What Is Proofreading?
"Proofreading": a familiar term that is sorely misunderstood. A lot of people think that proofreading is the same as editing. While it isn't, it's easy to understand this misconception. Think back to your school days—did your teacher ever have you swap essays with the person next to you and tell you to "proofread" each other's first drafts? You probably got out your red pen and looked for spelling mistakes, bad grammar, uncapitalized proper nouns, and so on. While this was (hopefully) beneficial to your partner, it wasn't really proofreading; it was editing or revising.
In this scenario, proofreading would have been looking over someone's final draft of a paper before they turned it in. That means the essay had already been looked over for mistakes, any suggested edits had been implemented (or ignored), and the formatting was finished. You probably did this with your own papers, or maybe with a friend's paper, but this wasn't as common of a thing to do in school (at least not at my school).
Proofreading as Part of the Publishing Process
Proofreading is about making sure that a piece of text is ready to be published, printed, or posted. In book publishing, it should be the final stage in the editing process and occurs after printing a final copy, or proof. The goal of proofreading is to ensure that the formatting from the original edited copy was maintained during the printing process. A proofreader checks for things such as awkward page breaks, omitted words, and formatting issues. For electronic pieces that aren't printed on physical paper, proofreaders look for the same things, just on a screen instead of on a page.
One other important job a proofreader has is to make sure that all edits made by previous editors were implemented correctly and no new errors were introduced in the process. Proofreaders generally don't make edits of their own, except for correcting a few small errors that may have slipped through the editing phase (editors are only human, after all). Because this is the final step before publishing, a piece of writing should already be in near-perfect condition by the time it gets to a proofreader. If a lot of errors remain in the text, the proofreader may send it back to the copyeditor for further editing.
Proofreading Versus Editing
The difference between proofreading and editing can be found in their names. (I know that sounds stupidly simple, but bear with me.)
In printing, the preliminary final copy of a manuscript or other printed material is referred to as a "proof." It is read and reviewed for errors before it is sent to the printers and cannot be changed anymore. Thus, proofreading! Of course, if there are any obvious errors (half a page is blank, the was typed as teh, an extra comma, etc.), a proofreader will mark them to be fixed before the manuscript is printed. But other than that, proofreading is more of a final quality check than a time for suggestions on sentence structure to be made.
Editing, on the other hand, involves actually suggesting and implementing edits to correct misspelled words, bad grammar, awkward word choice, etc. The amount of editing and what an editor looks for varies depending on what step in the writing process the text is in (developmental editing, line editing, copyediting), but any form of editing will be centered around revisions.
For a more detailed discussion about proofreading and copyediting (and why it's important to know the difference between the two), head on over to this post!
Proofreading: Not Just for Authors
Another misconception about proofreading is that only book authors and journalists need/use it, when in fact, any kind of writer can (and should) have their work proofread. The prevailing image of a proofreader is a person sitting at a desk, poring over page after page with the infamous red pen. While this is still the case for proofreaders who work with books, a lot of freelance work is done on the computer now. As our world continues to transition into more and more of a digital society, we are seeing a multitude of new types of content evolve.
Think about everything you read in a day. Books, newspapers, and magazines might be the first to come to mind, but I guarantee there are more examples. Business emails, websites, advertisements, subtitles, social media posts, blogs . . . all of these types of digital content contain text that were reviewed by a proofreader (or at least they should have been). Just because something's not written on a physical sheet of paper doesn't mean it is immune from error—remember, spellcheck doesn't catch everything!
To Sum It All Up
Proofreaders are the final checkpoint a piece of writing must pass before it is released for public consumption. They are responsible for making sure that there are no remaining spelling errors, incorrect grammar, extra spaces, or missing words. They are not glorified spellcheckers, nor do they perform the same function as editors. Proofreading can be done on a hard copy or on a computer screen, depending on the type of writing, but whatever medium is used, the goal is the same—to ensure the accuracy and consistency of a written work.
Questions about proofreading that weren't answered in this post? Ask in the comments or send me an email; I'd be happy to answer!