Proofreading Always Counts

Proofreading Always Counts

In 1904, dressmaker Lena Himmelstein Bryant opened a boutique in New York City. When she opened her business account at the bank, the clerk misspelled her name… and Lena simply rolled with it.

She went on to create something of a dynasty in women’s retail, establishing more than 800 plus-size clothing chains known as Lane Bryant.

If not for a similar situation, we might be googoling things on the internet today. Here’s the story: When the founders brainstormed a name in 1997 for this massive data repository, they settled on “googolplex,” one of the largest describable numbers. They simplified it to “googol” – but then accidentally mistyped it when checking the availability of that domain name.

And so Google was born.


Unlike the other two successes, our brilliant NASA engineers didn’t quite fare so well in 1962.

It turns out that a simple typo in an equation sent the Mariner 1 way off course in its mission to scope out Venus. Mission Control had to abort the trip – and manually blow up the spacecraft – 5 minutes into the flight just because someone forgot an elusive “overbar” above a character.

“The most expensive hyphen in history” (according to British sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke) wound up costing about $80 million dollars and prevented us from gaining some understanding of our nearest celestial neighbor.

So apparently proofreading really is rocket science.

Many of us have experienced unfortunate typos, some expensive, some downright funny. Everyone – yes, even a professional writer – benefits from having someone review your writing. But everyone – yes, even a professional writer – is human. Which means we need to expect some amount of human error, even in the most meticulously proofed manuscript.

A Standard Rate?

So, just what is a standard error rate for proofing?

Here’s where hard science flies out the door. Opinion abounds regarding best practices for proofreading and successful error rates, but there’s really not a lot of fact-based evidence on a standard to assess quality proofreading.

Take Amazon, for example. One of the powerhouses in self-publishing and book sales, the online retailer claims to employ a process to flag ebooks for too many typos. They state, “While we are not able to disclose this specific formula, please be informed that an average sized novel … will trigger the quality warning with 10-15 typos.”

That said, Amazon’s process may not catch a lot of things. Their program will not count contextual errors such as “What have you to got to loose?” or a miskeyed proper name like “Tim” Sawyer.

Even the venerable New York Times openly admits to making mistakes. The news outlet has a page on its website that lists corrections per day. Granted, many are factual errors rather than proofreading errors, but they report the occasional typo.

But attempting to nail down an estimate of proofreading success in catching errors remains elusive. Multiple reports include the claim that the industry standard for a professional proofreader is that they should identify 95% of errors on a first pass.

For argument’s sake, let’s say a proofreader corrected 5 items per page in a 300-page manuscript. That would total 1,500 corrections. At the 95% accuracy rate acceptance criteria as listed above, the actual number of errors would have been about 1,580, 80 of which would have been missed. By adding a second proof, with those 80 errors left (95% of which should be caught), the manuscript should then get down to 4 errors.

Sure, this math seems legit… until we consider that to claim that there is an “industry standard” is near-impossible: In order to calculate how “good” the proofread is, we’d have to know how many errors there were in the first place. And knowing that going in feels akin to seeing the future. It might be the only validation to skip the proofing process and rush out to buy a lottery ticket.

6 Tips for catching the most errors during proofreading:

  1. Don’t proof onscreen.
    The human eye functions differently when reading hard copy versus something onscreen.
  2. Go through multiple rounds of proofing.
    Akin to “measure twice, cut once,” a second or even third round of proofreading can often discern typos missed in the initial pass.
  3. Have different readers.
    Everyone will focus on something unique.
  4. Use a checklist.
    Know what to look for, unique to each piece: common errors, data specifications, anything that’s might trigger a typo.
  5. Refer to the style guide.
    If the assignment calls for very specific usage, be sure the requirements are available for all proofreading.
  6. Don’t proof your own work.
    We’re often too close to the writing to really “see” it.

