• A Professional Proofreader’s Margin of Error

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in ABCs of Writing     Comments 12 comments

    ProofreadingI recently had an interesting conversation with WBN client Robert L. We were discussing a proof of his novel and he was anxious about moving forward, understandably. Robert had had a bad experience with a professional proofreader who charged him an arm and a leg and didn’t deliver on what he had promised.

    Unfortunately, this happens often. In an industry saturated with independents—either freelancers or writers who pick up editorial work on the side—a writer better get savvy about choosing wisely (which is a post topic for another time). There are a lot of folks out there who call themselves professional proofreaders, but that doesn’t make it so. Just because I say I’m a shoe doesn’t make me a shoe. In order to be a shoe, I would need to have certain characteristics, certain qualities about me that are shoe-like: I would be foot-shaped, for example, and made of perhaps leather, canvas, or rubber. Bottom line: to be a proofreader, you must know how to proofread and you must do it well. There’s little subjectivity there. You either catch the errors and fix them or you don’t.


    Poofreaderz Ar Only Humane

    The purpose of proofreading (separate and distinct from editing) is to ensure an error-free manuscript for the sake of reader clarity and professionalism, as well as your peace of mind in producing a sound product. The problem is human error. It’s unavoidable. No matter how sharp a proofreader, s/he will inevitably miss something. This goes for all books, not just those moving through the indie publishing process. On the shelves of your local bookstore and libraries across the country, there are thousands upon thousands of mistakes that someone failed to catch. We can opine on this state of affairs until the cows come home but the fact remains, we are human and humans make mistakes.

    This can be a hard reality to swallow, especially when you’ve invested hundreds or even thousands of dollars into the polishing of your prose only to learn that the end result will not be perfect.

    Given this tricky state of affairs, what is an acceptable margin of error? If not perfection, what defines a successful proof?

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    Can You Spell F-I-R-E-D?

    In the case of Robert L., the proofer “lost track of the conversation between individuals in several places and started new paragraphs in the wrong places,” Rob told me. “Then the missed ink devils: sparingly instead of sparsely; in instead of is; etc.” To wit, if you need to re-proof your proof, it was most definitely not a success.

    Sadly, Rob’s isn’t the only horror story I’ve heard. After a decade in the industry, I’ve seen my fair share of editorial nightmares: proofs completed without Track Changes, editors who did half the work then disappeared, folks who could barely spell let alone proof.

    Last year, longtime WBN client Sheli M. shared with me her experience of seeking cheap editorial services on a popular bidding site (sites such as Thumbtack, oDesk, and Fiverr connect service providers with clients for gigs at negotiable rates). “One editor seemed to have so many commonalities with me,” Sheli emailed me, “until she sent me back a reply which had two misspelled words in it; councillor, and spelt (not the bread). Maybe spelt is used for spelled, but I didn’t like her saying she wasn’t sure if she spelt those words correctly!” And who can blame her? Is it too much to ask that your editor demonstrate in all professional correspondence a mastery of the English language? I think not.

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    English With a Side of Math

    “When it comes to editing and proofing,” Rob said in our conversation about the pitfalls of the proof, “I think there should be a ratio between the number of grammatical errors versus the number of grammatical errors missed. So if a manuscript has 200 ink devils of which 20 were missed, then the manuscript has a ten percent editing error rate. That, of course, raises the question of standards of excellence. What is an acceptable error rate?”

    Indeed. Here at WBN, we strive for perfection with the understanding that there is no such thing. Personally, I wouldn’t consider a ten percent error rate to be a success, but I’m a perfectionist—I’m also a professional proofreader, and a professional proofreader’s standards are likely to be miles apart from those of an inexperienced proofer. For that guy, catching even a few errors is cause for celebration.

    To me, a successful proof is one in which the manuscript comes out the other side looking supremely professional, clean, and polished. Not only that, a successful proof demonstrates a deep understanding of and respect for the intricacies of language–the way that a misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence, the point of a paragraph, and thus the course of an entire narrative.



    Writers: What’s a successful proof to you? What is an acceptable margin of error? Have you ever received a proof you weren’t happy with? What did you learn from the experience? Tell us your story in the comments below.

    Proofers: Same questions, except replace “received” with “delivered” in the third question.


    Justine Tal Goldberg, ownerWriteByNight owner Justine Duhr is an award-winning writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Anomalous Press, Whiskey Island, Fringe Magazine, The Review Review, and other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing and has provided writing instruction at Vassar College and Emerson College.

