Your boss or professor may have told you in the past that you need to proofread your work before submitting it. Although you didn't admit it at the time, there's a good chance that you may have asked yourself: What is proofreading, anyway?

You may have been told that proofreading does not involve developmental changes to or fact checking of your work or that proofreading is not the same as editing. It seems that, when we're talking about proofreading, the matter of what proofreading is not comes up a lot more than what proofreading is. While that information is helpful, it still doesn't answer your original question you started: What is proofreading?

What is traditional proofreading?

The answer to this question will vary greatly depending on whom you ask. Asking someone in the publishing profession, for example, will garner an entirely different reply than asking someone from an editing company. Don't believe me? Well, I took the liberty of asking my copy of Jane Eyre what she thought about the proofreading debacle. (Yes, I speak fluent Book.) Having been published herself, she had some serious insider know-how. Here's how that conversation unfolded:

Me: In your experience, what is proofreading?The title page of "Jane Eyre."

Jane Eyre: Proofreading is the last possible opportunity to revise a manuscript before it is printed and published. The proofreader compares the proofs—printed versions of the manuscript, which include all the formatting, page numbers, headers, etc., that will be included in the final edition—with the edited copy to make sure that no errors have been introduced by the formatting or printing.

Me: So you were proofread before you were published? When was that?

Jane Eyre: Oh yes, a lovely man by the name of Rupert went over my proofs. Rupert did a wonderful job. That would have been in 2002, right before I was published. Of course, the original Jane Eyre was published long before that, but that doesn't make her better, you know. In fact, I'm probably better. I'm younger, and more people have revised me to make sure I'm free of errors. Can old Jane Eyre say that? Hmm? Can she?

Me: Okay. I think we may have gotten slightly off topic here. Did Rupert make a lot of changes when he proofread you?

Jane Eyre: Oh, goodness no. Only what he absolutely needed to. He just made sure I was perfect, unlike dumb old 1847 Jane Eyre. She thinks she's so—

Me: Thanks for the information, Jane Eyre. I think that will be all for today.

But wait—I thought proofreading was about fixing spelling mistakes?

Jane Eyre may have given us the lowdown on what proofreading entails in the publishing world, but that likely wasn’t the answer you were expecting to the question, "What is proofreading?" The truth is, the word proofreading has taken on a definition separate from the role it plays in the publication of manuscripts.

What most people are referring to when they use the word proofreading is the process of checking a document for any kind of grammatical, typographical, or formatting errors. Proofreading should always be the last step taken before a document is published online, handed in to a professor, submitted for a job application, etc.

What kind of errors are identified and fixed during proofreading?

By the time a document is ready to be proofread, it should have already been edited. This means that the content of the document should already be well-organized, well-stated, and generally easy to understand. Editing also involves removing errors, but it focuses more on making sure the document makes sense as a whole.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is about finding errors both small and large that were either missed or introduced during editing. Proofreaders ensure that the final draft of a document is completely free of grammatical errors (i.e., subject–verb agreement problems, incorrect word choices, improper punctuation usage, and incorrect spelling) as well as formatting and typographical errors. They also make sure the document adheres to the chosen style guide.

Unlike in traditional publishing proofreading, document proofreaders are not limited in the number of revisions they can make to a document, as there is generally no elevated cost associated with making more changes. However, if the proofreader finds that the majority of the document still requires extensive changes, they may recommend the document undergo another round of editing.


The scene: You're all dolled up and leaning casually at the bar of a swanky club. (Just go with me, here.) A man saunters over to you and offers to buy you a drink, but only if you can answer one question for him. "Hey there, beautiful," he says, "tell me, what is proofreading?" He's sure you'll be stumped and that he won't have to buy you a $14 martini. Little does he know that you're now a proofreading pro (and you'll take a scotch, thank you very much).

Image sources:, Chick Bowen/Wikimedia Commons, Hans/

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