Ward Nicholson

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Proofreading Pointers for Advertising Agency Material

Part 1

Based on my 30 years of experience as a typographer and proofreader in the graphic-design industry, here’s what to watch for when proofreading advertising agency jobs.

Of all the proofreading jobs one encounters, advertising agency material is perhaps the most critical in terms of presenting a professional image and avoiding embarrassing or costly mistakes. Unlike typical manuscript copy, when it comes to advertising work, typos and grammatical errors are only the beginning of a proofreader’s job.

Facts may need to be checked. Website addresses, physical addresses, and phone numbers verified. Brand names of competing or complementary products researched for proper spelling and capitalization. Math and percentages in charts, graphics, and product comparisons may be incorrect. Not to mention that advertising collateral is heavily designed and formatted compared to run-of-the-mill editorial copy, and there are more ways things can go wrong. You really need to be on your toes to catch the full range of potential errors.

Needed: a systematic, repeatable approach you can rely on under pressure.

So how and why is it that errors slip through proofreading? The main reason is not because the proofreader didn’t realize something was a mistake. In most cases it’s because they just didn’t physically look at the error, not that they “saw” the error but it didn’t “register.”

To make sure that you actually move your eyes across all parts of every page and see every item there, a dependable, systematic approach is essential. There are three primary keys to achieving a high degree of consistency in catching errors without serious slip-ups. (Remember, though, that everyone’s human. You’ll never be completely perfect. Errors will slip through occasionally. It keeps you humble and learning.)

  • Rule #1: Use repeatable procedures (covered below) that ensure you look at every item on each page, and don’t take shortcuts. That’s when “gaps” in attention open up, or skipping over things happens, so that errors are missed. Don’t let anyone force you into rushing beyond the pace at which you can stay both focused and relaxed. Rushing is not in either your, the agency’s, or the client’s best interest despite what they may say or think.
  • Rule #2: Maintain depth and flow of concentration, focus, rhythm, and pacing. Getting into a mental “flow” state makes proofreading more enjoyable and facilitates deeper concentration. This is done by using repeatable procedures that get you into a familiar “groove,” and by eliminating as many distractions and interruptions as possible. The only way to safely increase speed in proofreading is to maintain your momentum and pace without interruption, not by rushing.
  • Rule #3: Don’t take at face value statements by others that you “only need to look at” such-and-such an aspect of a job. Take it under advisement, but use your own judgment and experience about which things in fact need to be looked at or not. If in doubt, always read over the whole job, unless there is just no time for it. Don’t take chances — that’s not what a proofreader is paid for, again, despite what those giving you direction may try to induce you to do.

Summary: If you take an organized, repeatable approach, it will catch most of the errors for you, so instead of being tense you can relax. Relaxation actually improves concentration and focus, and there will be no need to consciously “bear down,” which in fact tends to interfere with good concentration and flow. If you become tense or paranoid about missing things, your attention will “stutter,” wasting time. Instead just follow tried-and-true methods that you know work and that allow you to relax.

Maintaining concentration

  • To maintain concentration and pacing, and minimize interruptions and distractions, use a quiet room isolated from hubbub. Use earplugs when necessary if there is conversation or noise bleeding through the walls. Human voices are more compelling and distracting than any other kind of sound. Ad agencies and design firms can be noisy and distracting places when busy. You have to insulate yourself.
  • Make sure physical comfort and energy level/flow are adequate so you aren’t drowsy, distracted, or mentally on edge. Have food/snack or drink at hand if necessary during a long job if you’ve begun to get hungry or thirsty.
  • Emotions need to be on an even keel, or good concentration can’t be achieved. If a situation on the job or elsewhere has unsettled you in any way (either negatively or positively) prior to a proofreading job, learn how to deal with it appropriately. Either temporarily “put it aside” to be dealt with later, or use a repeatable technique for calming your emotions and/or mental activity down before you begin proofreading.
  • Try to sit mostly erect and not slump. It physically helps attention stay a bit more focused than otherwise.
  • To deal with lapses in attention, see the section near the end on “How to Deal with ‘Glazing Over’ or ‘Going on Automatic.’” In a nutshell this involves noting when you have “spaced out,” backing up to your last remembered point of conscious comprehension of the text, and beginning again. Over the long-term this trains attention and concentration to become stronger.

