My first flight with our toddler recently taught me a great deal. I learned the need to pack twice as many snacks as what he would normally consume in a 5-hour period, bring several quiet activities to keep him occupied, and toss out of my mind all ideas of watching movies or getting work done during the flight. I also learned something I didn’t expect: even large corporations make mistakes. While flipping through the airline’s onboard menu (because clearly, we did not bring enough food for the trip), a glaring error nearly jumped out of the page at me: Campbell’s Cicken Noodle soup. Oops!

Mistakes happen: Proof readers are human too
The blatant error reminded me that as excellent as the writers are, as experienced the team of copy editors, and as many approvals a piece goes through from copy to art to printer proofs, you just can’t skip the vital step of proofreading. Proof readers catch issues that occur in the copy to artwork/layout process, including missing text, font issues, spacing and artwork issues, and mistakes that make it through the copy editing process. They work closely with graphic designers and therefore are aware of the types of issues to look out for. The proof reader must constantly battle his or her mind, which is designed to fill in missing letters or correct mistakes in order to make sense of what the eye sees—filling in the missing h in cicken, for example. (Learn more about the differences between copy editing and proof reading.) Proof reading is methodical, visual, and can be tedious.

Perhaps the proof reader didn’t catch the mistake—proof readers often have to work in a hurried state because of sliding deadlines earlier in the process. Perhaps the company didn’t use a proof reader on this piece at all, or maybe they used an editor thinking both tasks require the same skill set—they don’t. Whatever the reason, the mistake happened.

[pullquote]The proof reader must constantly battle his or her mind, which is designed to fill in missing letters or correct mistakes in order to make sense of what the eye sees…[/pullquote]

Determining what to do if you’ve gone to print with an error
The next step in realizing there’s an error in print is to assess the damage vs cost. Will the error have significant consequences for the end user? For example, one colleague was working on a scientific textbook and a mistake in temperatures (400 vs 40 degrees) was found at the printer proof stage. Because it was in relation to drug properties and storing environment, the company had to go back and change it, which cost them significantly at that stage. Will the error negatively impact the company? For example, a colleague learned of a mistake on a telephone number that was published on a billboard—talk about a large mistake! I’ve also heard of postcards being mailed out for a retailer that failed to inform of the store’s location and website. If your audience can’t contact you, then you’re losing potential business. Will the error negatively affect the company’s reputation? The answer to this question could make it worth paying the extra money to fix the mistake, but also might not make much difference to the company’s bottom line. In the case of the airline, most people probably didn’t even notice the missing h in Cicken and I don’t think they’ll be losing customers over it. In this case, it’s best for the editorial staff to make a note of it and change it on the next print run. If the mistake is in a document published on a website, however, it can be easily and quickly changed.

The value of a good proof reader
I started my editing and writing career as a proof reader for a pharmaceutical marketing agency where, thankfully, my work was very much appreciated. From there, I moved on to copy editing, while also maintaining my proof reading skills. Often the last pair of eyes on a piece, a good proof reader is probably the most valuable step in the publishing and printing process. The last organization I worked for employed an exceptional proof reader we nicknamed Hawk Eyes. Though page proofs would go through a few talented copy editors and proof readers, she often caught mistakes that could have cost the medical publication much embarrassment.

Even if you’re up against a tight publication deadline, do send the piece to a good proof reader. He or she could save your organization embarrassment, money, and future business. Sure, we all make mistakes, but as I’m learning on Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, “Mistakes happen—try to fix them and learn from them, too!”