Editing Tips #1: Proofing and Edit Marks, A Primer

As technology advances, we often lose the manual skills that tech is meant to replace. Even knowledge fades away as new techniques are developed. How many of us have the Dewey Decimal system memorized anymore? Know how to rebuild a carburetor? How about canning your own jellies, sewing a quilt by hand, or raising chickens*? If we’re lucky it becomes trendy to “revive” these skills (in the same way that some of us collect “artifacts” like Depression-era glassware and vinyl records**), but many less popular bits of information are lost.

The problem is, we often discover that we still needed what we thought we’d outgrown — usually at the worst times. Because of this, it becomes important to save the bits of history and knowledge that are part of lost skills, even when we’re told some new advancement means we don’t need to know how to do that thing anymore. Otherwise, the information is lost, as far as the general population is concerned.

One of the skills we’re not taught anymore is how to read and use editing marks. I’m referring to the little symbols editors use to mark-up a hardcopy document for editing. Before Track Changes became the editing go-to method, we used to transform a clean, white, sheet of paper into a tangle of red ink reminiscent of a football playbook, using these symbols.

In fact, it’s often faster to edit on paper this way than it is to use the track changes feature in a Word document. Depending on what the recommended edits are, it’s sometimes easier to clearly see the suggestions. Since Adobe lets you markup a PDF in the same way, making it possible to proof digital documents already in their print layout, even if you’ll never receive old-school paper edits again, there’s still a reason for you to know these symbols.

Better: knowing how to use and read these marks will let you keep working even when your internet is down, your laptop goes missing, your desktop computer suffers the blue screen of death, or you suddenly realize your deadline means that you have to finish those edits in the 45 minutes before your next panel while your editor sits next to you marking up pages a moment before she hands them to you to read.

Editing marks are a little different from proof marks, because copy editing is about looking for errors in spelling, grammar, or semantics. Proofing a document should keep an eye out for those errors, but is largely concerned with whether the document is ready to go to print. Is it clean, formatted well, and set properly on the page? Did any new errors get introduced after the final editing pass? Do slight changes need to be made from the organic placement on the page to fit traditional publishing rules (like whether a single word is left over on the next page, or if a sentence breaks in a way that gives it an unintended meaning)?

Editing marks will suggest changes: substituting, deleting, or transposing words; changing or adding punctuation; asking for clarification; requesting a return to a previous version.

The following list of marks is taken from figure 2.6 of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style:


Click for the larger version.

Note that it includes the same marks as you’d find in an edit pass, but also has symbols for typesetting changes. Other editing marks include:

en En dash.
em Em (long) dash.
sp Spell it out.
awk. Awkward phrasing.
dang. mod. Dangling modifier.
mis. mod. Misplaced modifier.
>frag. Sentence fragment.
wc Questionable word choice.
ref. Faulty or ambiguous reference.
r-o Run-on sentence.
c-o Comma splice.
S-V agr Subject-verb agreement.

There was a time when elementary school students all across the nation were taught how to proof their own work in this way. I wasn’t exposed to them until high school, but my English Composition teacher made sure we knew. At that time, though, it was clear we were among the last to learn this skill as part of a public school curriculum. Given that we’ve dropped these marks from our standard education here in the US in the last few decades, these proof marks might seem to be an invention of early 20th century grammar school teacher. Brought in to codify white American middle-class English in the same way as Strunk’s Elements of Style

In fact, they were developed around the same time as the printing press. From A Census of Print Runs for Fifteenth-Century Books***:

According to the contract of 22 May 1499, Beroaldus provided the paper, the copy, proofreading and correction, and promised to promote the edition during his lectures on the text at Bologna University. This document was cited but not transcribed in Albano Sorbelli, Storia, della stampain Bologna (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1929), 61, citing the original in the “Archivio notarile di Bologna, atti del notaio Agostino Landi, 22 May 1499.”

Early editions are full of these marks — along with the frequent request by printers and proofreaders for an author to strike a particular word from their vocabulary… ever again.

See? Some things never change. Forgetting the use and meaning of these marks means forgetting 500 years of editing shorthand which served us from the dawn of the Information Age. I can’t be the one to let that go. Can you?

Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll answer whatever I can.

* Yes, I can do those things.

** This is me, too. My car even has a cassette deck. But I don’t have a hipster beard. I had to draw the line somewhere.

*** by Eric Marshall White, Curator of Special Collections, Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, 2012.

This post originally appeared on carriecuinn.com on May 13, 2014.

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