Guidelines for making sure nothing on a page is skipped

Follow a “top-down” hierarchical approach utilizing two or three multiple passes per page. The first pass or two are relatively brief at the layout (overall design) and paragraph formatting levels, the final one in-depth at the text copy level. Human attention has a limited range of focus and can reliably concentrate on only one thing, or class of thing, at a time. It’s virtually impossible to see everything that needs looking at in a graphically designed layout in one sequential pass, so don’t even try. Divide and conquer. (Note: The three proofing levels are covered here in top-down hierarchical order. However, they can be performed bottom-up if preferred.)

First pass: Look globally at a “macro” level just to see if everything is on the page that should be, as it should be.

If you are proofing a job “for what it is” (i.e., no original reference copy to check against), you are mainly scanning to see that nothing looks awry, nothing obvious is wrong or missing. Some representative items to check:

  • Does each page follow the overall page grid (or whatever the “layout logic” is, if things are more freeform) set by the designer? Examples:
    • Consistent placement and usage of photos, graphics, rules (and rule thicknesses), running headers or footers, and so forth, according to the underlying page grid.
    • Consistent page margins, as well as the hierarchy and amounts of white space used between items.
    • Consistent implementation of the overall color scheme as applied to page objects, as well as consistently used individual color swatch values.
  • For advertising material, has critical contact info been included where needed — phone numbers, website addresses, postal addresses?
  • If the job is page-numbered, are the page numbers present, correct, and in proper sequence? The latter may depend on how the job folds. Sometimes page numbers will be purposely omitted by the designer on pages where they would interfere with graphics or the subject matter of a photo.
  • If the job has a table of contents, do the page numbers there correspond with the page numbers on the actual article pages? Mistakes here are not uncommon in newsletters, small magazines, annual reports, or other relatively short documents where page numbers in tables of contents are keyboarded manually. The probability of errors in tables of contents rises the larger the number of last-minute copyedits and layout changes that have been made. (In long-document production where tables of contents are generated automatically by software, the chance of errors is much less.)

If you are checking the proof against reference copy, especially when the job is at the Matchprint or blueline stage (i.e., contract proofs from the printer), also check for one-to-one correspondence. Don’t look at text copy during this pass other than very large headlines. Just use the brain’s “pattern-matching” mode to make sure nothing has dropped off the page, that any layering of objects is the same on both reference and proof copy, etc.

An additional item to check on the macro-level pass for Matchprints/bluelines:

  • Make a vertical scan down the right edge of each text column checking line endings to see that the sawtooth pattern (if ragged right) and/or last word of each line (if justified) matches on both reference and proof copy. This can be done quickly by shifting into your brain’s pattern-matching mode without worrying about content. It’s an efficient way to see if anything has dropped off, or if copy was added at the last minute without your knowledge. (If either is true, in almost all cases it will result in a change in the sawtooth pattern or the line endings.) It also eliminates the need to do a word-for-word correspondence proofreading at the text copy level. (Any word-for-word comparison proofing, if necessary, should have been done at an earlier stage.) Instead, once you’ve done the pattern scan for line-ending congruence, you can just “read the copy for what it is” in all but the most extreme situations.

Second pass: Here you are looking primarily at the graphics and typographic formatting of the page.

