We’ve all had them. In fact, every profession on the planet probably has them. Yes, it’s the dreaded recurring questions.

While I was working as a mainframe software developer in the IT industry many years ago, friends and acquaintances would inevitably ask me: “Can you help to fix my computer?”  Similarly, while I was in the environmental business, people would ask me: “Do you plant trees and hug bunnies or something?” Sadly, this was never part of my job description, so I would have to explain the slightly grittier aspects of the role such as waste regulations and environmental management systems.

There are several recurring questions that any proofreader will inevitably encounter in the office, on the school run, or even sat in a pub with friends, including:

  • What exactly is proofreading?” There may well also be a question along the lines of whether proofreading is just a spelling and grammar check.
  • Can’t I just proofread my own work?” This is often followed up with a query about why can’t you just use the spelling and grammar functions in Word.
  • “Do you need specialist knowledge of a subject when proofreading?”

Answering the final question above generally starts with “No but yes, kind of.” At this point 99% of the people you are talking to will try to change the subject onto something more interesting, but the other 1% might hang around long enough for you to elaborate. In short, proofreading skills are transferrable to any subject matter, but prior knowledge of a subject can help you to add extra value. The amount of extra value will vary depending on the nature of the work being undertaken – for example, there will be more opportunity to add value with a proof- or copy-edit earlier in the editorial process compared with a simple final proofread – but I would suggest that the potential is always there. Even with a simple proofread, as a subject expert I’m more likely to spot any technical flaws which may not necessarily be part of the brief, but I would still flag these up.

Over many years of reading books, journals, reports and websites dedicated to environmental matters, I have seen several errors crop up on a regular basis, which never cease to bring a wry smile to my face. While it is possible that an editor or proofreader who is a subject expert has missed these errors, I would contend that these mistakes should stand out like a sore thumb to any specialist worth their salt. Very simple examples of these errors are:

  • C02 – i.e. with a zero instead of a capital O to indicate oxygen.
  • co2 – capitalisation of chemical symbols is important.
  • Carbon Dioxide – similarly, capitalisation (or not) of elements and compounds is also important.
  • Carbon di-oxide and carbon-dioxide – adding rogue hyphens in compounds will only compound matters (sorry).
  • Carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide – this is rare but it’s not unheard of. Either way, it’s a big mistake.
  • Environmental Agency – if I had a pound for every time I’d heard the Environment Agency referred to in this way, I’d have enough to retire and do nothing but plant trees and hug bunnies all day.

An added bonus of employing a subject expert is that their attention is less likely to drift due to boredom, which means that mistakes won’t be made. If I’m reading 100,000 words on the minutiae of family law (no offence to family law but it’s not an area I feel compelled to work in), I might reasonably expect my focus to waver slightly at some point, even with the best will in the world. However, if I’m reading the same number of words on air pollution or the circular economy, for example, I will be genuinely interested in the subject matter and therefore much more likely to remain fully engaged and spotting errors.

Finally, there may be occasions when errors relating to specific names, places or events have slipped through the editorial net. For instance, an expert eye should spot a typo in the name of Arrhenius; this would generally fall outside the remit of a typical proofread and therefore is a good example of adding value.

Conversely – and at the risk of completely undermining the previous paragraphs – there may be occasions when it is preferable to have a non-expert review the copy: for example, when the material is aimed at the lay person to ensure that the language is pitched at the right level. However, this scenario is obviously very much the exception rather than the rule.

Summary

Throughout the editorial process it clearly makes sense to utilise the skills of a subject expert, especially when the written material is complex. As an environmental proofreader with industry experience of a vast array of green issues, I can offer real value to a project and help to ensure that text is credible. Unfortunately, however, it appears I’m still unable to educate all of my friends about what I do on a daily basis because those same old questions keep on coming.


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