Proofreading tips and symbols for supervisors

This post answers a request from supervisors at the Department of Science, Information Technology, Information and the Arts (DSITIA) who were looking for tips on proofreading for their teams. I hope it helps!

Many people spend a long time writing a first draft of their documents and five minutes checking spelling and grammar at the end.

It’s faster to write quick first drafts and then to use a slower, structured editing and proofreading process. That way, you will spend less time staring anxiously at the blank screen worried that your work won’t be perfect. Yes your quick first draft will be full of errors – but that’s ok because you don’t show anyone your first draft.

Supervisors should talk to staff about their writing projects at the planning stage and then check their work once they are closer to the final draft. The first draft is strictly a private writer’s matter.

During the editing process, writers should check for accuracy, flow of ideas, tone and language. Editing mean making sure it is the right document for the right audience. That process involves at least three reads through, before you even begin proofreading.

Proofreading is where you look for the mechanical errors – spelling and grammatical mistakes. You have to do it slowly because this is the part where you check every single word in the document, with your style guide and dictionary open beside you.

Usually you have to proofread at least twice, using techniques that work best for you. For example, I find it easiest to proofread by printing the document and putting a wooden ruler under each line to hide the next line of print. That forces me not to glance ahead and holds me to the line. For the second read through, I put a coloured transparency over the printed page. Curiously my eyes pick up more errors that way. When I transfer the corrections to the Word document on my computer, I often pick up more errors.

You may find that reading out loud or reading backwards (from the end of the text to the beginning) work better for you.

Because we know that our mistakes become invisible after a few reads through – we only see what we think we wrote – most people wisely choose to give their work to someone else to check, even after their own careful proofreading.

In workplaces, it is sensible to set up a buddying system for proofreading. Everyone should have one person they trust to proofread their work before it goes to the supervisor. Mechanical errors should not be delegated upwards.

Because we are all sensitive about the way comments are made on our writing, supervisors can offer team members a set of easy-to-use proofreading symbols to use.

Here is an example of some symbols you might use:

  • Circle spelling misteaks.
  • Underline errors in Capital usage.
  • Circle punctuation’ errors
  • Put a squiggly line down the page. For grammatical errors.
  • Use an upside down v to show where word is missing.
  • Draw a line through words or sentences that need to be removed. And sentences that are unnecessary.
  • Use a # to show when aspace is needed.
  • Use rep to show unnecessary repetition. (e.g. The car was blue in colour.)
  • Use wdy (for wordy) if what you have written is unnecessarily verbose, tends towards having an extraneous amount of words, or just simply tends to go on and on without any apparent reason or justification.
  • Use awk (for awkward) if the written words you have come up with tend towards needing clarification.
  • Use jar to indicate jargon.
  • Use acro to show there are too many acronyms
  • Use stet (a Latin term) to indicate that the proofreading marks calling for a change should be ignored and that the text as originally written should be let stand.

Notice that these symbols don’t encourage the proofreader to rewrite the work. They are just pointing out errors for the writer to fix. This is quicker for the proofreader and leaves the writer in charge of her work.

Ideally the team can discuss the symbols in a meeting before using them. They may want to add other symbols for common errors that come up in a particular workplace.

The more we talk about our proofreading approaches, the more we realise that we all make these mistakes. It is not shameful but it needs to be fixed and we can help each other to do it.

If you are proofreading a publication to go to an external printer, you’ll need to use the standard symbols of the publishing industry, which take longer to learn. You will find these listed fully in the 6th edition of the Australian Style Manual published by Wiley.