This stage can sometimes be combined with the first unless the complexity of the design makes it difficult. Check to see that:

  • Adjacent graphics and text are in alignment with each other if they should be. Example: vertical rules between text columns align properly with top/bottom of the text.
  • Stacked heads/decks/body copy align visually.
  • Drop caps sit on baseline of adjacent text copy if that is the design style. QuarkXPress and InDesign have provisions for automatically generating aligned drop caps. However, with drawing programs such as Illustrator, drop caps typically have to be set up as separate objects and manually aligned, so that there is no automatically precise way for designers to do it. In this situation it’s easy for them to neglect to check the alignment carefully.
  • Is spacing between items pleasing and/or consistent? Examples:
    • Text that is sandwiched between horizontal rules incorporates visually equal space above/below type.
    • Vertical rules between columns of type are centered between each column with visually equal space on either side.
  • Photo captions/cutlines are consistent as to typeface and type size, and tracking/kerning amount is similar.
  • Subheads are set in the same typeface and type size, tracking/kerning amount is similar, and capitalization style is consistent (either initial caps, downstyle, or all caps).
  • Paragraph indents are present where they should be, and the indent amount is consistent.
  • Trademark symbols are present where they need to be.

Third pass: Lastly, read the text copy for grammatical correctness and spelling, plus smaller formatting issues.

It’s often better to perform the two previously listed proofing stages first, as they can help prepare for this one, leaving you more relaxed and not distracted by other things on the page, as you’ve already seen and accounted for them. However, personal preference can play a role as well, so do what works best for you. Specific items to note at this stage, plus a few techniques:

  • Correct spelling and proper grammar are employed. This might include acceptable slang or industry jargon, or clipped sentences typical of advertising copy (even if the latter may perhaps be frowned on by the more strait-laced).
  • Are proper names and critical contact info correct, such as phone numbers and both physical and website addresses? If you’re expected to verify all contact info and proper names, let the client know you can only be responsible for this if they supply you with accurate reference material, or won’t begrudge the time it takes to chase it down online.
  • Be on the lookout for double spaces, which aren’t allowed in professionally typeset proportional text. Microsoft Word as well as all desktop publishing (DTP) software unfortunately allow double spaces, and many people still carry over the double-space-after-a-sentence keyboarding habit from typing classes. Typesetting systems in the era prior to desktop publishing software explicitly disallowed (prevented) double spaces, and required the use of en, em, and other types of typographic spaces when different amounts of horizontal space were needed (such as for first-line text indents). Perhaps someday DTP systems will catch up, but in the meantime proofreaders need to keep an eye out for the visual “holes” that double spaces create in text copy.
  • Proofread columns of figures vertically rather than horizontally. It’s faster and more accurate, plus alignment problems will jump out at you. Also, since tabular-format numeric or financial charts are keyed in horizontally using tab stops, it’s easier to spot keyboarding and tabbing errors by reading “counter to the grain” vertically.
  • Check for widows, bad rags, and loose-line problems. The traditional definition of a “widow” by typographers is something less than about 7–10 characters, but the definition at some ad agencies and design studios may be more restrictive, or less. In extremely restrictive cases a widow might mean anything less than one-third of the column width. Don’t mark widows, orphans, or rag problems in early job stages, though. Wait until the job is nearing final approval, so extra work isn’t caused by subsequent copy edits that result in rewraps later.
  • A “bad rag” means any unsightly holes in the right rag when copy is set flush left/ragged right. Some agencies and designers may disallow hyphens to the point it results in frequent bad-rag issues (with flush-left copy) or loose lines/“rivers” (with justified copy) that have to be dealt with. How large a hole or how bad a loose line is bad enough to be marked depends on individual policies and/or the amount of deadline time left to fix.
  • Orphans (when a single line of a paragraph appears by itself either at the top or bottom of a column) are usually something to be avoided. Almost everyone prohibits orphans that occur at the bottom of a column, but those at the top of a column, depending on the agency, may be acceptable if they completely fill out the line, or nearly so. Making the call here can depend in part on how much design flexibility is available for reworking the layout.
  • Bleeds. Give layouts a quick, final bird’s-eye-view pass for bleeds and any previously overlooked alignment issues. (A good way to do it with PDFs is to look at them on your computer monitor with the view size set to “fit page in window,” so you can see everything on each spread in one glance.) Designers and production artists sometimes leave items that should bleed cropped to the trim edge instead, and forget to extend the boundaries of those items using the required ⅛″ bleed.
  • Bleed-related positioning of text. Sometimes even though bleeds may be set up correctly, a column of headlines or text copy sitting on the left or right side of a spread will be centered with respect to the standard bleed boundary that’s ⅛″ outside the trim edge, rather than with respect to the trim edge itself. It’s easy to miss on the layout but noticeable on the final trimmed job, so you have to consciously look for it. (To check for this with PDFs, in the electronic file temporarily crop all pages down to the exact trim dimensions, if it hasn’t already been done by the designer.) This issue doesn’t pop out at you like other things often do.
next: Part 2 →

