After signing a contract for a new assignment, one of the basics of proofreading is to ask the client which style to use for the manuscript. The answer to the style question determines how punctuation, capitalization and a number of structural rules are used to present the client’s ideas. That style guide is your instruction manual for proofreading.
Outside of newspapers you’ll generally want to use Chicago style. Associated Press style is made for newspapers, which require stricter adherence to rules for formatting and clarity sake. The Chicago Manual deals with writing on blogs and in print, which requires more attention to technology and expression of ideas.
Aside from the style question, knowing these proofreading basics can help you catch these errors the first time around.
Repetition means words, phrasing and sentence structure. I write in stream of consciousness, and so my real “writing” happens once I’m done. My first drafts are an embarrassment because of that. When I proofread my work, I look at my commas to determine how I’ve used sentence structure. Then I look for common words like “also,” “always,” “like,” “and,” and other words that I know I’m prone to over using. I’ve also trained my eyes to note these things when I see them.
Inconsistency is usually due to confusion on which style the client wants the manuscript edited in. I find spacing is a basic proofreading problem as well. I often see manuscripts with single spacing after a period except in a handful of instances. Use your find command (on Windows it’s “Control+F” on Mac it’s “Command+F”) and search for double spaces. Literally, press space twice on your keyboard and click “Search.” It will catch every spacing error in the document better than you can.
Source material can be another factor. In most manuscripts I’ve worked on, the client has had more than one typist doing the work, or may have used editors before me. All sorts of basic formatting problems can creep up, like line spacing issues. A careful reading will catch most of that.
How and when you use commas goes back to the style that you’re using. In AP style, we use one comma to separate a simple list of three items. A list that includes some of this, one of these and a few of those would only need one comma to denote each item.
Chicago style uses the serial, or “Oxford,” comma to denote each portion of the list. This is done for clarity sake, as in the famous example “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope.” Obviously, the speaker’s parents are not a dynamic duo of religious righteousness.
Capitalizing seems to be one of the most commonly overlooked proofreading basics I encounter in other people’s writing. Please don’t outright take offense to this; there are all sorts of reasons for it. For one, title caps!
The Villabouts of the Wherein Kelly
I’ve used this comical example from Frisky Dingo as a method of illustrating one inconsistency. Let’s break down why we capitalize things like the first “The” but not the second.
We generally DO capitalize:
- Suboordinating Conjunctions
We generally DO NOT capitalize:
- Articles (a, an, the)
- Coordinating Conjunctions (but, or, for, nor)
- Prepositions (to, at, on, from, by)
There will be exceptions to these rules, as in the above example where “The” was the first word in the title. If the manuscript you’re proofreading uses title case, these errors should be easy to spot.
One of the most helpful tips I’ve retained since my days as a school lad was my penchant for printing. I recently finished the first draft of my own book (working title: Black Thursday), I printed four copies. It cost me a lot more than I want to share, but I actually got to dig into the manuscript and make edits by hand. I have page numbers and multiple comments from other readers to refer to as well. For those more comfortable on computer, you can use track changes, but the feel of a manuscript in your hands can sometimes make the difference for a serious editor.
Reading the text aloud also helps get a sense for tone. Things about the flow that you don’t notice when you read in your head become apparent aloud. I’m not advocating rehearsal for a speech, but when in doubt read aloud. If you’re hired to do a lot of proofreading for style and flow, read the script out loud and make your changes from there.
Typos, Homonyms and Other Proofreading Basics
There are lots of common errors people botch too:
- Usage of to, too, and two
- Affect vs. effect, ail vs. ale and other homonyms (words that sound similar but have different spellings)
- Using numbers below 10. No matter which style guide you’re using, you never use figures below 10.
- Misspellings and typos
Remember that you won’t catch all of these things your first time. In time, you’ll develop an eye that will help you figure out which aspects of the manuscript need the most work. For beginners, start small and go line-by-line. Put yourself in a quiet space like a library and remember the proofreading basics.
Richard Bashara is a copywriter and proofreader with an interest in search and email marketing. He has written about business, comics, technology and zombies since 2007.