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Mark Hembree


Editorial Quality Assurance the Old-Time Way

Don’t trust spell check, and other pro tips

Published: Monday, April 25, 2022 - 12:03

As a late Boomer, I can say my particular age group is better positioned than any to marvel at and bemoan what’s become of journalism and publishing in the last 40 years.

Not that I’m a Luddite. The advent of word processors was a boon to ham-fisted typists like me. A word processor that actually stored files? Outstanding! And then, not too much later, it was amazing to see computers that allowed editors to search lists and view layouts.

Fine, just go ahead and say it now: “OK, Boomer.” I don’t care—no one can disagree that even the world’s greatest publications have more typographical and factual errors than ever. Even well-respected, mainstream publications run articles that end with a disclaimer, something like, “If you spot an error, let us know...” which I would rate right alongside, “Your call is important to us.”

The reason for the higher rate of error is, or should be, obviously simple: Publishers spend less time (read: money) on editorial quality assurance.

You could see it coming even years before it actually happened. With the efficiencies that computers brought came corporate daydreams of massive savings on labor, and soon, “right-sizing.” Typesetters? Paste-up artists? Film strippers? Gone the way of Linotype, pica rulers, hot wax, and four-color film separations.

Management’s desire to streamline is easy to understand. Loaded with the right software, a computer can perform most of the major functions of publishing—writing, editing, layout, and printing—doing the job of several people. Never mind that those individuals have years of experience and expertise; where is the one person who can run this machine?

It’s true that one supremely talented person can indeed write, edit, proof, design, and prepare stories for the printer, and in many places they do—just not as well. And there, dear reader, is your higher error rate.

What can be done? To editorial staffs (where they still exist) I say: Take the time to edit and proof the bloomin’ stuff!

The old-time way

Compare: At the first magazine where I worked (in 1983), the chief editor, George Leonard, was an old-school pro who had instituted a strict, repetitive editing and proofing process. (By the way, those used to be two different things.) Though lengthy, it was a simple, linear workflow:
• The writer submitted a typed manuscript on paper.
• An editor would do an initial pencil-edit on paper and hand it to a typesetter.
• The typesetter, looking at a dark green CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor, would create the only electronic file in the process, keying in the edited manuscript along with mysterious command strings that would cause the printer to output column-width type on photo paper in the desired fonts.
• This single, continuous column of type, called a galley, was rolled up and given to proofreaders, along with the pencil-edited manuscript.
• Reading these scrolls against the manuscript, proofreaders marked typos and possibly caught and noted errors in the initial edit.
• In George’s system, each galley was read by three different proofreaders. (No editing your own edit or proofing your own proof.)
• Marked up galleys were returned to the editor for review.

Now, we’re not even halfway through the process. But this is a good place to pause and note that proofreaders were expected to mark only obvious errors—no dithering over tone or word choice. That was the editor’s job. As the person who was training me said, “If you mark something and George asks you why, don’t ever say it was because you thought it sounded better.” I learned why after seeing what happened to others who did. George would look over the top of his glasses and say, “We all have ears. Do you have another reason?” At that point it was best to have a book in hand and a rule to cite.

Then, after galley proofs:
• The editor reviewed the marked galley—perhaps marking a few proofing edits “stet” (Latin for “let it stand,” short for “never mind”)—and returned the galley to the typesetter, who would make the changes in the electronic file and print out another long, continuous column of type. (Captions and headlines, or “decks,” were a separate typesetting or art job.)
• A layout artist, wielding a pica ruler for measuring type and line count, an X-Acto knife, and a straightedge, would cut the fresh type to column length, run it through a machine that coated the underside with hot wax, and paste it on a thin, white cardboard sheet printed with guides for page height and width.
• These “boards” were how layouts were proofread. Again, there were three reads. And again, restraint was expected. Except for embarrassing errors, no big edit was allowed—especially if it changed the line count and required new type, which now would involve four people (editor, typesetter, artist, and proofreader).
• Proofed three times, corrected, and proofed again until they came clean, the boards were ready for their closeup—a giant camera that would photograph them for one layer of the four-color film separations that went to the printer.