Part 2

The most frequent issues that crop up with ad agencies and graphic designers

  • Double spaces in body copy. Usually these occur after periods, but occasionally they may appear in the middle of a sentence somewhere as well.
  • Drop caps that don’t align with adjacent text baseline.
  • Use of foot (') and inch (") marks (sometimes called “tick-marks”) rather than true apostrophes () and opening and closing quotation marks ( and ).
  • Improper use of the three types of dashes: hyphens (-), en (medium) dashes (--), and em (long) dashes ().
    • Hyphens are used to join certain compound words (like “merry-go-round”) and to indicate words that have been split at the end of a line of text.
    • En dashes are used to substitute for the word “to” when indicating a range between two numeric values (for example, the decade from 1970–1980). They can also be used as a separator character, with a space on either side, where a colon (:) might otherwise be used.
    • A single em dash is used to indicate a lengthier pause than typically denoted by a comma — usually to set off an explanatory clause from the phrase preceding it.
    • A pair of em dashes is inserted both before and after an explanatory clause that occurs within a longer sentence — so as to frame the beginning and end of the clause, and help distinguish it from the preceding and following phrases — thereby making the sentence structure easier to follow.
  • Missing hyphens in compound adjectives. The reason for hyphenating compound adjectives is to prevent any misunderstanding by the reader, with hyphens used to tie together the words of an adjectival phrase to make things more clear. For example, “small animal hospital” might mean either an animal hospital that’s small, or it could instead mean a hospital for small animals. Hyphenating the phrase as “small-animal hospital” makes it clear the second meaning is the intended one. Basically, hyphenating compound modifiers “telegraphs” to the reader that the modifiers should be read as a grouped phrase that, as a whole, modifies the target noun rather than each of the words modifying the target noun separately.
  • Note: The -ly exception to hyphenating compound adjectives. One inconsistency in English is there’s an exception to the compound-adjective hyphenation rule when the first word of a compound modifier ends with the syllable -ly (for example, in “highly digestible fruit”). Going strictly by the logic for compound modifiers, it should be hyphenated as “highly-digestible,” but the convention is not to do so with -ly forms (presumably because the -ly form itself telegraphs that a compound modifier is coming).
  • Proper use of comma before the final item in a series of three or more items, where the last item is preceded by “and” or “or.” Prior to the last few decades, standard practice was to include a comma prior to the “and” or “or” before the final item. However, it’s now more common to drop the comma instead (the thought apparently being this will make things look cleaner or “read faster”). In about one out of every five to ten cases or so, though, this can cause confusion when the final item in the series is a compound noun which itself contains an “and,” or when the series of items is followed by an added phrase or clause that’s tacked on with a conjoining “and.”
  • Because of this, dropping the comma before the final item in a series may leave the sentence in a state that could be interpreted two different ways, forcing the reader to go back over the final phrase or two a second time to deduce the correct meaning, so the rule doesn’t always make logical sense. Thus it can never be followed consistently and proofreaders are left to deal with the fallout.
  • If a particular client or employer doesn’t insist on the practice of stripping out the final comma, we suggest including it in every case for consistency’s sake and as a basic courtesy out of respect for the reader. This way they aren’t kept guessing (i.e., whether the writer might have simply forgotten to include it for clarity when they should have) and therefore don’t have to remain on alert for sentences where an absent comma may cause confusion, forcing them to have to backtrack and re‑read to understand. Otherwise, where the rule is to strip out final commas, remember the exception: If confusion in meaning might be caused by the lack of a comma before the final “and” or “or” in a series, insert the comma despite the rule.
  • Missing wordspace between copyright symbol (©) and the year following. The symbol stands for the word “copyright,” and is therefore treated like a word for spacing purposes. It should not be jammed right up against the copyright year that follows.
  • Missing year after copyright symbol. A copyright statement is not valid without an associated year, which should be present.

