry that this is going to be just one more eye-glazing discussion about spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax. In fact, let me state up front that if you are not the sort of person for whom proper written English has pretty much become second nature, or for whom spelling and grammatical mistakes tend to be offenses that naturally jump out at you most of the time, you shouldn’t subject yourself to the risks of proofreading. You don’t need the exposure and potential liability. Get someone else to do it for you who is more qualified and comfortable swimming in the high seas of English. And if you don’t know anybody else, consider hiring me. (And that’s the only sales pitch I’ll make here. Back to our topic.)

We also assume here that you are doing your proofreading without a partner who reads the text out loud while you follow along in your own copy. There is probably no greater editorial torture than having to endure a partner-proofreading session. Don’t waste your time with it.

Hearing words while you trundle along reading at a speed far slower than your normal rate is not the same as seeing words by themselves at a normal reading speed. And there are no guarantees that this kind of paranoid strategy will do anything more than slow you down. Fortunately, it’s not necessary if you know a few good strategies. And while it’s always a good idea to have more than one person proofread something (and we presume here that you realize the extra insurance it gives you), there’s no reason why it can’t be done separately by each individual.

So, assuming you know your English pretty well but find that mistakes are still getting through (grrr!), what follows are a veteran proofreader’s tricks to help you lower your error rate close to zero. At the end of the article, I also give specific technical tips about commonly overlooked areas where errors often lurk. But for now let’s look at the more important questions of why proofreading errors occur in the first place, and what you can do to head them off at the pass.

The number one reason proofreading errors happen.

Nope, it’s not because the people doing the proofreading didn’t realize the errors that slipped through were mistakes. The major reason is because they just didn’t see them at all. That’s right: Most proofreading errors occur when you just plain don’t look at something. And not all of those instances are because you were just blankly staring at something that didn’t penetrate your awareness. Many of them are because you weren’t really moving your eyes across the page to begin with.

Here, then, are what I call the “Proofreading Pathways” that will help you prevent those costly and embarrassing lapses in attention. And mostly automatically, so that you can relax without the kind of proofreading paranoia that itself contributes to errors. So bone up on your English elsewhere. Here, we’ll talk only about strategies to insure you actually move those eyeballs across the page in the right grooves, and how to maintain your flow of concentration. So — pay attention.

Proofreading Pathway #1

Maintain your concentration by controlling your reading environment.

From a mental standpoint, the most important key to good proofreading is maintaining a sustained flow of concentration. This is just a fancy way of saying you cannot let yourself be subject to continual interruptions and do a good job of proofreading. Don’t try to proofread in the midst of distractions. If you do, you’ll be subject to unwanted lapses in your attention that you have no control over. And it is through the “chinks” in your flow of concentration that proofreading errors slip.

While good proofreading ultimately depends on sustained concentration, though, it doesn’t take a Zen meditator to do it. If you can get absorbed in a good book, or sustain your attention well enough to drive a car safely, then you have what it takes. But you must set up conditions that are conducive to it.

Here are a few tips for doing so:

  • Turn the radio and/or music player off. Even if you were the type of kid who got your homework done with the TV or music on, don’t kid yourself. Proofreading is not the same, and requires your full attention. It sounds silly, but also consider wearing earplugs if you have to, to shut out any distracting noises making their way into your work area.
  • Don’t answer the phone (or emails or texts) when you’re proofreading. Silence your phone and either let voicemail handle things, or tell the receptionist, if you have one, to take your calls for you. If you absolutely must answer a call, stop immediately. Don’t try to “squeeze in” a few more sentences before you grab the handset. You’ll rush and you might miss something. Make a mark on the page exactly where you were when the interruption occurred, and make sure you return to the same spot when you come back so you won’t skip over anything.
  • Don’t lounge. Sit at your desk and keep your back as straight as is comfortable for you. A straight spine contributes to better alertness.
  • Make sure the lighting is optimal and that you aren’t having to fight either glare or conditions that are too dim.
  • Try not to proofread when you are tired, unless you have to, and you are experienced at doing so. Proofreading can be deceptively demanding physically if you have to do a lot of it. Physical energy is necessary to sustain mental alertness. If you have no choice in the matter, make sure you do other things that you know from experience help with your energy level, such as eating a snack, drinking a beverage, taking a break now and then for a short walk, etc. Anything that makes you more physically energetic will help increase the focus of your concentration.
  • Have a set routine that you follow whenever you proofread. That’s mostly what the rest of this piece is about, as it applies to the proofreading process itself. But it also applies to the little things: like orienting yourself the same way each time at your desk and chair, placing the copy you’re proofreading in the same spot each time, putting finished pages in the same place, and so on. The idea here is that following familiar habits will help keep you focused and support your concentration.

