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03 February 2020

The story behind proofreading

Many unseen tasks are involved in bringing a great piece of content to the public and one of those is the critical job of proofreading. One Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups alumni business, The Proofreading Company, does just that and more, offering language services including editing, proofreading, translation and copywriting.

Co-founders Peter and Rosie wanted to start the business due to their love of storytelling and working with language. Rosie explains, “The question was: how do we turn our passion into a vocation? Both Peter and I studied languages together at Oxford University and then went into interpreting and publishing respectively, but after a while we decided to join forces and start The Proofreading Company. In the proofreading world, we feel you tend to get either freelancers working solo or companies that offer a rather impersonal service, where work is churned out without much care. We wanted to fill that gap: to create a business that has significant capacity while still being friendly, caring and customer-focused.”

Co-founders Peter and Rosie

Each week is different for the company, with many different jobs, such as helping international organisations publish error-free, well-written reports, writing copy that reflects a company’s brand and purpose, translating a French-language academic paper into English so that it can be submitted to a British or US journal and even reworking lyrics for rock songs!

The landscape of proofreading has seen changes in recent years. “Almost all of our work is now digital rather than on paper. Thinking back to the time of proofreading symbols to mark up a printed document makes me a little nostalgic, but there’s no doubt that working on a computer saves a lot of time and trees,” Rosie explains. And despite the move towards short forms of communication–like social media and text messages–people still care about carefully crafting their writing: “Our customers care about correct spelling and consistency, because they want to convey their ideas clearly. They don’t want their reader to be distracted by inconsistencies or stuck trying to work out what a sentence is trying to say. There are different contexts in which we write; in a text message or on social media, people might not mind bending grammar rules, but they still want their professional documents to be absolutely perfect.”

There is the question of what’s next for the future of proofreading; will machines replace human beings? Rosie thinks it’s a bit more complex than it first might seem. “So many subtleties and layers come into play when we edit or translate a piece of writing. We bring our language and grammar expertise, but also the cultural knowledge, emotional sensitivities and common sense that are (so far) unique to human beings. There are infinite ways in which we can use language. The quirks of a writer are often what make their style unique. How would a computer deal with the brilliant first sentence of Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, which is composed of 1,288 words?”

The longevity of proofreading confirms Rosie’s belief it’s here to stay. “Last year I visited the British Library’s exhibition on writing, which featured a Chinese scroll from 672 AD where a list of proofreaders is included on the document. Proofreading existed more than 2,000 years ago, and probably long before! We’re open-minded about AI possibilities, but computers have a long way to go to compete with human beings when it comes to language. From where we’re standing, the future of language services lies in human linguists whose work is enhanced by clever machines.”

The Proofreading Company logo

With humans continuing to lead the way, The Proofreading Company is looking to rebrand to reflect the wider scope of services it offers – so watch this space.

If you have ambitions to grow and scale-up like The Proofreading Company, find out more about our Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups programme.