You’ve decided that it’s time to hire a proofreader. You don’t have the time and patience it takes to make sure your copy is error-free. Noticing typos moments after you hit ‘send’ is getting old. But you’re not a grammar expert. How can you assess whether the proofreader you’re considering is qualified or not?

It’s like choosing the other experts you need in your life. You don’t know anything about cars. You’ve got to trust that the mechanic is qualified, competent, and not lying to you. You don’t have a medical degree. You’ve got to trust that your doctor is thorough and skilled enough to help you rather than harm you. Reviews, word-of-mouth, and your intuition work sometimes—but there are better ways.

You may be a busy grammarian who doesn’t have time for thorough proofreading. If that’s the case, congratulations! You can likely assess a proofreader’s ability from their resume, cover letter, and website. But if you’re like most people, grammar rules confuse and bore you. 

A picture of a black pug laying on a bench, looking very bored.

This post will walk you through some things to look for when hiring an English proofreader. It’ll help ensure the proofreader you decide to work with is competent.

Is the proofreader a native English speaker? Not necessary—but usually a safer bet

Non-native English speakers can absolutely reach a high level of English. And there may be a select few that can become competent proofreaders. But native English speakers need to hire proofreaders. What are the chances a non-native speaker will know the intricacies of English better than a well-trained native speaker? 

I’ve stated that non-native speakers may be more knowledgeable of grammar rules than the average native speaker. But non-native speakers may struggle to assess nuance or when something ‘feels’ unnatural. As a 25-year EFL professional, non-native English writing jumps off the page at me.

An image of an open book with a dog, a lamp post, and a girl with a red umbrella coming out of the book in a 3-D manner,

Take this example from a random profile I found on a popular freelancing site.

Hello beautiful people, → This is not a typical greeting a native English speaker is likely to use.

“…then you are at the right place…” → The correct preposition is ‘in.’ You are in the right place. Prepositions are notoriously tricky for non-native speakers to get right. There are so many in English, and sometimes you can use different ones, but that changes the meaning. Drop in and drop by have similar meanings, but drop off has a very different meaning. 

“I have been helping students in their…..applications since many years…” More preposition issues—you help somebody with a problem. When using since, you need to state a specific point in time, not a period of time. For a period of time, you need to use for.

  • I have lived in Korea since 1995.
  • I have lived in Korea for 26 years.

All these mistakes (and more) occur in a short introduction of fewer than 100 words. This “proofreader” is making these mistakes in their writing. What are the chances they’d be able to correct your writing accurately?

An image of a circled red X with blue inside, and the word "unacceptable" underneath it.

The worst part of this offer is that this person claims to offer “Grammarly premium cleared content” (an awkward phrase in and of itself). I have Grammarly Premium. When I run their intro through Grammarly, it lights up like a Christmas tree. That means:

  • A) This person doesn’t really use Grammarly, or…
  • B) This person hasn’t paid for Grammarly premium, or…
  • C) This person is too lazy to run their copy through Grammarly.

Regardless of the reason, there are enough red flags for me to know I do not want to hire this person as a proofreader. They may be a very competent content writer with exceptional organizational skills. But they are not a qualified English proofreader.

What’s their level of education, training, and experience?

Once you’ve established that the person you’re considering is a native speaker, you should consider their level of education. I’m sure a few high school dropouts have become competent proofreaders. But I’m going to assume they are a rare breed.

A picture of a graduation cap, tassel, and the cuff of a white dress shirt.

The higher the level of education, the more likely they have a higher level of grammar knowledge. A graduate degree does not guarantee someone will make a competent proofreader. But someone with a masters degree likely spent a lot of time reading. They may have learned grammar the way most of us learn grammar—through reading. 

Interesting note: Before becoming an EFL teacher, I couldn’t identify a noun, adjective, or verb in a sentence. But in high school and university, I rarely lost points in my essays for poor grammar. I wrote well because I read a lot when I was younger. I intuitively learned what was grammatically correct. Not until I became an EFL teacher and had to explain these grammar rules to my students did I learn basic grammar rules.

Like most native English speakers, I intuitively know which prepositions to use. I can’t always explain why certain prepositions are used, but I know that “you are at the right place” is wrong. I know that “I have been helping students in their problems…” is incorrect. I just know.

I had an interesting discussion with my son a few days ago. We were talking about the difference between the following Korean sentences:

나는 자전거를 타요.   / 내가 자전거를 타요.

A picture of a woman riding a road bike in an urban setting.

The difference in meaning is subtle. I ride a bicycle / I (and not any other person) ride a bicycle. A Korean learner has to consciously think about this when they speak. But native Korean speakers don’t. It comes out naturally.