Proofreading Pathway #2

Never rush and don’t take shortcuts: Relax by following repeatable procedures that almost catch the errors for you.

Perhaps the single behavior most responsible for proofreading errors is trying to rush through a job by taking shortcuts. Often the reason a mistake gets through your, or your company’s, proofreading “net” is because somebody tried to perform without one. They “just assumed” that since the client didn’t say anything the first time through that everything was fine, so they wouldn’t need to bother about it. Or they “just figured” an error “couldn’t” get into a piece of copy that was cut-and-pasted from a previous version of the job, so they didn’t look at it. Or they said to themselves “just this once” they’d skip taking a close look at the copy with the usual fine-tooth comb because they were too rushed, and besides, “the client already proofed it anyway.”

The common denominator in these types of behavior is the urge to skip over what is considered a distasteful task. But what makes proofreading distasteful in the first place (or at least more so than it needs to be) is the paranoia that goes with doing it haphazardly, and not having a repeatable, trustable approach you can rely on to do most of the work for you. Once you know you have proofreading pathways to follow — dependable and repeatable grooves that lead you through the copy almost by themselves — you can relax. And you’ll find yourself actually utilizing them because they let you relax. And when you do that, you find that a thorough proofreading isn’t so bad. Why? Because it gives you that “safe” feeling of confidence you did everything you possibly could to assure the cleanest copy possible.

Proofreading Pathway #3

Don’t try to trap all mistakes in just one catch-all pass. “Divide and conquer” by using a separate proofreading pass for each major class of error.

Most people think of spelling errors and other obvious “typos” as the biggest thing to look for when proofreading. And in doing so they get diverted from noticing other things. But copy mistakes can occur at several different “levels.” It’s important to understand that human attention has a limited range of focus and can reliably concentrate on only one thing — or more accurately, on one related class of things — at a time. This means you are taking a big risk if you think that not just spelling and grammatical goofs, but also errors in syntax, plus questions involving the meaning or completeness of the copy — not to mention formatting and layout problems — can all be caught in one proofreading.

  • Proofread once at a slower speed for typos and obvious grammatical errors.
  • Proofread again at a faster speed for overall comprehension, more subtle syntactical problems, more global errors of meaning, and duplications or omissions of phrases, sentences, and lengthier passages.
  • Proofread a third time ignoring the copy itself while focusing on formatting and layout.

Doing a different pass for each level of possible error is the heart of the proofreading process.

It may sound like a lot of repetitious work that will leave your eyes glazed over, but it’s really not that bad. The key here is that you are using your attention in different ways on each proofreading pass. The first time through you are focusing at the “bee’s knees” level of typos and blatant grammatical goofs. This is the proofreading pass during which your attention should be the most “taut.” But after that you can relax.

The second time through, read just about as you normally would — as if you were reading a magazine article for information or enjoyment. Let your attention relax somewhat (not completely) and be more diffuse. Just pay attention to what the copy is saying and forget about typos. It’s this relaxation that widens the “scope” of your attention, focusing it at a level where you notice things from a more global perspective.

If the first proofreading pass is like doing a strafing run at treetop level, the second pass is like a reconnaissance mission from much higher overhead. You might be surprised to find that at this level you may catch a few grammatical problems you missed the first time through — even the rare additional typo — simply because of the change in your attention’s focus that allows you to see things differently.

On the third proofreading pass, forget about the copy entirely and focus on formatting and layout. That’s covered further along under “Special Tips for Designers, Typographers, and Desktop Publishers,” however, so I won’t go into it here.

Why multiple proofreading passes are necessary but not an expression of self-mistrust.

