When you’ve been asked to provide proofreading services, your client is assuming two very important things about you. The first is that you know the basic elements of the English language. Check. You can recite the Oxford English Dictionary in your sleep. You haven’t made a syntactical error in a conversation since the age of seven. You understand even the most obscure grammatical rules, rules that have been virtually obsolete since the Enlightenment.
This is all great, perhaps a bit weird, but great. However, it is only one half of the equation. The second half is just as important, and it concerns how well you can concentrate.
Proofreading requires a great deal of concentration. This is because, while it is common to find someone who knows what is and isn’t an error, it is rare to find someone who can detect errors that show up infrequently and that are barely discernible. Your client is asking for proofreading services because these errors sneak into the document via oversight as opposed to ignorance. A good proofreader will notice and correct a bad transition. A great proofreader will catch instances of improper semicolon usage. The highest echelon of proofreader will note that there is a single parenthesis missing from a six-page sentence that contains multiple parenthetical phrases, which are, go figure, in a series of parenthetical clauses. It’s the type of thing that would have freaked out Faulkner.
As a proofreader, you are not there to question the stylistic components of such a daunting sentence. Your job, rather, is to note the one missing parenthesis. You are a second, more vigilant set of eyes, a person hired to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
Given that this is the case, concentration is absolutely paramount, and anything that can diminish it must be avoided. Obvious examples include loud music, television and constant interruptions such as text messaging. A less obvious example concerns the medium you use to read over a document.
While it’s convenient to read and proof on your computer or phone, it may actually be detrimental to the proofreading process. For whatever reason, it makes it easier to miss the very small things for which you are looking, and virtually every person handing out proofreading advice on the web (here, for example) will agree that you should print out a hard copy of whatever you are writing. There are a myriad of conjectures about why this is the case, but the fact that such a discrepancy exists is enough to make anyone who has been asked to proof a document (you) seriously consider printing out everything she is asked to proofread.
As a proofreader is not only asked to know whether or not something is an error, but, far more importantly, catch these errors within a document. It is imperative that proofreaders use every means at their disposal to increase their ability to recognize errors. For this reason, always make sure to look over a paper copy of any document that you’ve been asked to proofread.
Jay F is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.