KENNETH DEZHNEV - DEZHNEV & CO., INC. - Graphic Communications Consulting


















THE COMMANDMENTS OF PROOFREADING   updated: 11/26/17; posted: 12/21/16




(none yet)



A vital, and generally neglected aspect of book production is proofreading. There is a good deal more to it than non-professionals think. To do it even adequately requires some training, and a professional knowledge of proofreading involves some specialized skills and knowledge in addition to a knowledge of editorial style.

The extensive and detailed set of conventions used by professional proofreaders may seem pedantic and arbitrary to outsiders. However, readings in the history of the craft will show that these conventions, and the associated procedures, have been remarkably consistent over the centuries, and that they are dictated by the necessities of producing texts. Most of these necessities pertain to the general nature of written texts, and thus are rarely altered by changes in technology. If a professional proofreader from the last hundred years were to be transported back several centuries to a shop or publishing house in Western Europe or America, he would find the procedures and proofreaders’s marks generally quite familiar, and would have little trouble settling into his next job. (Once he has stolen some clothes suitable to the time, he would probably have little trouble getting hired.) Some of the proofreader’s marks date from a time when proofreaders communicated with their colleagues in Latin. Fossilized as easily-learned symbols independent of language, they are as practical today as any alternative, and are already established as a means of communication.



For behold, a Spirit did appear unto me in the night at the corner of 6th Avenue and 23rd Street, there in the midst of the type shops whose work is the work of the night, even there by the station of the F train that runneth to Brooklyn. And the Spirit spake these commandments:

• Be expert in thy craft, lest thou fail in these commandments. For the proofreader standeth alone, and crosseth every man: he must ever persuade or submit; his only hope is in the truth, and the hands of all men shall be against the unrighteous proofreader.

• Thou shalt not bluff, neither shalt thou bear false witness, for thine enemies shall surely bring thee down therefor.

• Thou shalt ever learn from those who know any thing that shall aid thee in thy craft. Nor shalt thou, for the sake of momentary ease, learn aught from those who know not. For the righteous proofreader loveth the truth, and welcometh it whencesoever it come, and he hateth falsehood, and embraceth it not, even if it come from his boss. But the unrighteous proofreader knoweth not truth from falsehood, and must therefore hate all correction; and he learneth only from the expediency of the moment, and shall suffer when the moment hath passed.

• Thou shalt know all the several standards by which every type of work must be judged, and apply to each job the appropriate standard. For to do otherwise is to bluff, and to be false, and to be a burden to all about thee; and to avert their vengeance thou shalt be forced to relax whatever standards thou knowest. But if a proofreader know with exactness the rightful standard for each work, he may apply that standard with a sword of fire, and be safe amid the flames.

• Thou shalt mark first, and ask questions later, lest an error be overlooked.

• Thou shalt follow up every question.

• Thou shalt not put thy personality into a second read: question not the judgment of one who hath read before thee, but only his oversights. For all proofreaders know that no proofreader batteth a thousand, and know also that each work of a proofreader is one whole so that, where the parts fit truly together, no other proofreader disturbeth that work without error.

• Thou shalt defer to none unless he write down his own orders clearly enough for any to follow without question, and also sign his name thereto, and suffer alone for his errors. For thou art damned if thou dost, and damned if thou dost not. Therefore do as it damned well pleaseth thee according to thine own judgment, and vary not thy judgment for any expediency, and so men shall fear thy judgment and not thou theirs, and thine arse shall be saved in the long run.

And verily, this sort of thing happeneth often to those who stagger out into the darkness from the dens of typography.



In the Editing and Proofreading section of the Reading page, you will find a listing and brief account of an excellent and recent practical manual devoted entirely to proofreading, though it is not comprehensive as regards typographic proofreading: Anderson, Laura. McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook. 2nd ed. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Many of the historical books and practical manuals listed on the Reading page (especially De Vinne) will have practical information on typographic proofreading at various stages of the history of printing—much of which is still relevant.


For those getting deeply into the history and evolution of editorial practice, a few important and interesting notes on proofreading in the Greek, Roman, and medieval periods (mentioned here since such information is rarely findable in one place), along with much on editorial practice, which back them was not distinguished from scholarly practice:
    Cameron, Alan. The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford U.P.: 2011. Pages 441–45 (related material in surrounding sections; the pages are few but Cameron is succint and meaty). This book is described more fully on the Reading page.

