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Proofing versus Proofreading

Most of us use the verbs “proof” and “proofread” interchangeably to mean “to look for mistakes” but I think adhering to a dictionary definition is necessary to understand why we often make needless mistakes despite the fact that we are “proofing” our work.

Here’s the definition of “proofreading”:

to read (printers' proofs, copy, etc.) in order to detect and mark errors to be corrected.

So if I design an exhibition poster, email a proof to you, and then you and two other staffers proofread* it, we should catch any mistakes. Maybe you notice a typo, somebody else sees an extra space in the exhibition description copy, and the event coordinator realizes that the opening time was never updated from 7pm to 6:30pm.

You send your notes back to me, I make the edits, send you a last proof and you confirm the changes were made. Success! Its perfect and ready to be sent to the printer so that 6000 copies can be mailed to your list.

You call me 17 days later: “Hey, did you know there were still typos on the poster?”

Me: “No, what are they?!” (while fumbling with a copy of the poster looking for mistakes)

You: “Well, the accents are wrong in “déjà vu”—its missing the one over the “a”—but that’s not the big one. Sammy Montano’s name was missing from the list of exhibiting artists.”

Me: “Oh man, I bet he’s bummed” (playing it cool while trying to find an earlier draft to see whose mistake this is).

You: “I mean, we signed off on this but how did it happen?” (seething with rage that you can’t blame me because you and your staff signed off on numerous proofs so this is on you)

Me: “I guess it must have gotten deleted at some point.” (being super careful not to admit wrongdoing that might put me on the hook for a printing bill)

This is a common result of proofreading because you only see the mistakes that are visible and obvious—the typo, the extra space—or the things that you remember at that exact moment like the opening time being wrong.

In this example the poster was successfully proofread: the client read the whole piece and identified mistakes. Proofreading is great for a lot of things—first drafts of writing, an informal blog post like the one you’re reading, emails that need to be clear or professional, a text to a family member about a misunderstanding—but its inadequate for anything that needs to be published or that multiple parties might have a stake in.

Which brings us the definition of “proofing”:

to test; examine for flaws, errors, etc.; check against a standard or standards.

It’s that last part—to “check against a standard” that makes proofing fundamentally different from proofreading. To “check against a standard” means that all the information that is invisible on the proof is somewhere and that a proofer can compare the proof with a master document and see if its error-free. Not just free of typos but free of mistakes period.

If we revisit our poster example from above its now a very different situation: I email a proof to you. You print it out and compare it to a text document that has all the content (and you trust this document because IT was also proofed before being shared). You notice a typo, that the time for opening reception is wrong, that “déjà vu” is missing an accent and, most importantly, that a name has disappeared from the list of exhibiting artists. You pass the proof to a colleague who notices an extra space in the exhibition description copy, and the event coordinator proofs the poster but doesn’t find any additional edits.

You send your notes back to me, I make the edits, send you a last proof and you confirm the changes were made. Success! Its perfect and ready to be sent to the printer.

17 days later 6000 copies have been delivered to your list and ALL the artists are thrilled to see their name in print.

That’s what proofing does. It reduces the need for any one person to remember or notice something and is instead part of a discipline that anyone can do effectively provided they have those standards to review against.

What the standard is doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure there are these bibles to review against. Yes, there will always be mistakes and things that slip through the crack but the challenge is to design workflows and procedures that make them rare events instead of expected embarrassments.

* In my experience its extremely rare for most people to actually proofREAD anything. They usually LOOK at the piece for blatant mistakes (aka low-hanging fruit).