Proofreading Day: A Brief History of Proofreading
  • 4-minute read
  • 8th March 2021

Proofreading Day: A Brief History of Proofreading

March 8th is National Proofreading Day, a day to celebrate what our editors do best! And to do that, we’re taking a quick look at the history of proofreading.

A Pre-History of Proofreading

Believe it or not, there was once a time before proofreaders! People still made errors in texts, though, and these would sometimes need correcting.

For example, medieval scribes had to copy out manuscripts by hand. Naturally, this led to mistakes. But the scribes had a number of methods for correcting their work.

Some would simply cross out incorrect passages, then start again on the next page. We can see this in the Abbey Bible from 13th century Italy.

Crossed out text in a medieval manuscript.
Crossed out text in a medieval manuscript.

Others would scrape off the offending text from the parchment with a knife, cover it completely with a different color ink, or add the corrected text in the margins.

Thankfully, modern copy editors have simpler methods available. But before we get to that, we should look at when “proofreading” as we know it truly first emerged.

Proofreading and the Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg introduced the mechanical printing press in the 1400s. This revolutionized Europe, making printed texts available to far more people. For a long time, though, nobody checked the type before printing, which led to many errors.

A 1682 version of the King James Bible, for example, misprinted a line from Deuteronomy as “if the latter husband ate her” instead of “hate her,” which has a very different meaning! Other typos in the Bible have become equally notorious.

To rectify this situation, from the 1600s, authors would proofread their own work. But as the publishing industry grew, printing presses realized they could employ scholars to do this. Thus, the specialist role of “proofreader” was born.

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This is also where the word “proofreader” comes from: the frames in which movable type were arranged were known as “galleys,” and the test version of a text was a “galley proof.” A “proofreader” was someone who read these proofs.

Movable type in trays.
Movable type of the kind used in a printing press.

The proofreader would point out any errors in the test version, using special marks to show where changes should be made. This meant that printers could correct mistakes in the type before printing more copies.

Proofreading in the Digital Age

While the rise of the printing press led to “proofreader” becoming an established profession, the advent of the computer age has seen proofreading change again.

Now, rather than working on paper proofs and using proofreading marks, most proofreaders work on a computer. In some cases, this will still involve marking up a typeset text (e.g., annotating a PDF proof of a book before it goes to print). But a lot of the time proofreading now involves working on a document in a word processor.

This allows us to combine elements of proofreading (e.g., correcting errors in the text) and copy editing (e.g., making minor edits to improve clarity). These edits are then “marked up” using digital tools in the draft document itself.

At Proofed, for example, we use the Track Changes tool in Microsoft Word to edit documents. This means we can make edits to your writing to ensure it is clear, concise, and error free, but you always have complete control of the final draft.

Tracked changes in a Microsoft Word document.
Tracked changes in a Microsoft Word document.

Expert Proofreading Services

We hope you have found this brief history of proofreading interesting. You can see how the modern version works by submitting a free 500-word trial document to our editors today. And what better day than National Proofreading Day to give it a try!

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