Proofreading: Why You Need a Human

The text Proofreading: Why You Need A Human in all caps overlaid over an image of a robot

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The fad du jour these days seems to be AI. Companies are replacing their staff with AI. Lawyers are citing fake legal cases generated by AI. AI this, AI that, AI, AI, AI.

Artificial Intelligence. The operative word in that term should be intelligence. Instead, it’s artificial. Which is why, if you care at all about quality, you don’t want a computer editing and proofreading things for you. AI technology knows nothing. It doesn’t understand the nuances of human writing. It tries, but bless its digital heart, those dancing ones and zeroes are inadequate when it comes to writing.

But what is proofreading? Is it editing? What is a proofreader? Who needs to proofread—do I need to proofread? When do I need help? Can’t I just use some tools or some kind of AI-powered proofreading thing to clean up my writing? Is human proofreading really that much better? Are you saying it’s your way or the highway?

Art is filled with nuance. Writing is an art. Computers are bad at nuance. Humans are not. That is why you want a human proofreading for you.

What is proofreading?

Ye olde Webster’s Dictionary’s dictionary says this is the meaning of proofread: to read and mark corrections in (something, such as a proof)

And a proof: a copy (as of typeset text) made for examination or correction

In other words, it’s writing a piece, checking it twice, and finding out if those words on the page are naughty or nice.

What is a proofreader?

Simple: a person who proofreads. Thanks, dictionary! You’re great!

That’s sincere, by the way. Dictionaries and thesauri are excellent tools. Nothing shows you the wonderful world of words like the humble dictionary and thesaurus. But I digress.

An image of a young woman in a dark green hat with bright red hair holding a Little Oxford English Dictionary in front of half of her face
Wrong dictionary, but all are good – from Unsplash

A proofreader is somebody who gives a text a good look-see to make sure it’s polished and sparkling instead of full of sneaky, sneaky errors. They look for typos. They find them. They mark them. They look for issues with style while preserving the writer’s own style. They flag inaccuracies, bad grammar, repetition, repetition, repetition, wonky punctuation, repetition (okay, I’ll stop now), missing words–anything that can go wrong when a whole bunch of words get crammed together. Then, they pass the proofread document back to the writer so they can clean it up–or not. Once it’s back in the writer’s hands, it’s the writer’s call.

Who needs to proofread?

Everyone who writes. Bloggers need to proofread. News programs need to proofread. Your favorite fanfic authors need to proofread. Your favorite professional authors need to proofread. Your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, dog, bestie, beloved SO, lawyer, accountant, and others all need to give any writing they do a nice look-see to make sure it’s clear, error free, and good enough to put in front of someone else’s eyeballs.

…okay, maybe not your dog. Or maybe yes, your dog? I don’t know your fuzzy friend, but maybe they’re a published novelist or something. I’m pretty sure my old girl is more clever than she lets on.

An image of an elderly chihuahua looking sad
A sad old lady who swears she’s never been fed before in her LIFE

Does your favorite creature have a secret writing habit? Then maybe they need another pair of eyes on it!

Anyone who writes needs to proofread. I need to proofread. The editor at my other job needs to proofread. The reporter at my other job needs to do it. My coworkers, my friends, Neil Gaiman, the President of the United States–anyone who puts pen to paper or goes tippity tappity typeity needs at least a second look at their pieces of writing.

Sometimes, the writer’s own eyes are enough. Sometimes, they’re not. That’s when it’s time to call in reinforcements.

When do you need reinforcements?

Okay, but when do you need a second pair of eyes, or a third, or more? Are proofreaders still needed? When do you need to call in a professional proofreader?

When your writing matters. 

Look, writing is hard. Coming up with words, putting those words in some kind of coherent order, making them look good and sound good and smell good together–it’s hard. It’s exhausting

Anything that’s hard and exhausting inevitably leads to mistakes. There’s no shame in that. Mistakes are normal. Mistakes are human. And, sometimes, it’s a good idea to ask someone who knows their stuff to help you find those mistakes and tidy them up a bit.

When your writing matters, ask for help.

Why do YOU need a proofreader?

Because none of us can catch everything. We get tired. We forget things. We miscalculate, forget to cite something, go off track in our wording, you name it. Anything that can go wrong in writing will go wrong. Fingers fumble. Brains go bye bye. The English language proves to be hopelessly inadequate for conveying a matter once again.

And sometimes, we just don’t know things, and we don’t know what we don’t know until someone else goes, “Hey, this isn’t quite right.” It’s better if someone gently corrects you when you’re wrong instead of yelling at you over your grammar, spelling, and punctuation, right? Right.

There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t catch every single mistake. You’re not a superhuman error detection system. You’re human: a wet and gooey complex machine of meat and bone being driven around by an electrical blob of scary-smart cells. Gross? Yeah, kind of. A breeding ground for errors? Oh, yes.

The more important a piece is, the more likely you are to need an extra pair of eyes. We all need help sometimes. Reaching out and asking for it is an act of bravery. You want to be brave? Put your heart and soul down on a page and ask someone to help you make it shine. It will make a huge difference. I promise.

Why do you need a human proofreader?

I dabbled in programming a little bit once upon a time–just enough to know that tech wasn’t my calling. I liked it! I just liked regular ol’ words more. But something I learned along the way?

Computers don’t know squat.

While I was dabbling, I often saw references to a challenge to tell a computer how to make a sandwich—step by step. To do it, you have to write out every single tedious little step that us humans take for granted, no matter how silly explaining it seems. Most people trip up somewhere and confuse the computer. Do you want something like that proofreading your writing?