Miscellaneous Issues

Special software-related booby traps to watch out for

  • Words obscured by graphics. Occasionally some portions of text with a contoured wraparound that follows a custom shape around an adjacent photo or graphic may disappear behind the object. The usual cause is if the object has been placed higher in the stacking order of objects on the page than the text. On rare occasion, software bugs in generating PDF files can cause the same thing, even when the actual page layout file (InDesign, QuarkXPress, etc.) is correct.
  • Words that “fall off” the right edge of a column (for any dinosaurs who may still be using FreeHand): There is a bug in FreeHand where the last word or two on a ragged right line will sometimes “drop off” the edge and become invisible. (Rare, but it seems to have the potential for happening when designers have custom-tracked a line tighter to keep a word at the end of a line from dropping down to the next.)

Marking up corrections

  • Try to use the minimum amount of markup to indicate corrections as long as what you mean remains clear. Briefer is better for designers in a hurry, and less visually confusing if there is much other markup on the page.
  • Stack any comments or instructions that you need to write a few words to a line, grouped adjacent to the error rather than written out in a long horizontal line. It’s less visually confusing this way when there are multiple corrections on a page. Also it leaves you more unencumbered white space to utilize, the more corrections there are per page.
  • If you aren’t sure about something, query it by using a question mark after your comment, and/or write “not sure” in parentheses. Budget and/or deadline issues usually mean you won’t have time to contact the copywriter or principal for an answer — so alert those on the other end of things with your markup, but let them deal with it.
  • If there are two errors that are marked very close together on the page, make sure they are easily distinguishable. Circle the corrections separately to make them easy to distinguish, and/or mark them in different ink colors. Otherwise it’s easy for the designer or production artist to overlook one or the other since the two corrections will tend to blend together visually.
  • On proofs to be faxed back in black-and-white, or scanned to PDF as grayscale for emailing, circle small errors and notations so they’re easy to spot. Unless both parties have color fax machines, faxing back proofs marked up with a red pen will render both copy and markup as black. Scanning proofs to PDF as black-and-white or grayscale eliminates red as well. (Color scans are slow and almost invariably cause the PDF file size to be unmanageably large for attaching to emails.)
  • Footnote symbol sequence to use when unnumbered footnotes are employed, typically in brochures, follows this order: asterisk (*), dagger (), double dagger (), section mark (§). After these four symbols, practice varies. Two more symbols are sometimes added to the first four, in this order: parallels (||), then the number sign (#), a.k.a. the pound sign. If more symbols are needed, either beyond the first four or the first six, standard practice after that is to double each symbol (i.e., **, ††, ‡‡, §§), then to triple them if a third cycle through the footnote-mark sequence is needed.
  • Be kind with wording. Indicate what to do, if possible, rather than what was done wrong. Mistakes are normal. Everyone makes them, including proofreaders now and then. Treat others as you would wish to be treated, especially if/when discussing corrections as you hand off the proofs to the designer, production artist, or production manager.