The idea behind two proofreading passes of the copy itself is not really an expression of self-mistrust or obsessive double-checking. (Indeed, you will do a better job when you can trust yourself and relax.) It has to do with what I call the “warp-and-woof effect.” No matter how good your concentration, microscopic lapses in attention will occasionally occur below the level of your awareness, due to the way the human eye automatically moves across each line in little bite-size “jumps.”

This is a biological, mostly unconscious process that you have little if any control over. But it is rare that any lapses would occur in exactly the same places across two different proofreading passes. So like the “warp” and “woof” of a weaving loom (the cross-hatching of the threads) that form a tight web even though there are gaps between the individual threads, two proofings at the copy level help you create a tight net that makes it much, much harder for errors to slip through.

My experience has been that if you try to combine the first two levels of proofreading in one pass, and if you are proofreading copy that you have keyboarded yourself so you know what you are dealing with, and if you know the mistakes you personally are most likely to make, and if you are a sharp proofreader, then you might be able to eliminate all the copy errors that most people are concerned with perhaps 80–90% of the time. But that still leaves one or two jobs in ten that could be slipping through with errors. Perhaps the things slipping through may be things most people wouldn’t notice, or if they do, they don’t say anything to you about it. But don’t count on it. Sometimes the errors will be embarrassing.

So when you consider that it’s possible to raise your totally-accurate-job rate to as much as 98–99% with proofreading passes done in the above fashion, the payoff in customer goodwill and loyalty — not to mention virtually eliminating those jobs you may be forced to reprint at your own expense — makes it well worth your effort.

So while double-checking is a very good idea, you should do it not with the idea of catching yourself or someone else “slipping up,” but from an understanding of the way in which the human attention process works. You do not want to increase the very paranoia that we’re trying to eliminate here. Trust that people, that you yourself, will slip up periodically — but simply allow for it. The whole idea of instituting “proofreading pathways” is simply to use the vagaries of human attention (the “warp-and-woof effect” and reading at different levels of attention) to your advantage instead of to your detriment.

Remember: You can’t do a good job of proofreading at all three levels, or even the first two, in just one reading. Each occurs at a different level of attention, and so you must likewise make different proofreading passes with different things in mind on each.

next: Part 2 →

Part 2

Proofreading Pathway #4

Use computer-checking as an adjunct to, not as a replacement for, human beings.

If you haven’t already discovered it, you will eventually realize you can’t eliminate the human element by hoping machines will do it all for you. Trying to rely totally on electronic analyzers in order to eliminate the human half of the proofreading process ends up accomplishing just that — you end up with a halfway proofreading job.

In my experience, of all errors to be found in any piece of copy, spelling checkers will catch perhaps one-quarter to one-third of them, at best. Assuming the copywriter has a good grasp of proper English (as they should), the addition of a grammar analyzer might push the “hit rate” up a few more notches to perhaps one-half. But that still leaves 50% of errors that only a human can catch. Yes, grammar analyzers continue to improve (I have one myself), but they are many years away from any sort of perfection. And there are many errors that a computer by its very nature simply cannot, and will not, ever catch.

What are these kinds of errors? Often they may be words that are legitimate words all right, just not the ones you intended, and too subtle for a grammar checker to catch. (One example would be typing “simply” when the word “simple” was intended, or vice versa.) Another common error is words that are left out entirely, without which the sentence may still make sense but doesn’t say what it was supposed to.

Again, while grammar checkers are useful for many things, they won’t catch these errors or things you left out entirely. And something else they won’t catch are instances where phrases or sentence fragments have been electronically copied-and-pasted into a different order, with duplicate copies getting left behind where they shouldn’t be. It takes a human being who can comprehend meaning, and knows what was originally intended, to spot these kinds of problems.

So while you should definitely use spelling checkers (and perhaps grammar checkers) as a preliminary step in helping create an even tighter proofreading net, don’t use them as an excuse to skip proofreading the job yourself. You could end up having to make even more excuses later.

Proofreading Pathway #5

Always run out hard copy after corrections have been made, and proofread it again against your first set of proofreading marks.

