The unusual skills of a proofreader

It’s taken for granted that proofreaders have a certain set of skills: an eye for detail; flawless spelling; knowledge of correct grammar, and a love for red pens. Proofreaders can be recognised by certain giveaway traits: sneering at rogue apostrophe’s [sic]; shouting ‘fewer!’ when some halfwit on the TV says ‘less’; knowing how to spell ‘minuscule’.

But as important as language and grammar skills are, fact checking is also key. Obvious errors can be picked up by spellcheckers, crude though they are. ‘Invisible’ errors are often factual: wrongly spelt names, inaccurate dates, tendentious facts. In the books and academic papers that I edit these are often more common, but far less detectable, errors than simple spelling and grammar issues. Patience and thoroughness in checking therefore need to be added to the proofreader’s arsenal.

Along with the painstaking finesse of a Fabergé jeweller you also need the wide-reaching and arcane knowledge of a Mastermind contestant. Because another key proofreading skill is knowledge: the more knowledge you have about the world, in the more abstruse and diverse subject matters, the better a proofreader you will be. You won’t need to look up every fact, because your brain will spark when something doesn’t look right.

I once proofread a university textbook on iconic figures in literature in which the author praised Ursula Le Guin as being the first African American woman to become a celebrated science fiction writer. Having taken a course in Science Fiction and Feminism at university, I peppered the margin with question marks. I had to politely approach the author: I was pretty sure Ursula Le Guin was not African American; did he perhaps mean Octavia Butler?

An author client of mine also taught me a good lesson in the power of having specialist knowledge. He’s a thriller writer, who reads the works of his cohorts and rivals to sharpen his practice. He is derisive of writers with shoddy research skills, singling out one unfortunate author whose assassin had cocked his Glock. Of course, as we all know, you cannot cock a Glock, because it has no external hammer. How did my client know this? Well, he’d been a Special Forces soldier before turning to literature.

Military training might not be necessary for a career in proofreading, but specialist knowledge and a willingness to learn all your life are certainly helpful.

Nick Hodgson has been editing, proofreading and trying to learn more for nearly 20 years. Nick runs Root and Branch Editing ( for authors and publishers and Masterclass Editing ( for students and academics.

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