Kathleen Drum shares her proofreading secrets

As Assistants, we are often asked to proofread or edit our Executives’ emails, letters and reports before they are sent out, but did you know that these functions are considered so important in the UK, that there is a Society dedicated to just that? I recently attended the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (www.SfEP.org.uk) course “Proofreading 1: An Introduction”. Whilst the majority of the course focussed on the technical aspects of proofreading, the professional proofreaders gave me some great tips on how to make this part of our role easier:

1. Be clear on what is required

In professional circles, this is known as “the brief” and is where you find out exactly what you need to do. For example, are you the last in a long line of writers/editors where your job is to check for spelling and grammar, or are you at the beginning of the process where editing the text is encouraged or expected? The timeframe for the final document will also dictate how much time you can spend on amendments or additions. If it is urgent, then a thorough proof-read of the existing text is much better than a quick or sloppy edit. Remember – the more changes you make, the more errors you could introduce! If you are unsure about anything, then query it.

2. Don’t impose your personal style on a document

It is important to preserve the author’s voice. If you have worked with your Executive for a while, you will be aware of their favourite words and phrases. If not, look at previous documents to get a sense of their style. If your company has a “house style” with regards to formatting or grammar, then stick to that – even if your own internal grammar rules are different!

In short:

  • If it’s wrong, change it.
  • If it’s “good enough”, leave it alone.
  • If you don’t like it, but it’s not wrong, leave it alone.

3. Separate your proofreading into different “passes” of the document

If this is a new document that you haven’t seen, two (or more) passes can help you familiarise yourself with the content, and means that you are less likely to miss any obvious errors.

For example, on a long letter or report, the first pass could be for layout – check that the page numbers are sequential, the justification is the same on all pages, the headings relate to the text and the heading styles are the same. The second pass could then be for content – spelling, grammar and punctuation.

4. Tips for spotting all the errors in a document

  • Read slowly
  • Watch out for incorrect use of apostrophes
  • Be smarter than the Spellchecker: look for transposed letters (form/from or sued/used) or one wrong letter in a short word (or/of, now/not, if/it)
  • Don’t be caught out by frequently misused words – discreet/discrete or principal/principle
  • Check for missing or extra words – especially short ones such as is, in or it.
  • Know your audience – will you be using American or English spelling in your document? Be consistent.
  • Finally, remember to take regular breaks and think about your posture!

5. Further information and resources

In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (ciep.uk) has a number of low-cost PDFs and hard-copy books created by members. The Society also runs courses for proofreading, copy-editing and brushing up your grammar. For reference books they recommend the New Oxford Style Manual which includes two updated reference works – New Hart’s Rules (style information) and New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The New Oxford Spelling Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary are also recommended reference books. The Oxford English Dictionary is available online by paid subscription (www.oed.com).

In the US, the Editorial Freelancers Association (www.the-efa.org) performs a similar function to the SfEP and also provides booklets and other information on proofreading.

The SfEP website has a “links” page which provides a list of proofreading and editorial associations in countries other than the UK and US.

Finally, if you wish to practice proofreading, there is a (UK) book available called Proofreading Practice: a book of exercises with model answers and commentary written by Margaret Aherne (https://www.margaret-aherne.co.uk/book_proofreading.php), which is also recommended by the Society.

Being proficient at proofreading and editing are skills that will be useful in whatever Assistant role you do. You could also bring these skills to bear on brochures, leaflets and other literature that your company produces, as well as your company website. In the ever-changing world of work, writing (and therefore editing and proofreading) is one thing that hasn’t changed – and with the increase in the number of blogs, website, mobile apps and e-books the amount of information we consume via the printed word has increased.

Kathleen Drum’s mission is to bring thought-provoking, timely and inspiring content to administrative professionals worldwide, empowering them to succeed in their roles and excel in their careers. As the Senior Editor at Executive Support Media, she works ... (Read More)

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