You’d be surprised at how many people don’t think this is necessary, or skip doing it (when they’re in a hurry) even if they know how important it is. Realize, however, that lapses in attention can occur when making corrections too. You’ll be surprised at some of the corrections you don’t make to your own copy even when you’ve clearly indicated them to yourself — or at new mistakes that were introduced while correcting others. Don’t get paranoid about it, though. Just make this another taken-for-granted step in the proofreading process.

Lapses while making corrections are perhaps even more understandable than others: They happen because of the back-and-forth nature of swinging your eyes across a wide span from hard copy to computer screen and back numerous times, and jumping around from one unconnected correction to the next. Accept that these kinds of errors will sometimes occur and simply compensate for them by following this additional proofreading pathway.

You’ll also be surprised at how much this one “cleanup” step of the proofreading process will “up your batting average” of perfect jobs. So don’t just make those corrections and then fire off the completed copy to the next person. Take those few extra minutes to check that you did in fact make them. The time you invest will be more than paid back, and make you even more relaxed.

Proofreading Pathway #6

Learn how to read the copy you are proofreading as if it were the first time you had ever seen it (even if you’ve seen it before).

This important proofreading skill is a more subtle one and not something you can do by rote like the others. But it is an essential habit that can be developed.

How do you do it? First, don’t let your eyes just move across the page. Really see and comprehend what you are looking at. There is no foolproof way, of course, to objectively describe how to do this, but there is a very easy way to tell when you are not doing it. You’ll know you haven’t been doing it at those times when you suddenly realize you have no real cognizance of what the last few sentences just said. (It’s similar to the feeling you sometimes get when driving a car and all of a sudden realizing you don’t remember passing through the last several blocks you’ve driven.)

Whenever that happens, read the sentences you “spaced out” over again. Not only could an error have slipped through, but it’s at these times when you realize just what the difference is between reading something unconsciously and “seeing it for the first time.” Feel what it’s like to “shift gears” back to reading consciously whenever this happens.

You’ll know you are becoming a better proofreader when these lapses become fewer and fewer. But you will never eliminate them entirely. One reason is that you will be prone to making them whenever you are tired. (Or bored, which is often caused by being tired.) The important thing is just to recognize when a lapse has occurred and go back and start over where your attention faltered.

In the meantime, as long as you make sure to instill the habit of immediately re-reading passages where you “spaced out,” you won’t have to worry about missing errors because of it. The more you do this, the better you will get at sustaining your attention, and the less often you will have to go back and re-read. Like anything else, it just takes practice.