Actually, a native Korean speaker would likely omit the subject altogether. Korean learners (especially native English speakers) struggle with omitting the subject, as it’s necessary in English. If a non-native Korean speaker uttered the wrong sentence in the wrong context or included the subject unnecessarily, it would immediately feel wrong to a native Korean speaker.

Ideally, you want someone who actually knows grammar rules. The next best thing is someone who intuitively knows what sounds right. Before becoming an EFL teacher, I couldn’t have explained how to use for and since with the present perfect tense. But I would’ve known it was wrong and how to fix it if I’d seen it written in some copy I was asked to proofread.

You can also determine if the person you’re considering has experience with or a background in grammar and writing. For example, I was looking at sites for proofreaders and found one for a fellow that seemed qualified. His educational background wasn’t listed anywhere on his site. But he introduced himself as a scientist turned writer and listed several well-known publications he’d written for, including a column for Macmillan Dictionary. 

A close up shot of an entry for the word 'dictionary' in a dictionary.

Based on a cursory reading of the copy on his site, coupled with this information, I’d be pretty confident this guy could do a proofreading task for me. Though not stated, being a scientist implies he has a university degree. Writing for Macmillan Dictionary indicates he’s competent. I’d be pretty confident he could deliver top-notch work.

Examine their writing to get a feel for their style and attention to detail

Many freelance proofreaders have websites or listings on freelance job websites. Earlier I referenced such a posting from Fiverr, a popular site freelancers use to find work. Whether a native speaker or not, you should examine their page or listing. How well they write can indicate how well they pay attention to detail.

Aside from grammar, spelling, and typos, a key thing to look for is consistency. If they use section headers, do they consistently use title case or sentence case? Or do they go back and forth? Do all section headings end with a period—or just some of them?

When they write bullet lists or other identifying markers, are they consistent? I examined one site, which was actually discussing the difference between proofreading, copyediting, and editing (a topic I have also covered). In one section, they used bold phrases to introduce terms, but with the third one, they used a colon. Odd choice.

A screenshot of a webpage with the initial phrases Developmental Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading in bold, though Proofreading is the only phrase to end with a colon.

Later on, in a bulleted list, some items were written in sentence case and others in title case. There was no justification for the differences between:

  • Blog posts
  • Nonfiction books

and…

  • Scholarship Essays
  • Podcast Notes

In one bullet list, entries started with lowercase letters, while they started with capital letters in another.

There are rules for bulleted lists. In almost all cases, bulleted lists should start with a capital letter. There are different rules and situations for using end punctuation (neither of these lists included end punctuation—but should have). But capitalizing the first word is pretty much a given.

If you take a look at the bullet lists in this post, you’ll note all of the entries start with a capital letter. Some end with a period and some don’t. That wasn’t random. I did it intentionally. If you want to know why, drop me a message.

As you can see, you don’t even need to have an in-depth knowledge of grammar to determine if someone is likely to be a qualified proofreader or not. You just need to have a good eye and look for consistency in how they format their writing.

Learn a couple of often-used (but obscure) grammar rules and look for those errors in their writing

Since becoming an English proofreader and copywriter in Korea, I’ve been Googling grammar rules like crazy. I always want to be sure I’m right and it increases my knowledge of grammar. One thing I’ve been battling with is when to hyphenate words. Learn these rules and look for them in other people’s writing.

A word cloud showing different-colored adjectives, such as foxy, stunning, and classy.

Two adjectives should be hyphenated when they appear before a noun. Thus, it is correct to say:

I live in an off-campus apartment. (Off and campus need to be hyphenated for clarity.)

But you shouldn’t use a hyphen when the same adjectives come after the verb.

My apartment is off campus.

Watch for hyphenated words and see if they’re used correctly. If they aren’t, that’s a sign the proofreader either doesn’t know the rules or can’t be bothered to look them up. And you can’t rely on Grammarly for this one. 

A screenshot of Grammarly incorrectly indicating that the adjective phrase off campus should be hyphenated.

In fact, I recently contacted Grammarly about this issue. Grammarly almost always flags the 2nd example as incorrect. I contacted support about the phrase “error-free” being flagged—no matter where it appeared in the sentence.

It was flagged when writing “I guarantee your writing will be error free.” I asked Grammarly to correct this issue. But Grammarly’s team of experts informed me that whenever ‘free’ is the second adjective, it needs to be hyphenated. 

Thus:

  • Error-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Pollution-free
  • Smoke-free

It doesn’t matter where in the sentence these words appear. They need to be hyphenated. I thanked Grammarly support for the grammar lesson—and fixed the incorrect uses of ‘error free’ on my site. Then I contacted them again. I explained that Grammarly incorrectly suggests adjective phrases should always be hyphenated.

