A wooden chair with a cushion on it sits next to a wooden table that has a cup of coffee, marked up papers, and a red pen on its surface.

Event Review: Ruth Wilson’s Seminar, “Advanced Proofreading”

Written by Nancy Tinari; copy edited by Katie Beaton

Ruth Wilson’s “Advanced Proofreading” seminar provided us with a wealth of information, tips, and exercises derived from Wilson’s decades of experience. The hours flew by as we learned, worked, and occasionally became sidetracked by those minute issues that editors love to debate.

Though the other participants and I had wildly divergent proofreading experiences, I’m confident that all of us found Wilson’s seminar to be valuable. Her material was extensive and broad enough to help near-beginners as well as those more experienced in hard copy markup, online markup, or both.

At the outset, Wilson emphasized that judgment is one of the trickiest aspects of proofreading. What should be marked? What should be queried? What should be left alone? When should a proofreader fact-check? Throughout the day, we discussed judgment calls surrounding these questions as we worked on proofreading exercises. Wilson explained that a proofreader makes these decisions based on the client’s directions, the time and budget for a project, the proofreader’s part in the production process (that is, how many times the proofreader will see the document), and the proofreader’s prior experience working with a client.

For a proofreader, having an effective and efficient process is essential. Explaining what she would look out for in three passes of a document, Wilson shared her typical proofreading process with us. It became clear that a proofreader needs to look out for a wide variety of errors—not just typos and misspellings, but many elements of design, spacing, and consistency. The proofreading exercises provided a great reminder of all these potential errors that a proofreader needs to check.

Doing these proofreading exercises reminded me of what I already knew, but they also gave me new information about what to look out for. Above all, I was humbled by what I missed (though, to be fair, our time constraints created an extra challenge). Marking up the exercises forced me to confront my own weaknesses—one of which was speed. I realized I needed to slow down.

While working through the proofreading exercises, I discovered several errors that could be easily missed:

  • Slight differences in font size in headers and footers
  • Spelling mistakes in headlines
  • Tiny irregularities in fonts of numbers
  • Slight spacing differences between paragraphs
  • Cunningly hidden spelling mistakes like unversity and familar

One important aspect of proofreading I hadn’t considered is the proofreader’s general knowledge. This is one area that can’t be studied; instead, it relies on a proofreader’s experience as well as their broad-based reading.

Wilson exposed us to many errors that are frequently made by inexperienced copy editors and proofreaders. For instance, Canadian copy editors and proofreaders should be able to correct misspellings like John A. McDonald, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Sir Wilfred Laurier. Another nugget I picked up from Wilson is that a writer can refer to Sir Sandford Fleming as Sir Sandford, but not as Sir Fleming.

A good proofreader also needs to have a sound knowledge of geography (and be prepared to fact-check locations!) as well as a good enough grasp of arithmetic to catch errors in calculations. It’s crucial to check numbers, fractions, and percentages not only in tables, but also anywhere they appear in a document.

Among all this information, Wilson’s exercises eventually revealed another weakness in my proofreading: I wasn’t paying enough attention to the sense of what I was reading. A proofreader’s primary task is to focus on the tiny details; yet they can’t ignore the meaning of what they are reading either. Keeping that fact in mind, I was shocked that I missed querying the following issues:

  • How does an average-sized savoury pie serve 20?
  • How can one cut the above-mentioned round pie into wedges or squares?
  • Why does the photo show thick pastry when the crust is described as paper-thin?

Near the end of the seminar, we discussed proofreading PDFs online. I have little experience of this, and previous seminars I’ve taken intimidated me. But Wilson reassured me that plenty of resources are available for learning PDF markup (which she also provided). Continuing on from our PDF discussion, comments from others in the group who proofread almost exclusively online led to a good talk about the advantages and disadvantages of online versus hard copy markup and the need to adapt to a client’s requirements.

In short, I highly recommend the “Advanced Proofreading” seminar to proofreaders of all levels. Wilson’s generous sharing of her past goofs and her excellent proofreading exercises were hugely beneficial.

Nancy Tinari is a former Olympic runner who specializes in academic copy editing and proofreading. She also edits books for self-publishing authors, mainly in the memoir genre. 

Katie Beaton recently discovered her love of editing and decided to enrol in the Editing Certificate program at SFU. A year and a half later, having completed the program, she knew she wanted to work as a professional editor. To achieve that goal, she plans on gaining as much experience as possible in order to take the Editors Canada’s professional certification test. Until then, she continues to pursue her other love: travel. When she’s not exploring the world, she can be found teaching yoga, writing, and enjoying every brunch spot Vancouver has to offer.

Image by Pixabay

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