A Few Grab-Bag Technical Tips

  • Don’t proofread on your computer screen thinking that should suffice. Always run out hard copy to proofread from, and mark all corrections in contrasting ink (not pencil — it often blends in with the original copy too easily) so you have a record of them to go by. Proofreading on computer screens is difficult not just because of the fuzzier appearance of characters on them, but apparently because of the way images are formed with “transmitted” light from glowing phosphors rather than by the “reflected” light of the printed page.
  • Whatever the exact technical reason may be, though, experience demonstrates that the eye’s perceptual capabilities when reading from a computer screen are not up to par with reading printed output where proofreading is concerned. It’s easy enough to miss errors on a computer screen, in fact, that you just shouldn’t even consider trying to proofread there, other than making the normal corrections you find while keyboarding the copy to begin with.
  • In forums and articles on the internet where all communication is done totally electronically, typos and related errors are more or less an accepted fact of life that not too many comment on. Why? Because on the net everyone knows through hard experience the near-impossibility of putting out consistently clean copy when everything is in a completely “paperless” mode, so few people get too bent out of shape about it. Even well-known writers commit gaffes regularly without guilt. So if even luminaries like them take errors for granted when bypassing hard copy, consider the implications for your own proofreading, and whether you really want to take the chance. (You don’t.)
  • Make sure to proofread all numeric figures twice. Numbers are more difficult to proofread since the individual digits don’t occur in the larger context of a word like normal text does. You can’t read numbers “in context” like you can words and it’s therefore easier to miss things. So just like with text, check charts and financial tables twice. Going over those dry numbers two times is admittedly one of the most difficult aspects of proofreading. Don’t feel bad, though — it isn’t that easy for anyone.
  • Proofread columns of numbers and financial figures vertically (top to bottom) instead of horizontally left to right. Since financial charts are invariably keyed in line by line horizontally, proofreading the columns vertically is another way of taking advantage of the “warp-and-woof effect.” (And as a bonus, it’s easier and faster to boot.)
  • Always check critical phone numbers and address information one final time before going to press. You might be able to live with occasional minor errors in more generic, descriptive portions of the copy, but you can’t live with them here, where it’s critical information that customers will use to make contact with the advertiser.
  • Check for correct number of paragraphs. It’s always a good idea to count the number of paragraphs for correct correspondence between the author’s manuscript and the final printed version. While it is uncommon that there would be a discrepancy, the possibility exists. Given the quirks of different file formats that different word processors and publishing systems use, it is not unheard of for a paragraph break to be obliterated when a file is transferred from one electronic format to another.
  • Ensure that capitalization style is consistent rather than haphazard. This applies partly to company names, trademarked products, and other specialized jargon, but also to the way headlines are treated.
  • Make sure you use the same style of capitalization for each level of head and subheading. Some of them you may want in all caps; some you may want “U/lc” (upper and lower case) with major words only capitalized; some you may want “initial caps” (first letter of every word capitalized); and still others you may want just the first letter of the entire phrase capitalized (known as “downstyle”).
  • While the designer’s or desktop publisher’s use of contrasting type sizes, weights, ink colors, and graphics will often supplant what the writer did at the word-processing level in terms of capitalization, nevertheless, making the distinctions between different levels of heads consistent on your end helps preclude misinterpretation on the reader’s end.
  • Remember to have qualified individuals doing the proofreading — people who know English. Once again, this should be obvious. On the other hand, by no means do those proofreading need to be college English or literature majors. Just remember to pick out people on your staff who are naturally comfortable and knowledgeable about the language, and for whom it comes easily. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how many people on the staff have proofread a job. Don’t just toss a manuscript to anyone. Designate specific individuals to be regularly responsible for proofreading.
  • How many times have you heard the complaint that, “Half the people on our staff proofread it — how could that error have gotten through?” How? Because it doesn’t matter how many people on your staff proofed a job if they weren’t qualified to do it. And remember that even if you do have such people, it also may not make a difference if no one utilizes the proofreading pathways.

Special Tips for Designers, Typographers, and Desktop Publishers

  • Insist that hard copy be supplied along with the soft electronic layout or manuscript that you are given. (If you receive the manuscript or layout on a drive, a memory stick, or by email, print out your own hard copy before you get to work.) It’s absolutely invaluable when you’ve accidentally zapped something on your screen while moving stuff around on the layout, or inadvertently deleted a portion of the electronic file somehow.
  • And those of you who are the typographer’s client: Be aware that these things can, do, and will happen on occasion. If you aren’t aware that it’s happened to you yet, it’s not because it doesn’t ever happen. It does. If you haven’t heard about it, that’s only because the people doing your work are good at correcting their own mistakes and covering their tracks, as they should be.
  • Count the number of paragraph breaks for correspondence between what’s on the original hard copy and what’s on your final outputted pages. (Discussed earlier, above.)
  • Maintain a consistent capitalization style throughout the document. Clients are not always aware of the need to do this, so for professional results you should make an ongoing habit of seeing to it yourself. This is usually of most concern with headlines, which are often keyboarded in all caps on word processors to stand out, but would be set upper and lower case at a larger size and/or boldface when professionally typeset. Most often this will be your final decision as the designer, but if the client has an ironclad preference, make sure you consistently follow their directive.
  • Replace typewriter “foot marks” (') and “inch marks” (") with true typographic apostrophes () and opening and closing quotation marks ( and ), and check that they’re pointing up or down in the right direction. The most obvious sign of a typographic amateur is one who doesn’t know the difference between them. If you aren’t yet aware of the difference, it’s this: True typographic apostrophes and quotation marks are usually “curly” in shape, or even if not, always incline at a definite angle; whereas the typewriter-substitute is a simple vertical stroke or double-stroke, both of which are sometimes called “tick-marks.”
  • The single and double tick-mark characters are found on the typewriter key just to the right of the colon/semicolon key on most computer keyboards. In professional desktop publishing and word-processing software, this key typically serves instead for entering true apostrophes and true quotes — with typed tick-marks converted instantly to true typographic apostrophes/quotes automatically by the software application “on the fly” as one keys in text. Alternatively, the auto-conversion may take place as raw electronic text is pasted or flowed into text containers on the typeset layout.
  • However, even if the writer’s word-processing software (or your desktop publishing software) automatically converts tick-marks to true quotation marks, sometimes the software gets things wrong. Typically this will be quotes flipped upside down from what they should be.
  • Whatever the conversion situation (or lack thereof) may be, though, as a professional publisher you should check that things are correct, which sometimes may involve keyboarding true apostrophes or quotation marks manually. Which keystroke combinations to use (if auto-conversion has erred) varies from system to system, but if you don’t already know, either learn them by rote or learn how to use a software character palette dialog to pick them out visually.
  • Use style sheets or keyboard macros for all repetitive formatting elements. (Yes, even if you are a lightning-fast keyboardist and it might be simpler to key them from scratch at times.) Formatting consistency is your job — and your responsibility — to get right.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a temporary “crib sheet” if you need one to remind yourself of formatting elements that you want executed consistently all the way through. There is no need to develop the memory capacity of an idiot savant. Make things easy for yourself on jobs that are many pages long with many levels of formatting.
  • Check for missing — or duplicate — chunks of copy on pages where you had to experiment with rearranging copy blocks by electronic “cutting and pasting” to make the layout come out right.
  • Check for bad hyphenations. Hyphenation dictionaries are far better than they used to be, but are only so big and in most cases don’t include the entire English language. Faithfully update your “exception” or “user” hyphenation dictionary with words that the default hyphenation program breaks incorrectly. Proper names are a prime area where errors crop up. Learn the general guidelines used in published dictionaries for hyphenating words so you can tell where to break words and names that aren’t listed anywhere.

