Proofreaders’ marks — the “printers’ shorthand” known to every compositor, typesetter, editor, and advertising copywriter

Every con­sci­en­tious writer and print­er wants his or her work to be attrac­tive, eas­i­ly read­able and cor­rect but much can go wrong through the many steps in the pro­duc­tion of effec­tive print­ed mate­r­i­al. It may be said with con­fi­dence that none of those steps is more impor­tant than proofreading.

Poor proof­read­ing may delay the process of print­ing but, even more trou­bling, it can be cost­ly when a seri­ous error goes unde­tect­ed and the job has to be rerun. Think of the cost of rerun­ning an entire mag­a­zine because an embar­rass­ing mis­spelling on the front cov­er is missed in proof­read­ing. It hap­pens. The Printer’s Dev­il knows!

In the pro­duc­tion of print adver­tise­ments, copy refers to the entire mat­ter being repro­duced. In fact, what­ev­er the copy­writer gives to the print­er is called copy. When the print­er receives copy, that copy must be accu­rate in every detail, or errors will cer­tain­ly mar the final result.

Before  com­put­ers came on the scene every­thing that appeared in a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine adver­tise­ment —  or a brochure, a fold­er, a cat­a­logue — was sub­mit­ted by the copy­writer to the print­er in type­writ­ten form, togeth­er with a hand-drawn lay­out set­ting out the design of the adver­tise­ment, show­ing how the com­po­nents were to be arrayed.

The com­po­nents of an adver­tise­ment include the head­line, sub­head, body copy, illus­tra­tions, slo­gan, bor­der, and sig­na­ture, i.e. the advertiser’s  name, con­tact infor­ma­tion and logo, and white space.  (See the post show­ing how white space was used cre­ative­ly  by The New York­er magazine.)

Adver­tis­ing copy began at the type­writer — today it’s the com­put­er. There’s always lots of oppor­tu­ni­ty for type­writ­ten errors! The typ­ist is the spell-checker!

The copy was “marked up” for the printer. The printer needed to know:

  • The width in picas to which the type is to be set. A pica em is 12 points or one-sixth of an inch.
  • The type­face and font size and weight of type to be used.
  • Where to set the type in caps, small caps, low­er­case, roman or italics.
  • Whether the type is to be set sol­id or lead­ed (thin strips of met­al insert­ed between the lines of type).
  • Para­graph indentations—whether to set jus­ti­fied, flush left or right (no indentations)
  • Any spe­cial instruc­tions or out of the ordi­nary instruc­tions about word spac­ing or irreg­u­lar set­ting such as stag­gered set­ting (ragged on both sides).

In let­ter­press print­ing the assem­bly of all the mate­r­i­al required for a giv­en print­ing job is called “Make-up”. It includes the dis­play lines , e.g. head­lines and sub­heads which are set by hand or from the Lud­low machine; the body mat­ter which comes from Lino­type or Mono­type;  and engrav­ings that will repro­duce the pho­tographs and illus­tra­tions. Lots of oppor­tu­ni­ties for errors!

All of that out­put is assem­bled in a steel tray called a gal­ley. Blank areas are filled with leads and slugs, quads and fur­ni­ture, all of which are low­er than type height which is .918 of an inch. Leads and slugs are strips of lead used chiefly for putting space between lines of type; lead quads and blocks of wood­en fur­ni­ture are used to fill large “white space” areas.

When the com­pos­i­tor has com­plet­ed the assem­bly of all the type and engrav­ings, he ties a string tight­ly around it and sends it to the “stone”,  which was once a slab of mar­ble but, more com­mon­ly today, is a steel-topped table. Once a print­ing job has “gone to the stone” it is too late to make any cor­rec­tions or alterations.

So, before a job goes to the “stone” the printer will pull three proofs of the copy for the copywriter to review and correct if necessary.

Prop­er copy prepa­ra­tion, then and now, ensures that proofs meet expec­ta­tions. No surprises!

With proofs in hand, the copy­writer must now com­mu­ni­cate desired changes with the com­pos­ing room, with the type­set­ters and skilled make-up men who assem­ble the type and the engrav­ings in page form.

Proof­read­ers’ Marks are the short­hand known to every­one in the print­ing busi­ness. Here are the marks which evolved as stan­dard through­out the industry

Proofreading symbols printed on these two pages of proofreaders' marks.

Proof­read­ers marks: Pub­lished by the Toron­to Typo­graph­ic Com­po­si­tion Association.

Editors’ and proofreaders’ marks can be categorized. There are marks that address:

  • The size and style of type: cap­i­tals, small-caps and low­er case, ital­ics and boldface.
  • Posi­tion and align­ment, trans­po­si­tion, wid­ows and orphans. A wid­ow is a lone word or short group of words that appears at the bot­tom of a para­graph, col­umn or page. An orphan is a sim­i­lar unwant­ed strag­gler, but this describes words that appear at the top of a page. Wid­ows tend to make long sec­tions of text look unbal­anced and messy, as well as leav­ing too much excess white space at the end of a page. Orphans real­ly belong on the pre­vi­ous page, as not only do they look untidy on the page they appear, but they also break the flow of read­ing across two pages.
  • Spac­ing: of words, lines and para­graphs. Add space or take it out, close up words, letterspace
  • Inser­tion and deletion
  • Punc­tu­a­tion and hyphen­ation: com­mas, colons, semi-colons, quo­ta­tion marks
  • Para­graph­ing: indent a para­graph or flush, justify,
  • Marks, signs and sym­bols espe­cial­ly when using math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols or words from oth­er languages.

The marks come in pairs, one written in the margin to flag the correction, the other in the body of the copy at the exact point the correction is to be made.

It is crit­i­cal that proof­read­ers’ marks will be clear­ly under­stood by the typographer.

Proofed and corrected copy might resemble this when it is returned to the printer.

Please note: no type­set­ter would ever set type in this fash­ion. This exam­ple has been set using a per­son­al com­put­er. A pro­fes­sion­al type­set­ter would change the word spac­ing and even the let­ter spac­ing to ensure that hyphen­ation is cor­rect and read­able and that wid­ows and orphans don’t happen.

It was crit­i­cal that proof­read­ers’ marks would be clear­ly under­stood by the typog­ra­ph­er. Although all type com­po­si­tion by com­pos­i­tors and lino­type or mono­type oper­a­tors was checked by the typog­ra­ph­er, the type­set­ter had no author­i­ty to make any changes, except by the express direc­tion of the cus­tomer. The typog­ra­ph­er was not respon­si­ble for mis­takes so accu­rate proof­read­ing by the cus­tomer was imper­a­tive for his or her own protection.