This post is definitely not giving away editorial trade secrets and doesn’t mean that my colleagues need to release the hounds to shut me up before I can do any more harm. However, some clients probably could do some basic proofreading tasks for themselves…
The aim of this post is to help students (and others) to help themselves when writing a document, such as a thesis, dissertation or essay. It will highlight some of the most common jobs that a proofreader will usually do on a student’s piece of work but which could actually be done quite easily by the author. It also includes tips for getting a professional proofreading quotation.
Prior to publishing this I’d worried whether the underworld mafioso of editors and proofreaders might blackball me for giving away trade secrets and ruining business for thousands of colleagues across the globe. However, in my defence, I would say that this advice is little more than common sense.
“There will always be a need for professional editing and proofreading”
Besides, even when a student has carried out all of these checks on their work, it’s almost inevitable that a decent proofreader will still find something that isn’t quite right. Therefore, there will always be a need for professional editing and proofreading. I am just trying to encourage some students to get the basics right, which should then mean that a proofreader will be able to get into the more technical aspects of the job much quicker and without distractions.
Despite being aimed primarily at students, the advice below is also relevant to other people/organisations who are looking to use a proofreader where material possibly isn’t going through several different rounds of editing (as it would in traditional publishing).
So, what can an author do in terms of editing/proofreading their work before sending it to a professional?
1. Use the spelling and grammar check on Word
Yes, it’s an obvious thing to state, but you might be surprised how often this doesn’t appear to have been done when I receive a document for proofreading. One of the first things I’ll do is to run a spelling and grammar check and it’s very rare for it not to pick up an error. Plus, it helps if you run the check in your desired language, such as English (United Kingdom) or English (United States).
I’d also suggest setting up the options in Word to ‘check spelling as you type’ and ‘mark grammar errors as you type’. After doing this, if you see a red or blue squiggly line under any text, you might have an error (or you might not).
Check that the correct document styles/formatting have been applied consistently throughout. This means looking at the nuts and bolts of your document. Ignore the meaning of the words for a moment and concentrate instead on how they are laid out on the page. The following list could run on and on, but a few examples of things to check are:
- font type and size in the main text, headings, sub-headings, tables, figures, etc.
- text alignment (e.g. left or centre)
- line spacing and/or indentation at the beginning of each paragraph
- double spaces after full stops – in this day and age, you can probably get rid of them.
This is all very simple, obvious stuff and just requires attention to detail rather than specialist editorial skill. Microsoft Word can sometimes do funny things and it’s not unheard of for styles/layouts to unexpectedly change in the middle of a document.
2. Check that the use of language and associated ‘stuff’ is correct and consistent
Here we’re starting to get deeper into the actual wording of the document. Again, this list could be lengthy and to some degree will depend on the conventions you are following, but examples include:
- defining acronyms at their first mention and then subsequently using these acronyms (e.g. “… the British Geological Survey (BGS) has investigated this … A study produced by the BGS showed …”)
- the use of hyphens (e.g. anti-social or antisocial)
- the use of en dashes (–) and em dashes (—) and any surrounding spaces (e.g. “… and the study showed—against all expectations—that …” and “p. 1–5”)
- the use of italics for non-English terms (e.g. modus operandi )
- the use (or not) of gender-neutral language (e.g. “he/she”, “s/he”, “she” or “he”)
- the use of double and/or single quotation marks
- the use of the serial, or Oxford, comma
- formatting of dates (e.g. 1 January 2001 or 1st January 2001)
- with numbers, a comma to separate thousands (e.g. 1,000 or 1000).
A professional proofreader will probably have macros or specialist software to look at these things, but an author could have a good go at it using a pen and paper and Word’s ‘Find’ function.
3. Check the citations/references
Most academic papers will include references to work by other authors. The formatting of citations/references should be checked to ensure that they follow the required style and are consistent throughout. This includes the in-text citations (e.g. Baron, 2016, p.25) and the references at the end (e.g. Baron, J. (2016). A Very Interesting Book. London: Booky Publishing).
Also, check that all citations in the text are actually listed in the references and that the references themselves are in the correct order (e.g. alphabetical).
4. Read through the document carefully yourself
Try not to read it from memory but read what is actually written on the page. It might help if you read it very slowly and deliberately. Does it make sense? Are there any obvious things missing, such as figures and tables that are mentioned in the text? Are all the figures and illustrations actually referred to in the text (e.g. “… see Figure 3.1”)? Are there any half-finished sentences, which you had intended to go back to but forgot about?
Admittedly, it is difficult to proofread your own work because you’re ‘too close to it’ and the job really needs a fresh pair of eyes, but with a bit of discipline and effort, it should be possible to pick up a few obvious errors.
5. Tips for getting a proofreading quotation
This aspect has been discussed in a previous blog, but here are a few basic pointers:
- First, it is highly unlikely that any reputable proofreader will help with actually writing the content for a student. This is because the assignment must represent the student’s own original work. (SENSE [Society of English-language professionals in the Netherlands] provides some useful guidelines for proofreading student texts.)
- Send a representative sample of your document and include the total word count so that a proofreader can see how much work is likely to be involved. If you have already carried out most of the checks mentioned above, the job will be quicker and this should result in a cheaper quotation to you.
- Have a realistic deadline. Unlike many students, most proofreaders don’t generally work at weekends, nor into the small hours. As a very rough guide, a 50,000-word technical thesis written by a non-native English speaker might take around a week (Monday–Friday) to proofread.
- Please don’t assume that a proofreader will be available to start work immediately on your project. Ideally, your requirements should be discussed with a proofreader well in advance of your deadline and scheduled accordingly. If you leave things until the last minute, you run the risk of not finding an available proofreader or having to get a rushed job and possibly paying a premium.
As an author of any written work, doing some of these simple tasks yourself is likely to not only save you money – in terms of a lower quotation to proofread your document afterwards – but it may also free up the brainpower of your proofreader/editor to focus on checking and improving your actual text. The end result should be an even higher quality written document and it should also come about more quickly.