A Final Proofreading Pathway

For those preparing copy for paying customers: Make sure your clients thoroughly understand what it means when they “sign off” on the copy. (Many don’t.)

If you have any business brains at all, you probably already know what I’m about to tell you. But I’ll tell you anyway.

Even with the above arsenal of defenses against proofreading errors, once in a while some niggling little blooper is going to slip through. If you follow the proofreading pathways, you should be able to reduce them to a mere trickle. Perhaps a handful or less every year. But there are still going to be those times.…

So the final step in protecting yourself against proofreading errors is to protect yourself from lackadaisical clients. And you do that by transforming them into caring clients.

You will probably want, of course, to have a copy approval sheet that the client signs before the job goes off to the printer or is otherwise finalized. But that alone is not enough. The client must thoroughly understand what it really means when they sign off on the copy. (And if you yourself are the client, take special note of your own responsibility as explained here.) You have to impress on your clients that while you will do everything in your power to eliminate errors, ultimately it is their responsibility to see that everything is as they like it. They are paying for the job. If an error gets through, it did so with their approval and there is no “going back” without a reprint. Waking up and “getting serious” about errors only after the job has been printed is too late.

There is a common — and perhaps understandable — attitude that clients often have about graphics, typography, and printing: that the hired professionals will wave their wands and all will be magically transformed into flawless perfection. The attitude is that the “official” stuff like copy accuracy, formatting, and so on, is totally up to the pros like you and they shouldn’t have to worry about it. Let them know they have to concern themselves with it: that creating professional print materials is a mutual process that takes the full involvement of both professional and client.

It’s therefore a good idea to go the extra mile and not only write out a clear statement of the client’s responsibility on the copy approval form, but to point it out and reiterate it in person or on the phone if you haven’t dealt with them before.

Make a special point of doing so — a “big deal,” even. Don’t assume people will necessarily read the “fine print” without prompting. (Do you?) Because if you don’t, no matter who’s at fault when an error gets through, the client will assume — and perhaps insist — that you should have caught the error anyway. Let them know that you always do the best you can, but ultimately they have to take responsibility for the accuracy of the copy. Particularly let them know that where people and product names are at issue, you can only go with what they give you.

The final proofreading pathway then, is to protect yourself by transforming unaware customers into caring ones. Because in the end, it is everybody involved caring enough to pay attention that is the best insurance you can have.

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