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    Jerry Schwartz

    [Note that my website (or is that web site?) is NOT the same as Justine’s.] I have done quite a bit of proofreading (and editing, and writing) over the years, much of it with engineering and scientific documentation; but I’ve done some fiction. Although the technical work was in connection with my job, I’ve never been a “professional” proofreader. I’ve never charged anyone for it. Now that I’ve explained where I’m coming from, here are some of my thoughts on the subject: I don’t believe that an email should look like a teenage girl’s text message. “Luv U2 CUL” is… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Ah, I see I forgot to address Justine’s specific questions. That’s egotism (and egoism) for you. In either role, I aim for 100%. It’s possible to get very, very close, if the writer and the proofreader are working together successfully. I see it as a process of grooming the text, rather than a one time mechanical exercise. That’s true whether I’m the writer or the proofreader. As a writer, I probably wouldn’t get horribly upset about a few commas; but anything that changed or garbled the sense of what I was trying to say would upset me enough to reject… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Thanks so much for weighing in, Jerry. You make some excellent points. Re: “I see it as a process of grooming the text, rather than a one time mechanical exercise.” I think that’s an excellent way to put it. Grammar rules seem straightforward, but there’s a lot of push and pull, especially with creative writing, even more so with experimental writing or writing that challenges convention. The proofer needs to know the rules inside and out so that s/he knows when and how to break them, all in the best interest of the text. Re: “When it comes to a… Read more »

    Liz L

    I’ve written a novel, and I’m also doing the subject of Editing this year, and being taught by a Penguin/Random House editor who really knows her stuff. I’ve been taught that in publishing, proofreading comes at the end stages of the publishing process. Copy editing, however, comes much earlier – so, it sounds to me as though there are quite a few proofreaders out there who are, in effect, going through the process of copy editing.(Mind you this is so in Australia; might be different in the US) As a writer, my command to those supposedly ‘in the know’ would… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    That’s a really common misconception, Liz, so I’m glad you brought it up. There’s a lot of confusion out there about the difference between copy editing and proofreading, and also when in the writing process each of those treatments should occur. (There are other kinds of editing too, but let’s not muddy the waters here.) You’re absolutely right: copy editing (also known as line editing) comes earlier in the process, once all of the content is in place and as the author wishes it to be. Proofreading is the final step of the process. After a (successful) proof, a manuscript… Read more »

    Glynis Jolly

    Yes, there is the human element. I’m thinking that between the beta readers, editors, and proofreader, there’s a good possibility that all errors will be caught. But no one is perfect, and I’m quite aware of the fact. What happened to Robert is unforgivable to me. The copy editor surely caught stuff like that already. I hope that proofreader isn’t someone I use. In some of the books I’ve read, there’s a couple of typos that were missed. That is human error, pure and simple, although I’m sure it has the author upset.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    If there are beta readers and editors! I talk to writers often who have skipped those steps, and also writers who don’t feel a proof is necessary. I can’t stress it enough: a proof is necessary. Editing is necessary. Each and every step is absolutely vital to the production of a quality, professional manuscript.

    I also hope that proofreader isn’t yours!

    Jerry Schwartz

    Based on my personal environment, I probably blurred the lines between beta readers, copy editors, and proofreaders. I, and my associates, tend to perform all three functions (accord to the author’s wishes). I absolutely agree that you need to know the rules before you break them. That’s why I mentioned education as one of my possible duties. I’ve worked with some writers whose first piece was an absolute mess; the next was much better; and by the third he or she needed nothing more than a second pair of eyes. Of course, I’ve also worked with authors who disappeared after… Read more »

    […] spelling and punctuation, etc., and will not address issues in flow, clarity, or style. Read this fun post on proofing for […]

    Jack Rochester

    What’s a successful proof to you? Of course, one with very few errors. Also, one which doesn’t introduce new errors. Both are impossible to achieve. I can only think of one Big Five novel I’ve read in the pst few years that had not a single typo. John Grisham’s latest had many, such as Jack instead of Jake for one of the most blatant. What is an acceptable margin of error? For me as a writer, I would have to say a number under ten errors in an entire 80Kw ms. Have you ever received a proof you weren’t happy… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hi Jack. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    You’re right, *definitely* a different skill than copyediting. We quote separately for the two services and many writers ask why. Why can’t the person who edits also proof at the same time? Can’t he/she also spot and fix the typos, etc., along the way? Aren’t editing and proofreading basically the same thing?

    I do understand that response. It makes sense… until you’ve actually tried to both at once.

    This proofer of yours. Of the 35+ errors, how many were new/introduced?

    Joanne Crigamire

    I am an independent editor and proofreader. I don’t care how many times I have to reread a manuscript, it does not get delivered until it is perfect to me and my author. It’s discouraging to hear such horror stories.
    I couldn’t put a finger on what percentage of errors should be acceptable. That’s a tough call.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x