When my office hires at the entry level, there’s a proofreading and copyediting test. My preference has been to give the test in person, on paper. That levels the playing field by eliminating access to e-mail and online sources. It shows how a person will mark up copy on the job (a frequent chore for the new kid). It isolates proofing and editing skills from word-processing skills.
So in the interests of helping young editors in search of employment, I’d like to talk about the second-most common* fatal error that candidates make on the test: that is, their failure to understand the concept of proofreading. Every time we hire, I rewrite the test instructions in the hopes of making them flunk-proof, but there is inevitably at least one smart, promising candidate who in spite of alleged experience proofreading and copyediting still manages to miss the point of the exercise.
In the proofreading test, the candidate is given two versions of a document: The first is a typed page, double-spaced and covered with corrections handwritten by a copyeditor. This is typically called the manuscript. The second is a typeset page—it looks like a photocopy of a page of a published book. The second was typeset from the first, and if all has gone well, the hand-marked corrections will have been incorporated into the typeset (final) version.
The test instructions say to proofread the typeset version, not to mark on the manuscript, and to query anything that isn’t clear. Experienced proofreaders know to read the typeset version against the manuscript very closely, comparing the two, looking at every letter and space and punctuation mark to make sure that the two versions are identical and that no text has been added or deleted by accident. In the olden days, two people would share the task: one would read the original aloud, including punctuation and corrections, while the other followed along in the typeset version.
Naturally, the typeset version has errors in it—after all, it’s a test. The errors are of three main types: (1) the typesetters failed to make a requested correction, (2) the typesetters introduced a new error in a place where no correction was marked, and (3) the typesetters followed the editor’s marking accurately, but the editor’s marking was incorrect. The third type should be rare.
IMPORTANT: The idea is to correct the first two kinds of errors without querying, and query only the third kind.**
Here is a table demonstrating the idea behind proofreading. The first column shows what is on the original manuscript; the second column shows how the manuscript was typeset; the third column shows what the proofreader should do.
Simple enough? Evidently not quite, for job candidates go wrong in two ways. First, they fail to compare closely enough, so in passages where all seems well in the typeset version, they miss the second type of error.
Worse, they query all three types of errors, instead of only the third. This is profoundly unhelpful in real life. It virtually defeats the purpose of proofreading, which is to flag unresolved issues—and only unresolved issues. Flagging nearly everything the editor marked for correction is tantamount to asking “Did you really mean to correct this?” when it is obvious that she did. It makes extra work, since she will have to check in each case. She might as well have proofread the thing herself.
Perhaps the concept of proofreading is trickier for a generation brought up in the digital age of typesetting, but fortunately, once it is understood, proofreading is the easiest of all editing tasks. And fortunately for proofreaders seeking work, there are still plenty of ways typesetting can go wrong.
*The most common error is sloppy handwriting. I feel hypocritical mentioning this, because I know I would never hire myself for a job that required neat writing. But even so, when I write something that I know must be read by colleagues, I take care over it. I make a habit of writing in pencil, and I often erase and rewrite. Bottom line: if a potential employer can’t read your test, and part of the job involves marking up copy for typesetters, you’re toast. So if you are going to be tested, and if you know your usual markings look like the paper in your gerbil’s cage after a week, take a couple of sharpened pencils and an eraser with you. If you forget, ask for them. (Yes, you’ll look like a loser in the moment, but it’s better than making a mess in ink. And depending on the competition, you might still have a chance.)
**In real life, proofreaders are not always charged with querying anomalies, and excessive querying that amounts to second-guessing the copyeditor is not the goal.