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  • Meta:

    Do You Have Proof?

    I had to laugh the other day at work when I picked up a printout of a page yet to be sent to press. Illustrating a story about ducks who had wandered into urbanity was a photo of two chicks. In this country built on Jeffersonian agrarian ideals, where our third president fought English rule because he wanted a society of farms and small villages, it’s a scant 200 years later and we can’t tell a chick from a duck.

    My colleagues and I fixed the issue and the page went out, pictures matching words, and we didn’t give it much more thought. But had no one noticed in the office, a discerning reader – or worse, one of our bosses – would’ve caught the error immediately, and that would have made for an embarrassing correction. We’d be laughingstocks, both in and out of the building.

    It’s not enough to copy edit alone; every page must go through a final proof, sometimes seven final proofs. Proofreading is a skill separate from copy editing and one at which every editor must be adept; without it, credibility is risked and perhaps even a lawsuit. Here are six tips to make you a better proofreader:

    1. Correct. Make sure your copy is correct in both fact and grammar. Ideally, unclear copy should be corrected before the proofreading stage. Changing copy gets expensive; adding a word or two can typeset entire pages. This is not the time to reword large chunks of text. This is the time to add the inadvertently dropped “not” or alter verbs to agree with their subjects.

    2. Consistency. Style and spelling matters, even at this stage. Make sure names are spelled correctly throughout the story. Finding “McDavid” six times in the piece is fine; finding five “McDavids” and one “MacDavid” is not.

    3. Clear. Of the Big Three, this is the proofreading step you’ll use the least. If text is absolutely wooly at this point and no editor can decipher its meaning, then you’ll have to resort to rewriting it. But use your pen sparingly; it’s too late for major surgery. You’re past the stage for polishing. At the least, follow the Hippocratic Oath.

    Editing to fit

    These rules apply when you’re asked to proofread a page that is a few lines over; this won’t come up in comics often, but if you’re interning or editing, you never know what sort of press release or manifesto they’ll set in front of you.

    4. Redundancy. Remove redundancies: all the verys, prettys, reallys; the young 5-year-old; the passive voice; the ups (head up, drink up, eat up, free up, heat up); the verbs of being (“He will be a participant” becomes “He will participate”); the conjunctive that’s (He said that he would go).

    5. Examples. Must we know five ways in which Nixon lied to the American public? Won’t two or three, or the word Watergate, suffice? Cut direct quotes and paraphrase them instead.

    6. Simpler words. Find me the one time the word “approximately” is necessary and I’ll show you the 99 where “about” will suffice. Say things; don’t state them. Find the vague words like area, concept, people, and replace them with more specific, shorter ones such as acre, idea, gymnasts.

    Finally, find a list of redundant or excess words in any good grammar book or online and learn them. Soon you’ll start to recognize them in copy, and cutting them will be second nature.

    Congratulations. You have an error-free page. At least until you get an 8 a.m. phone call from your boss.

    The Grammar Guru can’t wait for green eyeshades to come back in style. E-mail her at

    Posted by Tim Leong on April 26th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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