Where Have All the Proofreaders Marks Gone?

Back in the early days of my graphic design career, I took a not-so-glamorous route and worked in a university publications department. After a whopping six years, I moved to another not-so-glamorous job as an art director at an association. But what I lacked in the sexy-projects department, I gained in the word department.

Multiply the number of pages of edits that came across my desk times the number of projects times six years and it equals a lot of decoding of proofreader’s marks. I was blessed being surrounded by scholarly editors and writers. I say scholarly to contrast them with the marketing department because their respective focus was different. And we designers enjoyed the usage war that silently raged between the writer writers and the marketing writers. The latter took great liberties with the English language much to the former’s dismay.

Indeed, there is a time and place for the modifying of proper usage or grammar for the sake of boldness or simplicity, like Apple’s “Think Different” slogan. But I appreciated the delicate, focused care that these editors put into their work—plodding along word by word, line by line, page by page, ironing out the wrinkles. I then pressed out the remaining wrinkles, and learned by doing. There is something refreshing about (mostly) unequivocal rules. With design, anything can be questioned. (I have since learned that anything can be questioned about writing and editing.)

Even so, it was eye-blurring work, deciphering the correct spot in which to insert a commas. Enter proofreader’s marks—this wonderful shorthand of symbols became etched on my brain. It was among a designer’s responsibilities to know what the symbols meant. Now their application seems like a dying art. Making corrections to a document these days is a bit like dancing with a different partner on a dance floor, each using a different style that you must adjust to.

The beauty of proofreaders marks is that they are universal. Each one has a unique meaning and purpose and are, therefore, unambiguous. They are also shorthand for what would otherwise be spelled out, leaving the page less cluttered and leaving the edit easier to understand. A curlicue means delete, whereas a cross out means lowercase. Cross out a whole word and one has to think too long, use guess work or make more errors.

Now, with many proofs coming to designers in the form of marked-up PDFs, there may be no need for proofreaders symbols. These PDFs have their benefits, especially the ability to check off each edit as it is made. But it’s a cumbersome way to make corrections, switching back and forth on screen between software programs. Call me a luddite but I still love a marked-up (in red), hard-copy proof. Those were the days. But then again, those were also the days of making halftones in a dark room using a stat camera for hours while inhaling chemicals. Some progress is good.

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