When the four layers of film had been assembled, film copies would come back to the office—and proofed at least three more times, more if time allowed—before heading to the printer. These reads were more like a lot check, a random sampling, yet occasionally they revealed spectacular errors that had, incredibly, escaped prior readers, hiding in plain sight.

Film copies were read until the page was printed, although making a change at this juncture cost hundreds of dollars (and perhaps someone’s job) as presses had to be stopped for printing plates to be replaced. Minor errors you could live with; prominently misspelling the name of someone famous was another matter. By then it was strictly the chief’s call.

New, but not progress

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably a history buff. But just in case you’re curious about why I am telling you this, I will (finally!) get to the point—quality assurance.

The main reason you see more errors in print than ever before is because little (if any) time is devoted to proofreading. I don’t mean rewriting, copy editing, or otherwise coming to the writer’s rescue—just plain old proofreading, double-checking the editor.

To be sure, modern publishing has terrific advantages. No calling the typesetter back to the office to make late corrections; no layout artist’s time for corrections or updates; no yelling, “Stop the press!” because presses can make changes in midrun.

Modern publishing is skewed toward design and production—those things executives can’t do, even though they all have computers. “Copy,” on the other hand, is as easy as writing an email or forwarding a cat video. But typing is not writing, and writing is not editing and proofreading.

Does it matter? Sure it does. Editorial errors can cost real money in several ways, whether it’s dissatisfied readers, loss of reputation, or a lawsuit because some poor Boy Friday, who is expected to write, edit, proof, lay out, and prepare print for publication, actually made a mistake. (Imagine that!)

What can be done

In my 1983 example, one magazine feature has at least one, possibly two edits; three proofreads before type is set; three more proofreads after type is pasted up; and three or more light reads while it’s on its way to the printer.

Of course, no one is going to pony up for that level of staffing or that amount of time, even if taking time for editorial saves time throughout the process. But it’s no reason to give up on quality, let alone just throw content at the wall to see what sticks—or to run one of those shameful disclaimers at the end of a story encouraging the reader to point out any typos or factual errors. A publisher should have the integrity to see the job is done right the first time.

Here, without bringing back carbon paper or typesetters, and without hiring additional staff, are a few easy things you can do to not only maintain, but also possibly raise, the quality of your publication:
• Never, ever publish anything without proofreading it—neither in print nor online.
• Take the time to look things up. Even the reader doesn’t want you to look stupid.
• Proofing your own copy doesn’t count. No matter who wrote it, someone else should read it.
• Always proof corrections after they’re in place. Again, don’t proof your own corrections.
• Don’t expect one person to write, edit, design, and produce a publication. Yes, there may be one machine that can do all those things—and talents who can wear all those hats—but if you want the best, get people who wear hats that fit.
• Edit and proof first, design later. Designers do better when provided with complete work.
• Don’t skimp on editorial time to be able to spend more on art time. If you take the editorial pains and get it right the first time, the artist’s time can be devoted to art, not chasing corrections.
• Establish a simple, linear system and stick to it, even for small changes. Haste makes waste.

And just one more thing: Do not trust any spell checker as far as you can throw it. Don’t let it replace a word without asking. (See the internet for autocorrect memes.) A spell checker can help you catch obvious typos, but its usefulness is limited—and it won’t save you from misspelling people’s names or spelling the wrong words correctly. Remember, spoil chuck can be your worst enema.


About The Author

Mark Hembree’s picture

Mark Hembree

A former professional musician and longtime editor and writer, Mark Hembree has been a staff writer for marketing companies in the music and automotive industries, and a magazine editor covering the scale model industry for hobby and B2B publications. He's also written a book about his music days, On the Bus With Bill Monroe: My Five-Year Ride With the Father of Blue Grass (Illinois University Press, 2022). Mark is an associate editor with Quality Digest.


Right on.

When I graduated with a degree in communications and publication design the publication process was very much as you describe. I then got a job working for a company developing newspaper publishing software. I watched the progression from multiple proof reads to lettng the compuer do the spell checking. After 30+ years in the sofware industry and ending my carreer in quality assurance I sill look for the publication errors. It is why I always read the corrections section of the Wall Street Journal first.


A priest, a minister, and a rabbit go into a bar.

Bartender asks the rabbit, "What are you doing with them?"

Rabbit says, "Spell check!"