Dealing with reversed-out copy

  • Ideally, use an opaque white or metallic silver ink pen to perform markup on reversed copy (white lettering on a black, gray, or colored background). Unfortunately, very few pens will successfully write opaquely enough on reversed copy to show up on a fax or scan, without the toner particles on laser-printed paper causing the pen to either clog quickly or the pen tip to break down permanently. Only one brand of pen I’ve tested has been up to the challenge: the Sakura Gelly Roll Medium, in White ink (#37819) or the Gelly Roll Metallic Silver (#38803), and the latter usually works better.
  • One alternative is to use sticky notes pasted on top of reversed copy. Downsides to watch for:
    • It’s slow and cumbersome, and can inflate the time required to proofread jobs by 25–50% in a worst-case scenario if there are numerous areas of reversed-out copy and lots of errors.
    • You can’t always put down a sticky note immediately because you’ll cover up what you haven’t yet read. Sometimes you may have to hold four or five corrections in your head before you have enough room to stick down a note without covering up something you haven’t looked at yet, and by that time it’s easy to forget what you meant to mark.
    • Sticky notes might occasionally fall off the page. If you are faxing back the proofs or scanning to PDF, the sticky end of all notes has to be positioned to feed into the fax machine or scanner first, or they might peel off going through. (Tip: Tear off the bottom half of the sticky note flap before sticking down. This reduces the likelihood of the sticky note falling off, or peeling off when run through the fax machine or scanner.)
  • Another alternative if you receive the job to be proofed as a PDF file: Open/rasterize the PDF in Photoshop (as grayscale at about 300 dpi) and do an Invert operation to swap black and white, then print out for proofing and markup. Sometimes doing a Curves adjustment layer is also necessary after inverting to drop out tinted backgrounds.
  • Advantages:
    • Works on any type of job that a creative designer can throw at you.
    • No balky white pens (if you don’t have the metallic-silver Sakura brand mentioned above) or cumbersome sticky notes.
    • Intermediate in speed between sticky notes and white/silver pen.
    • Great when the job contains many problems and there’s lots to mark up.
    • Great for big/long jobs (quicker than sticky-note approach).
  • Disadvantages:
    • Have to have some familiarity with how to use Photoshop.
    • Can’t utilize when proofing printouts handed to you for on-site proofing on client premises.
    • Not feasible for jobs with only a few or small reversed areas — extra time to Photoshop the reversed areas outweighs the benefits.
    • Won’t save time on jobs that are relatively clean to start with — but often you don’t know this going into the job till you’ve already looked at a few pages.
  • Another possibility might be using Adobe Acrobat’s commenting options to mark up PDF files directly (electronically) to get around the reversed-out type issue. However, speed would suffer considerably. The type of precision markup that professional proofreaders need to do is more difficult with computer input devices than marking on paper, and even slower than sticky notes.
  • Also, if one were tempted to proofread directly on the screen as well, accuracy would fall. (More errors are missed with electronic proofreading than traditional paper proofreading.) Designers would find things more time-consuming as well, since traditional proofreading markup is immediately visible without the delays introduced with Acrobat markup by having to click and open (or expand) each marked-up comment separately.

Special notes for Matchprints/bluelines (contract proofs from printing vendor)

  • Do a cursory check for any obvious trapping problems that jump out when doing the initial, global “macro”-level scan of each page. Don’t worry too much about this, though, as the designer(s) of the job should be going over the graphical aspects of the job like this with a fine-tooth comb in most cases, and that’s their area of responsibility and expertise.
  • Compare cropping of photos on the printer’s proofs with the reference copy. Just use the brain’s pattern-matching mode for quick comparison — no need to pore over things at any length. Occasionally a photo’s size or orientation will go out of whack during the prepress or RIPing (raster-image-processing) stage at the printer, and this will show up quickly in cropping. Looking at the cropping will also reveal if the wrong photo entirely has been dropped in by accident.
  • Check that photos are high-resolution, not low-resolution proxies (so‑called “FPOs,” for-position-only photos left over from earlier layout stages). There’s no need to study photos at length. Just check to see that photos are not “soft”-looking — they should have a nice crisp look.

