Proofreading as an Art

By Fred Williams
Editor & Publisher, Type & Press
Winter 1985

Readers of today's print may conclude that proofreaders have gone the way of the dinosaur. With so many errors appearing in our printed matter, it is easy to understand their concern. Today's offsetters are being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, namely–soaring costs and price cutters. Lacking the Letterpress heritage, they conclude that proofreading is "unproductive" and a "necessary evil." It would seem that typists and errand boys are assigned to proofreading chores today. The duplicators know it's cheaper to ignore mistakes than it is to correct them. They are well aware that most of today's reading public will accept blunders in printing without a whimper.

It may be a surprise to the layman that so many errors get into print. The uninformed person knows little of the problems involved in an ordinary print job. To those in the industry, it is a surprise that more mistakes aren't made. If the old proverb, "to err is human" is true, then printers must be very human. The reason more errors don't slip through is undoubtedly due to the vigilance of the eagle-eyed proofreader,

In the early days of printing scholars were employed to read the proofs as soon as they were "pulled" on the press. They became known as press-correctors or correctors of the press. These terms gradually evolved into today's title of proofreader. In the balance of this article they will be referred to as readers or correctors.

Reading is the art of detecting mistakes on proofs before publication and indicating desired corrections. It is not just "comma chasing"–following copy out the window. While it does include locating inconsistencies between type and copy, the art also consists of exposing errors of all types.

The reader must be on the alert constantly for misspelled words, errors in grammar, poor spacing, faulty pointing, wrong dates for commonly known events, inconsistent compounding and use of abbreviations, incorrect use of quotes and italics in titles, improper capitalization of words in headings, wrong word divisions and/or too many consecutive lines with words carried over to next line, wrong use of figures, improper use of homonyms plus hundreds of other possible defects.

The skilled reader must be a lynx-eyed Superman–a one-man encyclopedia–with the knowledge of an expert in a hundred different fields. He must know instantly the preferred spelling of thousands of words and the names of present and past famous persons as well as the accepted spelling of the prominent countries of the world and their capitals. In addition to having a good technical knowledge of English and Latin, the reader should understand the principles of fine typography.

In many commercial shops, the reader is also responsible for checking every detail of each job–its dimensions, selection of typefaces, arrangement of display, proper centering and spacing, position of cuts, imposition, paging, folios, margins, signature numbers, fold of the sheet, paper, ink, makeready and sometimes even the presswork and binding!

The reader's lot is not an easy one. If he lets an error slip by, the job may have to be rerun at considerable expense. Management may terminate his employment. But if he finds many errors he brings down the wrath of the typesetters who disagree with his markings. Is it any wonder that many readers are famous for their cranky and grumpy dispositions?

One reader once said of his craft: "As I journey down the lines of serifed letters, I fantasize myself as a Private Investigator. Going down those 'mean' streets, I am constantly on the alert for anything out of the ordinary, I take nothing for granted. If anything appears to lie wrong I won't accept it until I have checked it out and the evidence proves it to be correct. I suspiciously scrutinize each and every 'character' that I pass. I trust no one. I am well aware that a wrong 'character' may be lurking anywhere. But I feet secure with by trusty Eberhart & Fabrer #2 at my side. And I'm not afraid to use it to right a wrong."

The reader should follow copy closely unless he is positive that it contains an error. He should query anything suspicious, draw a ring around it and return the proof to the editor or author for his final decision. The reader should never assume responsibility for changing copy.

The ideal proof room is a quiet, well-lighted area where there will be no distractions of any kind in the endless search for print errors. Radios, unnecessary conversation or other noises may distract the readers (s).

For the checking of legals, scientific & technical works and other difficult copy, best results are possible when two competent readers work together as a team. One, as the copy holder, reads aloud while his partner checks the manuscript. In some shops, this procedure is reversed–the corrector reads while the holder checks the copy.

Every printery, no matter how small, should have a style sheet. This is merely a guide that lists the preferred ways for capitalization, spelling, use of figures, etc. Adherence to it will prevent inconsistencies appearing in print.

In small shops where it is necessary for the printer to wear many hats–he may be obliged to don the reader's eyeshade in addition to serving as author, typesetter, stoneman and pressman. There is danger in this procedure, as a wrong thought may pass unnoticed through all steps. To avoid such misprints, a second-party, who has not read the copy previously, should check the proof.

The average person, reading for information or pleasure, reads whole words or a series of them, not the separate letters of each word. Because of this, he seldom notices errors in familiar words. On the other hand, the professional corrector reads not for pleasure but for the sole purpose of discovering mistakes. He reads carefully each letter of every word–not the words themselves–consequently the erratum seems to "leap right out at him!"

