In Defense of Proofreader Marks

I recall it vividly. I was just out of college at my first job working for a small publisher (ETA–Evangelical Training Association that does basic books about the Christian faith). The company hired me as an assistant editor. I was green, knew nothing about the publishing industry, and very little about editing and proofreading.

(Now, after forty years in the industry, I teach everything I didn’t know to my Professional Writing students so that they don’t have the same experience I did. I want them to hit the ground running in any new job with solid understanding of what’s needed.)

But I digress.

Mind you, this was the mid-1980s. No computers and fancy Microsoft Word programs. No fun little “comments” added to Word documents. No squiggly lines on a document pointing out misspellings and potential grammatical problems.

No. This was printed galleys (long printed pages of a book on big sheets of paper) and red pens.

This was where I learned on the job.

As I began proofreading our galleys, revising a sentence to update it meant dutifully crossing out the offending sentence and then writing the revision neatly in the margin. (Thankfully, I have neat writing.) So far so good.

Deleting a stray comma meant marking out the comma, running the red line across to the margin, and writing “delete comma.”

Removing a word meant crossing out the word, running the red line across to the margin, and writing “delete word.”

Capitalizing a currently uncapitalized word meant circling the offending letter, running the red line across to the margin, and writing “capitalize.”

Two words that should be one meant circling the word, running the red line across to the margin, and explaining that “the two words should be one word.”

I’m sure you’re seeing a theme … lots and lots of red lines, lots of explanatory words.

Here’s what I remember vividly. After I had been working on my first set of galleys for several days, the office manager / editor / person-who-knew-more-than-me stepped into my office with a sheet of paper. She had seen my proofreading pages and was coming to the rescue.

She handed me a sheet of paper neatly laid out with what I came to discover were proofreading marks. A squiggle to delete. Three lines to capitalize. Carets from above or below for insertions. Sideways parentheses to close up the space between words or letters. A hashtag symbol to insert a space. She patiently explained to me that these magical marks would replace my explanatory scribbles.

Smooth, clean, easy.

I’m attaching a sheet with proofreader marks that I use in my classes. It’s free for you to download here.

And yes, I still teach my students how to read and use proofreader marks. Is that a waste of time? I don’t think so for a couple reasons:

  • Not everything is copyedited or proofread electronically (either as Word documents or PDFs). Knowing proofreader marks allows you to quickly and easily show what needs to be done if you’re handed physical copy to work with.
  • Sometimes you’ll be working with older folks who know these markings and maybe not the Microsoft Word tools. If you’re handed a physical copy with these markings all over it and it’s your responsibility to incorporate them, you’ll know exactly what to do. (I once had a student message me in a panic. He was at his internship and his boss had done just that — handed him a proofread piece all done with proofreader marks, and it was his job to incorporate the corrections into the Word document on his computer. “Can you send me that sheet of symbols?” he asked. I like to think I saved the day.)

And if you’re interested in a little fun, enjoy these “lesser-known editing symbols” courtesy of Brian A. Klems. The photo below is from his post. (And seriously, sometimes these are just what a proofreader needs.)

All credit to Brian A. Klems

So yes, I still think proofreader marks are valuable to know and valuable training for anyone who seeks to become an editor.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Proofreader Marks

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