A Clean Document-The Proofreader’s Nemesis

Proofreaders and editors love good writing. We revel in correct usage and perfect punctuation. But I get nervous when things look too perfect. It seems counterintuitive, but I freeze up a little when I don’t see any mistakes.

I know just what to do when I get in the groove of an edit and see the kind of errors a writer has made: not following the set style, disagreeing nouns and verbs, erratic serial comma use. I make my usual edits and home in on the particular problems in the document. But what if there are none?

There are two wrong ways to react to clean text. One is to overcorrect. If the client asks you to substantively edit to match a particular tone or voice, you can always find places to rewrite. But if you’re doing a light edit or last-round proofread, you shouldn’t make “happy to glad” changes just for the sake of making your mark on the page. The other, very easy, error is to get lazy. Clean text can lull you into just reading, not proofreading. The more you see the right words and correct grammar, your brain may start to assume the author got everything right.

Here are a few tips to stay sharp when you’re looking over a well-written document:

  • Reread small word strings. “If it is to be” looks a lot like “If is it to be” (and spell-check approves of them both!).
  • Look for common mis-words: though/through/thorough, you/your/you’re, there/their/they’re.
  • Read all heads and subheads carefully. Especially if they are in all caps (spell-check forgives many sins if they’re hidden in all caps).
  • Check for punctuation pairs. Make sure every opening parenthesis or quote mark has a corresponding closing mark.
  • Pay special attention to figures and tables. They may have been retyped from an original in another program (Illustrator or Excel, for example) and may not have been spell-checked.
  • Put your pencil down. Take your hands off the keyboard. Step away from the document. If it really is clean, let it be. There will surely be enough mess in the next one.


Written by Sheila Gagen, Director of Editorial Services at Vector TalentMEDIA. For more information about how TalentMEDIA’s editorial team can help you, contact Sheila at sheila@vectortalent.com.