To prevent misprints from being overlooked, it may help to first read the proof backward, starting at the end of the story. This will help more in the detection of misspelled words than by reading in the conventional manner. After the entire proof has been read backward, it should be then read from the beginning to disclose any possible grammatical mistakes.

From the first setting of the manuscript or "copy" there are nine fundamental steps to reading of book text, namely: 1. The Galley (or First) Proof, 2. First Revision, 3. Second Revision, 4. Third Revision, 5. Author's Revision, 6. The Page Proof. 7. The Stone Proof, 8. The Foundry Proof & 9. The Press Sheet. Job and periodical plants may vary their proofing procedures somewhat. A brief description of these various proofs may prove helpful:

1. THE GALLEY PROOF is the first reading of the type matter after it has been set. Extreme care must be exercised to make certain that the copy has been followed explicitly. Errors are marked in the line or the margins opposite the incorrect line. Or a line may be drawn between the printed error and the correction symbol. If a word contains more than one mistake, the entire word should be written out in the margin. If several words are missing, all should be written out on the proof. If several lines have been left out, they should be circled on the manuscript and, "Out, See Copy," written on the proof.

2. FIRST REVISION is the checking on the accuracy of the corrections marked on the Galley Proof by comparing it with the revise. The Galley Proof is usually placed to the left of the revise, with the lines of both proofs opposite each other. The reader compares both proofs to insure that all misprints have been rectified. Lines preceding and following corrections should be carefully checked for transpositions. As a precaution, the entire Revise should be re-read. Corrections on this proof are usually made in red pencil. The proof may be slugged, "revise."

3. SECOND REVISION–This proof will be checked against the First Revise to make sure all changes have been exactly made. Second Revision can be omitted if First Revise is "clean."

4. THIRD REVISION–This proof will be a check to make sure that all errors on the Second have been made.

5. AUTHOR'S REVISION. When the author or customer has read his proofs and returned them they are corrected and proofed, then rechecked to insure that the author's wishes have been faithfully followed.

6. PAGE PROOF. Often book pages are made up from the Author's Proofs. Then proofs are pulled of the individual pages. These are in turn checked against all earlier proofs. The reader must check the first word of each line in each set of Page Proofs to determine if any lines have become transposed or lost. In addition, the reader must verify the last word on each page to make sure it reads correctly with the first word in the top line on the following page.

The reader must check folios, running heads, titles, footnotes and many other details.

7. STONE PROOF. After pages have been given final O.K., type pages are locked up in proper order on the stone and a proof taken. This sheet may he folded for the checking of the numerical sequence of the pages. Care should be made that cuts are in proper position, right side up, with the appropriate captions. Care must be taken to ascertain that all pages are of the proper depth and that margins, folios and running heads all register.

8. FOUNDRY PROOF. If electrotype or stereotype plates (seldom used today) are to be made from the type matter, it is locked up and a Proof Pulled on coated stock. Its purpose is to reveal any broken or mutilated type that may have been missed in previous readings.

9. PRESS SHEET is the final step in the series of proofs and is the last chance to find mistakes that have gone unnoticed. Some printing offices make a policy of pulling three of the final proofs–one folded, one flat and one printed both sides for checking margins, folios, running titles, page sequences, etc.

About 1456 Gutenberg printed his famous Mazarin 42-line Bible. (So called because of the number of lines to the page and the fact that the first copy was found in the library of Cardinal Mazarin of France. Recent research has revealed that this printed work of art contains many errors due to faulty proofreading!

According to scholars, Benjamin Franklin's printing was unusually free from typos, but one conspicuous transposition did appear in one of his title pages!

During the 19th Century a celebrated Scotch printing house decided to issue a book that would be a perfect specimen of typographical accuracy. Extensive precautions were taken to achieve this desired result. Six scholarly readers were employed to carefully read and correct the proofs. After each page was thought to be perfect, it was then posted in the halls of a learned university for scrutiny by professors and students. A reward was offered to anyone who discovered an error. The proofs remained on display for two weeks before the volume was published. It was believed that perfection had been obtained. But on close observation, errors were discovered–one of which was in the first line of the first page!

Nothing seems to get a printer riled as much as finding a typo after a job is all printed. He is likely to rip off a string of purple oaths vile enough to melt the composition on his rollers. Print errors have thrived since the first book was printed and predictions are that they will in the future have a long, long life–nurtured by today's computer composition.