Two other books bearing on aspects of proofreading history that are of critical importance in other fields:

Hinman, Charlton. The Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
    A groundbreaking study of the interaction between the text of Shakespeare and the printing practices and practicalities of the time. Takes you into the slipshod printing and publishing house of Isaac Jaggard, at a low point in the history of English printing, as the First Folio of Shakespeare is being set, proofread, and printed. Hinman distinguishes and characterizes the work of the compositors who did the typesetting, and evaluates the work of the proofreaders (when there were any). All of this is rich in consequences for the textual study of Shakespeare. It is also, incidentally, an important piece of printing history, and those who have worked as typesetters and type-shop proofreaders will find much that is familiar here.
    Since Hinman’s time, more research has been done into the composition of the First Folio, and some of Hinman’s conclusions about the way the work was done have been revised. Most notably, the five compositors distinguished by Hinman have increased to as many as nine or ten. (Hinman’s “compositor A” has since been split up into as many as five people. Has anyone considered the possibility of aggravated schizophrenia? In many periods, printers considered themselves lucky if they could find competent typesetters, and were not too picky about frills like sanity.) However, says the Applause edition of the First Folio (2001), “nevertheless the overall analysis [Hinman] presents is yet to be seriously challenged, and those seeking exactitudes should turn to him before following the later eminently respectable researchers in the field.”
Prosser, Eleanor. Shakespeare’s Anonymous Editors: Scribe and Compositor in the Folio Text of 2 Henry IV. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981.
    In the tradition of Hinman, another excursion into Jaggard’s shop.



Proofreading involves a very specific type of alertness, with its own accompanying skills.

Inattentive proofreaders did not last long in good type shops. Most of the dozens of projects a proofreader might handle each day involved hundreds of tiny typographic and editorial details, in addition to checking the copy. There were likely to be serious consequences to the shop if too many of those details, or even one of the many extremely critical ones, were overlooked. There are the details which clients will notice if they are handled wrongly, and not notice if they are handled rightly. There are a great many more on which the proofreader’s accuracy and alertness will be appreciated by his co-workers and his boss.

It is (or, at least, was) normal for a typographic proofreader to work long hours overnight. This was no excuse for oversights. An experienced proofreader will notice most of the details subconsciously, which then sounds an alarm in the conscious mind prompting it to make an appropriate mark on the proof—first coming fully awake, if necessary. Someone who tried this before his brain had been re-wired by years of experience would not work long in a quality shop.

In the late 80s or early 90s I was on one of the many freelance proofreading gigs I had at a type shop called Ace on West 27th Street in Manhattan. As usual, I started at about 5 p.m. In “ad shops” (which also did everything else, including magazines, packaging, signage, and corporate communications), most of the work came in about 5 p.m. for delivery first thing next morning. Volume fluctuated wildly, so there was no question of maintaining a full crew for two night shifts. There was a skeleton crew at most for the third shift, and on heavy nights the second-shift people stayed as late as was needed. On slow nights, staff people sat there and read, or talked, or played with the computers, or went home early, and got paid for a full shift. Freelancers, if good ones were available, were called in when extra staff was needed.

You usually got out before the bars closed at 4 a.m., but noon the next day was not unheard of. On the date in question, I got out at about 7:30 the next morning.

The weather was nice, I was hungry, and there was a book I wanted that was only available from a particular store in Rockefeller Center. I wasn’t likely to get another chance to go there during business hours while the night gig at Ace lasted.

So I decided to walk uptown, have breakfast at Pauline’s (a restaurant-coffee-shop for garment people in the Garment District), and then go on uptown and sit in the nice plaza in front of the bookstore until the store opened.

Arriving at the bookstore, I sat down on the stone shelf on the edge of the raised garden bed in the center of the plaza. I took it for granted that, as always, the center of the bed would contain some sort of botanical display. These displays were changed from time to time. I sat down and waited for the store to open.

I was, of course, sagging, and my first awareness of anything about the botanical display was the sight of a venus’ flytrap in the dirt just by my butt. I perked up a bit, as one does in the vicinity of a carnivorous novelty, even if it’s just a small plant. My field of view broadened to include more venus’ flytraps, interspersed with (carnivorous) sundews, and then a crescendo of (carnivorous) pitcher plants towards the center of the display. Hoisting my head fully upright at last, I took in the entire display, and saw that its centerpiece was a life-size topiary brontosaurus. I had walked the length of it, and sat down in front of it, without noticing it.

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