Please keep in mind that what most people think of as “proofreading” is really copyediting, and actual proofreading is something entirely different. Neither one consists of merely reading a text, gleefully striking out typos.
Copyediting is generally considered the more skilled (and better-paying) of the two. The copyeditor takes a raw manuscript after it has been through general content editing and performs what may be described as a mechanical edit, after which the ms. is (or should be) ready for typesetting. This edit includes some or all of the following tasks, and possibly more:
[ul][li]Ensure that all pages and supplementary materials (illustrations, appendixes, etc.) are present and in order.[/li][li]Insert typemarking codes (in electronic files or on paper ms.) to instruct the typesetter how to set the various text elements (lists, boxes, heads, etc.)[/li][li]Read the text, ensuring internal consistency/correctness in spelling, grammar, and punctuation according to the specified style guide (Chicago, MLA, APA, etc.) (not according to what you remember from eighth-grade English!). Watch for correct use of trademarks. Ensure parallelism in lists. Write tactful queries to the author as needed. You will maintain a style sheet for each manuscript to keep track of all decisions you make and other style issues that deviate from the style guide.[/li][li]Check for correct numbering of lists, figures, footnotes, and other numbered items. Make sure each figure has a callout in text. Same for footnotes/endnotes; they must conform to specified style and be queried for missing information. Watch for errors of fact, logic, and organization. Maintain the author’s voice. Edit tables/graphs for consistency and clarity internally and with the text. Check chapter titles and heads against the table of contents and ensure parallelism, correct head levels, and consistency among chapters. Flag/check cross-references to other parts of the text. Eliminate wordiness, sexism and other bias, incomplete comparison, and redundancy. Verify proper names, phone numbers, addresses, and URLs. And probably some other things I forgot.[/li][li]In fiction, you will keep separate style sheets for characters, locations, and the timeline. If the character thas blue eyes on page 21, they can’t turn brown on page 343. Make sure Bryce the butler does not become Bruce. Make sure a character’s dialogue is appropriate for his/her education, personality, etc. In historical fiction, watch for anachronisms of fact or behavior. The moon cannot be full on two consecutive Tuesdays – and so on. With respect to the fictional part of the story, rather than checking facts, you are ensuring that the “lie” is a consistent one.[/ul][/li]After the manuscript is copyedited, it goes to the typesetter and then to the proofreader, who receives the edited (“foul” – not to be marked on from this point forward) manuscript and the typeset pages, or proofs. The proofreader reads the manuscript and the proofs simultaneously, not making independent corrections, but rather ensuring that the typesetter has correctly followed the marked-up manuscript. A good proofreader has a copyeditor’s eye and may query inconsistencies in style and other possible copyeditor flubs, but generally the proofreader is instructed to keep unnecessary editorial changes to a minimum, as the cost of such changes is much higher at this point. The proofreader also checks that the typesetter has followed the design specs, and may measure page length and type specs, as well as checking color breaks, insertion of icons and other graphic elements, and correct use of fonts. This includes watching for extra spaces, wrong font size or type, bad letterspacing, incorrect leading, use of bold or italic, and so on. (I have frequently caught [presumably older] ex-typists using the letter “l” instead of the numeral “1,” as well as italic superscript numbers that should have been roman.) The proofreader also checks for correct hyphenation and eliminates widows and orphans (short words or lines by themselves at the top/bottom of a page or end of a paragraph).
Still with me? I don’t mean to discourage you, but many “aspiring proofreaders” (myself once included) believe that the ability to spot typos in the newspaper is all the skill that’s needed. Flexibility, a keen memory and eye for detail, common sense, willingness to recognize that the goal is to communicate the author’s thoughts to the reader, a good feel for the language, and knowledge of the rules as well as when to break them are as essential as a grasp of grammar and spelling. A good copyeditor may know everything, but he/she knows where to look it up, and does exactly that when confronted with anything of which he/she is not 100% certain. Many copyeditors I know believe in “the copyediting gene” – namely, an ability that can be developed and nurtured in one who has the “gene,” but cannot be taught to one who doesn’t.
If you’re still here, I encourage you to read Karen Judd’s excellent book Copyediting: A Practical Guide. I knew after reading her first chapter that copyediting was the job for me, and the book also has an excellent list of further resources. I’ve been freelancing as a CE/PR for 6½ years now, and I love it. I’ve learned something new with every project. When I think of how I handled that first ms. – oy. I’m amazed that client ever sent me another one! But they did, and still do, and I kept learning, and now I have five regular clients who love me and enough work that I occasionally have to turn down new projects because I’m already booked to the gills.
Feel free to ask away if there’s anything I’ve left out. [sub]And yes, I know there are probably typos in my post, but I’m an iffy typist anyway, and I have a wonky keyboard, and I have work to do – be glad I decided to post at all![/sub]