I even pointed them to a post on their own blog that supports my claim. When I pasted the blog into Grammarly, the phrases the blog states don’t need hyphens get flagged as needing hyphens. Grammarly has informed me they’re examining the issue and will get back to me.

A team of workers in an office setting, working at their respective computers.

Learn how to use hyphens correctly. Look for it in the work of proofreaders you’re considering. You’ll then have a decent idea of whether they have the attention to detail you want in a proofreader. You can look for other things, but this is pretty straightforward and pretty easy to spot.

You could also learn about the rules for bullet lists I mentioned above. You don’t need to become a grammar expert. You just need to know one or two rules really well and look for those errors in other people’s writing. If you spot too many mistakes, that’s a red flag.

Dump their copy into Grammarly and see how it holds up

Grammarly is a tool—and should be used as such. As I just demonstrated, it doesn’t get everything right. But it’s usually a good place to start. Copy the text from a site and paste it into Grammarly (the free version is fine) and see what happens.

Here’s what happens when you put my homepage into Grammarly:

Not perfect, but when you look at the suggestions, it’s not so bad. Grammarly suggests changing negative to adverse, but I feel negative is better for my audience. The two words flagged at the end of two headlines are for missing periods. I don’t use periods at the end of headlines. Grammarly suggests removing customers from one sentence, but I feel it’s necessary in this sentence. 

Finally, Grammarly doesn’t like copy when used to mean text. It suggests I need to include the article “a” before stiff (a stiff, boring copy). But that’s incorrect in this usage. I’ve gone over this page hundreds of times. I’ve run it through Grammarly, edited it myself, and then run it through Grammarly again. I’m confident that it’s grammatically correct and makes a good first impression regarding my proofreading ability. 

How about the Fiverr text from earlier?

A screenshot of text from a Fiverr gig pasted into Grammarly, showing there are many errors to fix.

Red means a grammar or spelling mistake, while blue indicates a possible problem with clarity. Green indicates possible issues with engagement, and purple suggests your delivery is off. Someone claiming to offer “Grammarly premium cleared content,” should start with their own writing.

The post that started it all

After coming across this article on a proofreading site, I decided to write this post. This person was passing themself off as a qualified proofreader. But there were three errors in the first sentence! Not to mention, the blog was center-aligned, not aligned left. Only a madman/madwoman would do that.

Most of the errors are related to incomplete sentences and improper comma use. But there are other glaring errors. For example, “…ensure your texts do not…” This was not a sentence about text messages. It was about the text (or copy) on your page. In that usage, it should never be plural. 

I was actually offended that this person calls themselves a proofreader. I fully admit that some grammar rules are open to interpretation. You can follow different style guides (MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.). There’s not always a “right answer.” You can make arguments for and against the Oxford comma.

But writing, “Let’s face it, it’s no longer a secret, …” is wrong no matter how you slice it. This person has no business masquerading as a proofreader. That should be written as two sentences or with a semi-colon instead of a comma.

Here’s what the proofreader’s post looked like in Grammarly.

A screenshot of a blog post pasted into Grammarly, indicating their are several errors to be corrected.

There are far more errors here than there should be on a page for someone professing to be a proofreader.

You should now have more confidence the next time you want to look for a proofreader

Do you remember the guy I suggested would make a great proofreader? The scientist who wrote articles for a major dictionary? I ran his site through Grammarly. There were more suggestions than I’d anticipated. Many of the flagged suggestions were just that—suggestions similar to the ones on my site. But there were also errors with comma usage. I’d have to reconsider using this guy as a proofreader.

I’ve joked that it’s something I live in fear of—people finding typos in my writing. I’ve outlined how thoroughly I proofread and review all my writing. But the occasional error still slips through. No one’s perfect—not even me! 😉

I’ve gone back over blog posts I haven’t read for a while and spotted embarrassing typos. My friends/readers delight in catching one of my missed typos. Such is the existence of a self-professed proofreader.

A photo of a smiling man, pointing as if to say, "I got you!"

If you’re going to hire a proofreader, you want them to be qualified and make changes that improve your writing. If you don’t feel confident about your own writing, it can be difficult to determine who’s qualified and who’s not. But with the information in this post, you’re now better equipped to assess the abilities of a proofreader—even if you’re not sure about grammar rules yourself.

Do you feel better equipped (or is it better-equipped? 😉 ) to judge the ability of proofreaders you’re considering hiring? Or do you still feel completely lost? Let me know in the comments. 

2 thoughts on “5 ways to determine if the proofreader you’re considering is competent

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