Proofreading: It’s not about knowing when you’re wrong

As a proofreader, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is not important. Instead, it’s important to know what is right, and what *might be* wrong.

As communicating humans, we build up a base of knowledge about writing over time. Most of us know how to spell common words. Many of us are competent at spelling more cumbersome words, perhaps those with idiosyncrasies. (See what I did there?) And almost everyone knows that sentences should start with a capital letter.

Some of the more subtle rules people may not be aware of. (Prepositions at the end of sentences? Oh, do be quiet!) I know double-spacers – people who put two spaces after a full stop. Hell, I used to be one of them. I know lots of people who introduce bullets with the mouthless colon–hyphen :- emoticon. (This is not good form, btw.) And there are people who understand why the aforementioned colon–hyphen construct has been separated with an en dash as opposed to a hyphen. (These people are few, far between and mostly virgins.)

To this day, I don’t know the full ruleset for the ordering of full stops/commas and quotation marks. (Indeed the rules differ between American and British English.) I know that a full sentence should have its associated full stop enclosed in the quotation marks, and that a partial sentence should have its full stop sit outside the quotation marks. But I struggle when things become more complex than that.

I don’t know the postcode address file by rote. But I know to check every address I proofread. So when I stumble upon a cover letter for a multi-million pound bid, I know to correct the mis-typed address. I don’t know the product number for every single Cisco switch and router, but I will Google every single one that I see to make sure it’s a genuine product, and that the hyphens and capitals are correct.

When I figuratively hit a principle/principal, it takes me five seconds or so to figure out the correct spelling. Regardless of context, I have to picture a headmaster’s office door, imagine the PRINCIPAL sign that it might display, establish that in this situation, the word means important, and then figure out whether that meaning applies here.

The point is, I am aware of my limited knowledge in these areas, and I know to look things up when I need to review such text. The sign of a good proofreader is not someone who knows every single rule. Yes, a good proofreader will know lots of rules. But for any rule (s)he doesn’t know, (s)he will know to question it, and will hunt it down until it’s right.

Posted by Dan, 13 February, 2015 under Life

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