The P’s and Q’s of Proofreading

Proofreaders don’t get enough credit – and a lot of people don’t spend enough time proofreading their own work.

Proofreading is about more than just making sure to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. We’ve put together a list of helpful proofreading tips to make sure that your documents come out as close to perfect as possible – every time.

  • Keep your spell checking software, but don’t get too comfortable. Spell check is a beautiful thing, and a lot of times it can save people’s you-know-whats, especially if they don’t have a lot of time to proof their work. However, spell checking isn’t magic, it’s not always correct, and it won’t pick up on words that are misused. How many times have you typed “Through you may think…” or “You schedules are attached…”, or something similar, only to have your spell check fail you?
  • Print it out. You can’t read properly on a screen. Your mind will make little leaps in logic, automatically filling in missed or misused words. Working from a hard copy makes a proofreader’s job easier. Feel free to get out a pen and just go to town if you feel like it.
  • Read it out loud. That’s right, you may look a little crazy if you happen to do this in a public place. Reading it out loud (or at least whispering to yourself) will force you to slow your pace and get into the rhythm of the language – and that, in turn, will illuminate any mistakes. If you stumble as you read to yourself, that’s a good indication that you should work on the syntax of that line.
  • Get a fresh pair of eyes. There’s no room to be shy – having a friend or colleague look it over and give you feedback is a valuable source of information. Friends can normally pick up on inconsistencies that you may overlook.
  • Double check things you don’t think need to be double checked. This includes very fine print and standard forms like addresses, boilerplate introductions, dates, contact information, and even company letterhead. It’s easy to gloss over these items because they’re often used – but a good proofreader knows that sometimes mistakes happen in the strangest of places. A misspelled name on company letterhead is embarrassing, and an incorrect phone number won’t land any sales.
  • Pay attention to the extras. This means charts, graphs, pictures, titles, page numbers, and even numbered lists. Make sure the numbered bullets are sequential, that you haven’t gone from A. to C. in your outline, and that all of the graphics are right side up and properly labeled.
  • Proof proper names and headlines or titles separately. It’s easy to make mistakes in headings because proofers are usually so focused on the body of the copy, so go back and proof these in a new round. Proper names go in this category too because it can be easy to skip over the spelling. I’ve seen “Michelle” turned into “Michael” or “Mitchell” too many times – and believe me, it doesn’t make your audience think very generous things about your intelligence.
  • Clear your mind. Having a hard time focusing? Editing and proofreading require a keen eye and major amounts of concentration, but it’s also a pretty monotonous job. If you can, refresh yourself by putting a little distance between you and whatever you’re proofreading. Read something else, or try sleeping on what you just wrote before proofing.

Do you have any tips that you find useful when proofreading your work? Let us know!

AP: Goodbye “Web site;” Hello “Website”

Good news for all word nerds: The Associated Press has finally made the switch from the old-fashioned “Web site” to the simpler, more natural-looking “website.” Yay!

To me, “Web site” has always seemed a little stuffy and English teacher-ish. Good for AP to know when it’s time to change things up. According to the AP’s Web site – er, website – the change will be included in the 2010 print edition of the style guide.

Other recent changes in AP style:

Update: When used as a verb, “carpool” is one word (it’s still two words if used as a noun, though).
Addition: The noun “e-reader” has been added – due to the recent deluge of gadgets like the Kindle and the iPad. Also acceptable: “e-book reader.”
Update: The word “mic” is now an acceptable (informal) form of “microphone.”
Addition: When talking about a certain angry hybrid of ultra-testosterone-fueled cage fighting, the correct term is “mixed martial arts” (this one surprised me; I expected a hyphen in there somewhere). No word on whether “MMA” is an acceptable substitute – but AP cautions that “Ultimate Fighting” is not to be used as a substitute (it’s actually a registered trademark).


Image via Wikipedia

So, what do you think? Are you happy to see the AP change with the times? Are there other changes you’d like to see?

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