Erika on the Noble Art of Proofreading

The following is a guest post by Associate Editor & Copy Manager Erika Spelman on the the evolution of proofreading and how we make sure our books go out without any mistakes (most of the time).

I got my start in publishing as a proofreader. I was a young single mom and my mother had been temping as a proofreader, and she said “learn these symbols–you’d be great at this.” So I learned the proofreading symbols and got some freelance work, mostly through friends of the family. You can find a good example that shows a set of marks as well as how to use them online.

The term proofreading is often used loosely to mean giving something a once-over for spelling and grammar, but in publishing it generally means reading material that has been typeset–that is, material that is in proofs–as opposed to copyediting, which is done in an earlier stage. Besides knowing the symbols, to be a good proofreader, one does have to have a good sense of spelling and grammar. One also has to be the kind of person who is bothered by typographical errors (typos) and small differences such as extra spaces between words, or letters that are in slightly larger or smaller type than the surrounding text. Not everybody reads this way–many people gloss over errors when reading. A popular forwarded e-mail claims university studies show that people can read almost anything as long as the first and last letters are in place. Of course, the context of the words is also important for this to be true.

There are some slightly different versions of the proofreading symbols, and when I started out as an associate editor overseeing freelance proofreaders, I worried that proofs were being marked incorrectly. By checking corrections made to proofs against pages marked by other people, I have learned that most compositors understand the different conventions. However, some symbols are recognized more universally than others. For example, “sp” circled in the margin means to spell something out (usually a number). One innovative proofreader uses the same mark with a slash through it to mean “use numeral instead of spelling out.” This symbol often requires a one-time explanation to the compositor.

Marked-up Version of Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service

Copyeditors and proofreaders must have a lot of attention to detail in their work.


When I learned to proofread, I was taught to circle any spelled-out instructions, because if one wrote something in the margin like “ital” to italicize a word, there was a danger that the compositor might actually type in the letters i-t-a-l, even though that would result in an error. Some proofreading guidelines agree with this stricture, whereas others don’t mention it.

My first full-time job as a proofreader was at a legal printer. I read old-fashioned galleys right out of the typesetting machine. I proofread letter by letter without worrying too much about the content. Unlike most of the material I work with today, at that time legal briefs were typeset by being typed from a hard copy rather than by being imported from an electronic (word-processed) file, so material had to be read word for word against the original, and typos were frequent.

In proofreading AMACOM’s books, proofreaders are responsible for catching minor grammatical and style or clarity-of-writing issues that were not caught by the copyeditor in addition to spelling errors and typos. In fact, for typeset pages that are generated from electronic files, proofreaders often skim the original while carefully scrutinizing only the typeset version, because it is highly unlikely that a word or paragraph will differ from the electronic manuscript. They do make sure that no whole sections were dropped; that formatting such as indentation of paragraphs and extracts is correct; that elements with special designs (such as sidebars and case studies) appear as they should; and that boldface and italics have not gotten lost in typesetting. They are also responsible for checking the table of contents and running heads against the chapter titles, checking page numbering (folios), and performing various other tasks.

A Marked-up page

Even after the type is set, there are errors lurking in the text.


There are different methods of proofreading, some of which were more prevalent before manuscripts were electronic. One of these was to use two people, where one person read the original manuscript out loud, including the punctuation, while the other read the typeset version and made corrections where it did not match what the first person read. Another method is to proofread material backwards, from the end to the beginning, because one is less likely to get distracted by registering the meaning of the sentences. Having two people proofread the same material and then comparing the two versions is a good way to make sure more errors are caught (as well as to gauge the expertise of the proofreaders against each other).

As an associate editor, I spend a minimal amount of time proofreading myself. I might proofread an occasional preface or about-the-author page that is submitted separately from the rest of the manuscript. My main proofreading responsibilities, however, are proofreading the covers and catalog descriptions of the books that I work on. Being out of practice makes these things a challenge–particularly catalog copy, which typically comes in on a Thursday afternoon and has to be turned around by Friday at noon. However, these tasks add to the variety of responsibilities of the job and keep us on our toes.

Erika Spelman is an Associate Editor and Copy Manager at AMACOM. She shepherds books through the production process, helps set house style, and serves as a resource regarding style, word usage, and grammar for the company. Prior to joining AMACOM, Erika worked as a manuscript editor at West Group and as a proofreader at Counsel Press. For freelance copyediting and production opportunities, visit our website.

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One response to “Erika on the Noble Art of Proofreading

  1. Pingback: Erika on Don’t Forget! What to Submit with Your Final Manuscript | AMACOM Books Blog

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