A few stray dos and don’ts

  • Do ask for reference (original) copy to proofread new proofs against, if not supplied to begin with.
  • Before a job is “collected for output” for the printer, remind designers to give you their final corrected proofs to check against the final set of marked-up corrections, unless there is just no time. (Sometimes designers will try to, or have to, rush the job out the door without running the final “minor” corrections by the proofreader, and this can backfire.)
  • Always proofread hard copy. Don’t try to proofread on the computer screen. The legibility of glowing electronic phosphors suffers compared to print. You’ll miss errors.
  • Okay, due to changing times, there is one exception I’ll make here, and it’s one I’ve been making myself in recent years: From time to time, I am asked to proofread the copywriter’s Microsoft Word file(s), with the expectation that I use the electronic Track/Review Changes function to speed things along. The idea here is two-fold: The copy is (a) in an early-approval stage before being flowed into a desktop-publishing layout or published on a website (usually the latter); and (b) will likely be proofread again later once the final designed-and-laid-out document has been finalized, prior to printing or going live on the website.
  • Given these circumstances, I think it makes sense to go ahead and proofread directly on the computer monitor. Since part of the point of using Word’s electronic redlining function is to save time and cost, it would defeat part of that purpose to print out and mark things up on paper, then duplicate that same effort by having to transfer all the corrections by keyboard into Word. While agencies and clients don’t always follow up with a final proofreading after the copy has gone live on a website, if that’s the preferred workflow these days due to more limited time or accelerated publishing schedules, I can certainly flow with it.
  • Remember to initial and date proofs when you’re finished proofreading, if needed for chain-of-approval sign-offs.

How to deal with “glazing over” or “going on automatic”

Dealing with at least some level of boredom in proofreading is an inevitable part of the job. This is especially so after having read a job more than once or twice, though it also happens due either to subject matter you have no particular interest in, or just due to the volume of proofreading you may have already done on a given day. The compensation is that proofreading well can’t be rushed, and once those you work with clearly understand that, the deadline pressure you work under is somewhat less than for those whose jobs you’re proofreading.

The danger with boredom is that the eyes and brain will revert to a mode of half-awarely “processing” the text without actually consciously “registering” what’s being read. Primarily this is a problem with body copy. To effectively deal with it, use two interdependent strategies:

  • First, don’t let your eyes just move across the page. Really see and comprehend what you are looking at. This is equivalent to an attitude of reading the copy as if it were the first time you had seen it. It’s not something that can be objectively described, but it’s a habit that can be developed, and it’s easy to recognize when you aren’t doing it. You’ll know it’s happened 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.) This leads to the second strategy, which reinforces the first:
  • Whenever you realize you’ve “spaced out” or haven’t mentally registered what you just read, back up to the last point you remember consciously reading, and begin again. This ensures two things. First, that you in fact consciously look at and mentally register everything. And second, bringing your attention back to your last remembered point and re-reading what you previously “glazed over” trains concentration to become stronger with repetition over time. There’s no real secret beyond this. It just takes practice. Feel what it’s like to “shift gears” back to reading consciously whenever this happens.
  • Over time, lapses will become fewer, and you’ll notice almost immediately as you begin to space out, so you can get right back on track. (Note: These lapses won’t ever go away entirely. Fatigue will cause them among other things. And to repeat what was mentioned above, aside from reading a particular job multiple times, attention can also tire and “glaze over” just from the ongoing daily volume of proofreading multiple jobs closely, even though each is different. The important thing is developing the skill of “getting back on the bike.”)

A final thought

To repeat what was noted at the beginning: proofreaders miss errors on occasion too, hopefully infrequently, but it does happen, and it will happen. Follow a thorough system consistently, and usually the errors that slip through will be minor ones. Occasionally, though, you may get bit by a bigger one.

Just remember you’re human. Let the people around you know that too. Demonstrate it by being forgiving and understanding when discussing errors on jobs with them, and they’ll likely be forgiving of you. When an error is pointed out that got by you, try to learn why it happened. Use that knowledge to reinforce what proofreading practices you need to pay attention to better, what kind of lapse was the cause, and to minimize the chances of it happening again.

And remember: Just relax. In the end, fewer errors will get by that way.

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