The Proofreading Process

To be a good proofreader, you must love to read and have the ability to spot mistakes. With experience comes the confidence to quickly decide whether a correction needs to be made or not, and you must be able to focus for hours at a time without getting distracted.

You have to be comfortable proofreading both printed and on-screen text. “Blues” – the printer’s version of what the final will look like – used to be read on physical proofs. Now I proofread almost everything on screen.

When a deadline allows, quickly read through the copy a second time – you’ll probably find more mistakes you missed the first time around. Ideally, on a large job you’ll get multiple chances to read through for mistakes and, of course, the more client revisions, the more chances for mistakes.

You should know beforehand whether to use Canadian, US or UK spelling, and then take notes to ensure consistency in spelling, format and which style guide to follow – The Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, The Canadian Press Stylebook, The Canadian Style, etc. I have multiple style sheets for different clients. They’re very useful for keeping track of each client’s preferences.

Whenever you begin to lose your concentration, try reading out loud until you get your focus back. Make sure you look away from the screen every 20 minutes or so and work in a well-lit area to avoid eye strain. Get a good, comfortable chair that’s adjustable, a desk at the right height for your keyboard, and get up and move around every once in a while. You may find wearing earphones, with or without music playing, will help to avoid distractions.

Some people are happy with full- or part-time work in an office setting, while others prefer freelancing or contract work. For those contemplating switching from being an employee to working independently, here are some suggestions:


Quoting on a job

• Look at the actual text

• Type of document

• Realistic deadline

• Know your limitations

The number one rule when quoting on a job: Look at the actual text you’ll be reading. Don’t base your estimate on a printed copy of the previous issue, ad or packaging, or on an example of previously published web copy. It won’t be helpful if a different copywriter is hired, the copywriter is given less time than before, or there may be multiple writers this time around, all writing in different styles.

Another thing to consider is the time it takes to make corrections. Flying through a Word document tracking changes is one thing. Using Skitch or some other app to take screen shots of web pages, mark up with correction tools, save into a folder and return all those one-page files is another.

A long time ago I agreed to proofread a website in four days. I received a link to the website and started reading, but there were so many pages on multiple levels that I kept getting lost. After half a day, I asked for a website hierarchy or organizational chart and was told it didn’t exist. How can a website be developed without some sort of plan? I was reading financial copy, which is not an easy read, and there were so many mistakes – very hard to correct at that stage. I apologized and said I wouldn’t be able to complete the job on time. 

It’s very important that once you start a job to inform your client as soon as possible that their deadline is not feasible due to the number of corrections or for whatever other reason.


Working on a job

• Back up and back up often

• Split a large document 

• Pace your work

• Packaging

• Keeping track of hours 


This next rule is my number one rule once I get the job: back up and back up often! PDF files sometimes get so large with a lot of corrections that the dreaded “spinning wheel” may appear. Uh, oh, when was the last time I saved my work?

Sometimes power outages cause problems. After experiencing one too many, I bought a UPS backup, which provides battery power the moment the electricity goes out. Connect a USB cable and you'll be able to set preferences for its operation.

When I’m working on a large job, I usually split up the PDF and back up a copy every few hours to a back-up folder (ideally on an external drive or in the cloud). I’ve had a crash happen, restart and then got an error opening the file. No back up? No way to recover all that work. I just open the back-up file and continue working from where I last backed up my work. Another benefit of splitting a large file when the deadline is very tight is that you can send off each part once completed.

Here’s some useful information about back-up drives:

If you have the luxury of completing a job over a number of days, make sure you do a minimum amount of work each day. Keep going until you’re tired because you never know if something else will come in that you don’t want to refuse. On the other hand, know how much work you can realistically take on before too much adversely affects the quality of your work. Yes, I know it’s hard to turn down a job! But remember: if you’re too tired and miss mistakes, you may never get the opportunity to work for that company again.

One of the most difficult and time-consuming jobs is product packaging. It looks so simple. It is not. You have to be 100% sure there are no mistakes. Even though the client is responsible for final approval, it will be printed, sent to the manufacturer and shipped out to sit on a store shelf with the mistake you missed glaring out at everyone who notices it. And non-compliance with any regulatory requirement can mean the packaging may have to be redone and reprinted at great expense to the client. 

Blue clock icon.

When I first started proofreading, I would use notebooks to keep track of my time along with the docket number required for invoicing. When you’re inundated with rush work, and people keep interrupting you with more rush work, it’s hard to keep track of time. You’re then faced with the ordeal of adding all your hours and creating an invoice. Years ago I switched to FreshBooks. It’s saved me so much time, it’s easy to use, customer service is great, and I just love all its features. 

Here’s a blog listing some online invoicing software (prices are in USD):

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