How did proofreading change modern publishing?
Let us address the elephant in the room first. What is proofreading? Proofreading is the final step in the editing process that ensures that your document is free from any minute errors and is ready to be published. If you recall, there was an error in the King James Version of the Bible in which it said “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of the opposite, inciting shock and laughter from its audience and its critics. There are many blunders committed throughout history, especially for sensitive documents, which must have knocked sense into the heads of publishers to get someone to check the manuscripts before they were printed.
First, there were handwritten copies circulated everywhere. These copies were only of religious documents and important scripts written by nobles and people from the elite class. This means that even if there would be an error in one copy, it would be possible to scrap that copy and write a new one. But imagine the tediousness of the entire process! Maybe that’s why people were relieved when Gutenberg showed up with his printing press, full of metal letters stamped in ink.
Gutenberg is known as the ‘Father of the Printing Press’ for a reason. He made the printing process affordable and therefore allowed the middle class to get access to something that was considered only for the elites: education and literacy.
A 1499 contract held the author responsible for proofreading. From then to now a galley which is a long tray holding a column of type, is used to make proofs. They are hence called galley proofs. We also use this term for the first copy produced in photo-composition and other typesetting forms, which do not involve the metal type.
If you think that heated discussions between proofreaders and writers happen now, you are sadly mistaken my friend. Lawsuits between printers and authors were common throughout the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. There is evidence of authors’ apologies and complaints not seeing corrected proofs in books, error sheets along with this.
Proofreading is even older than publishing if you look at the etymology of the word. How did the word ‘proof’ develop? The earliest known origins of the word from the Latin word ‘probare’, which means to confirm by testing. So we can conclude that the English word proof can mean both to confirm something with evidence and to subject something to a test. Therefore, the word ‘proof’ rears its head in the word ‘proofreader’. Since the word ‘prove’ means ‘test something’, the pre-publication process and the versions of the pre-published books were known as galley proofs. And the people who checked these galley proofs were ultimately known as proofreaders. And, reasonably enough, the people who checked these ‘proofs’ for errors were termed ‘proofreaders’.
Fast forward to now and you have proofreaders as one of the most important people in the publishing process, without whom your book will probably be a mess. Proofreaders check for last-minute errors, spelling mistakes and formatting and your book turns out impeccable because of this finishing touch.
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