An image of two slices of bread, one with strawberry jelly spread across its surface, the other with peanut butter. A wooden knife lies across the peanut butter-coated bread. A jar of chunky peanut butter sits toward the left.
from Unsplash

Programmers are a pretty smart bunch. They have to be to go Abracadabra! and turn all of that code into something as remarkable as a computer program. The thing is, though, while the programmers might be brilliant, the devices themselves are not. They have to have every. single. part. of a task laid out for them, and the variations that aren’t spoonfed to them in tasty bites (bytes? sorry) of binary, well…they just do not compute for the poor dears–bless their little silicon hearts.

ChatGPT, Copy.ai, Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and all of the other digital tools out there that are either built for proofreading or sometimes used for it are just tools. Are they useful? Oh yes! I’ve used many of them at some point since I started writing and proofreading all those years ago, and others like them. They’re great for creatives who are neurodivergent or chronically ill and low on spoons like me, or who have full-time jobs, or who are otherwise busy and tired and in need of a little help. I fully support letting technology give you a hand when you need it.

But using them is a bit like trying to use a hammer to build a whole house. The hammer is useful for part of the job, to be sure, but not for the whole thing. You don’t just need a tool—you need humans using multiple tools and making sure those tools do the right tasks the right way.

Now, do humans get it wrong sometimes? Of course we do. We are, as one wise person said, ghosts driving meat-covered skeletons made of stardust. Of course we mess up every now and then!

But we are more adaptable and creative than any piece of software. Isn’t that amazing?

Can ChatGPT do proofreading? Can AI Proofread? 

Sort of, but not well—and not if you care about quality. We have not reached the era of AI sentience just yet. ChatGPT isn’t The Machine or Samaritan (and if you recognize those references, you have good taste in TV, and we should be friends). While AI is getting better all the time, AI doesn’t understand nuance just yet. Their less advanced siblings, grammar and spelling checkers, don’t understand it at all.

So many words are spelled the same but have different meanings, or have cousins with the same pronunciation, or siblings that mean almost but not quite the same things. So many sentences are technically correct when standing alone but are incorrect in context. There are so many ways to screw up a sentence or a word, and a lot of times, the tech won’t catch them because, in its eyes, it’s correct. Plus, sometimes those “errors” are a deliberate choice. That human who’s behind the wheel of that story knows what they’re doing. The computer doesn’t.

Humans need to be the ones doing the bulk of the editing and the proofreading.

And only a human will understand one of the more shocking facts about writing, editing, and proofreading:

There is no one way to do this.

The world is filled with opinions.

No matter what you are into, somebody out there has an Opinion—emphasis required—on how you do it.

Always do x.

Never do y.

If you even think about doing z, so help me God, I will bite everyone you love.

I am going to be blunt: that’s complete crap.

Are there rules in writing? Yes. Are there rules in editing or proofreading? Also yes. Spelling has rules. Grammar has rules. Publishing has rules. But here’s the coolest thing about all of these, the one big secret that the people with Opinions don’t want you to know. You wanna hear it?

There is no one right way to do any of this.

There is no one right way to write.

There is no one right way to edit.

There is no one right way to proofread.

In this blog, I will often talk to you about tricks and techniques for whipping your words into shape, or someone else’s words. I will talk to you about things you should look out for, things that can help you up your writing game, and more. But there is no one right way to do any of this.

None.

Seriously.

There is no one right way to do any of this.

There is no one right way to write.

There is no one right way to edit.

There is no one right way to proofread.

Ignore the people who insist that your writing process must go one way. Ignore the people who tell you that you can only edit in a certain way. Ignore the ones who are so damn sure that their method of proofreading is the only method that works. They are wrong.

A large portion of my other job is proofreading. I’ve been doing it for long enough to get pretty good at it. And there is one common piece of proofreading advice that I see all the time that I don’t follow—that I refuse to follow.

“Read it out loud!” everyone seems to say. “Read it out loud.”

I’ve tried. I’ve tried it with my writing. I’ve tried it with other people’s writing. I hate it. I absolutely hate it. The amount of cringing I do just thinking about reading these things out loud is unreal. I still find those errors, though! And as long as I can find those errors and point out how to correct them, who cares if I don’t read things out loud?

Not every tip works for everybody. That’s okay! That’s normal. Find what works for you. Try new techniques. Spice up your routine with some new ideas and new knowledge.


Conclusion

When it comes to the world of writing and proofreading, I believe these three things:

  1. Everyone who writes needs to proofread, or have somebody proofread for them.
  2. Humans should be doing the bulk of the proofreading.
  3. Apart from those two truths, there is no one way to do any of this.

I need to proofread. My boss needs a proofreader. Neil Gaiman needs to proofread. Neil Gaiman needs a proofreader. Everyone who writes needs to proofread, or to have someone else proofread for them, or both.

To understand the writing of a human, you need to be a wet and gooey complex machine of meat and bone being driven around by an electrical blob of scary-smart cells. You need to be a human. Tech tools are very useful for the editing and proofreading processes, but using them cannot be the only type of editing or proofreading you do.

Human Proofreading: It’s good for the writing.


What do you think? Do you think every piece of writing needs to be checked out by a human, or do you welcome our new robot overlords more than I do? Tell me in the comments below.

While you’re here, need some tips on proofreading when you’re short on time? How about some insight on why proofreading business writing is important? Or would you like an experienced professional proofreader to take a look at your stuff? I’ll proofread up to 400 words of your writing for FREE!

Be sure to sign up for my newsletter, too! If you do, you’ll receive a free copy of my Ten Tips to Proofread Anything and my infographic response to the claim that “said is dead,” weekly updates, and any other goodies I want to throw your way.

Now, go do some proofreading!

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