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What Do All the Proofreader’s Marks on Your Manuscript Mean?



When I first started writing about 30 years ago (and later editing), I knew about two or three of the different marks proofreaders used when marking up manuscripts. It was a big surprise for me, because as a new writer I thought all I had to do was write and the proofreader (which wasn’t actually a proofreader but rather my first professor of creative writing) would provide feedback to me and I’d make the recommended edits. I didn’t know I’d have to learn a whole new language—the language of the proofreader. I remember staring at all of these strange red scribblings on my manuscript and wondering WTF is that?


In short, proofreading marks are symbols and notations for correcting typeset pages. The Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 17th edition (the marks in the image below are taken from figure 2.6 of the 17th edition), separates those marks into “Operational signs,” “Typographical signs,” and “Punctuation marks.” Once you understand what all of the marks mean, the task before you is immensely less daunting. In a way, when I receive marks on my manuscripts, I get excited, because it provides the writer in me an opportunity to do something different. It’s a reprieve from writing, and it’s a reprieve from editing and doing everything else a writer must do to move forward with their work. Sometimes that break is sorely needed.


As I mentioned in a previous post on the different types of editors, each brings a different skill set to the table. I am a Developmental Editor (DE)/Substantive Editor (SE). In short, that means I help authors develop their novels by providing a thorough evaluation so that their story flows, the structure is there, the plot makes sense and is the best it can be, and so on, prior to submitting their MS. That’s what I enjoy doing, and as a writer I understand what writers are trying to accomplish through their fiction. That’s not to say that I don’t do some copy editing and proofreading along the way, but that’s not my main focus when I’m editing a writer’s work. I leave that to the proofreaders and to the copy editors.


As I mentioned, the proofreader marks are broken down into two “signs,” and punctuation marks I won’t get into each in detail, but I think it’s important to provide an example for each. So here we go:


Operational sign: Transpose. Oxford Languages says to transpose means to “cause (two or more things) to change places with each other.” So, if you had a line like “Jim took money Ray’s,’ for example, you’d have a “tr” in a circle, and “Jim took money Ray’s,” with the line around the words to be transposed.


Proofreader's transpose mark
Transpose - Proofreader's Operational Sign

Typographical sign: Insert here or make subscript. This mark would look like this: ^. An example of this would be:

to tell you to insert a semicolon.


Punctuation mark: Punctuation marks are probably the marks we’re most familiar with. To let a writer know they should insert a parenthesis, the proofreader would insert (|) or {|}.


Proofreading Marks: Insert Parenthesis

Again, the following list of signs and marks is taken from figure 2.6 of the 17th edition of the Manual. Most of the marks are self-explanatory, so I’d recommend printing the sheet out once you’ve had someone proofread your manuscript, just until you’ve familiarized yourself with the marks. Keep in mind, you may come across other marks and signs that aren’t from the CMOS, or that potentially look a little different. I’ve included below the image of CMOS’s Proofreader’s Marks and example of another set of marks from EditorNinja. You’ll notice that there are some differences between the two, so it helps to familiarize yourself with as many marks and signs you may come across. Again, it’s helpful to keep a printout of all the possible signs and marks you may encounter, as proofreaders may use a variety of sources (though they should tell you which and explain the process prior to you handing over your manuscript).


Proofreader's marks from CMOS
Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) Proofreader's Marks

Proofreading Marks
Biomedical Editor Barbara Every's Proofreading Marks

Now that we’ve touched on the red marks all over your manuscript, I think it’s important to know what resources are out there for writers (and, obviously, proofreaders).

Nonfiction Proofreader Catherine Turner has listed a number of “15 Essential Reference Books for New Proofreaders” you may want to check out at:


https://turnerproofreading.com/essential-reference-books-for-proofreaders/ broken out into Proofreading Style Guides/Style Manuals, Dictionaries, Punctuation and Grammar Books, Copyediting Books, Marketing Books, and Inspirational Books.


At first glance, I’d throw in a couple visual dictionaries, which are helpful for getting the names right on daily things we may not know the names for, like rubber grommets, what a drain bolt crush washer looks like, and if a cylinder head cover resembles the lid on a barbecue grill. (These things are all parts of an engine if you were wondering).


Image of a visual dictionary for writing
Visual Dictionary

There are also fiction proofreaders out there, many associated with proofreading companies. All you have to do is a quick google search for them, and plenty will pop up in your search results.


If you working on a novel or have finished a first, second, or third draft, and are seeking a Developmental Editor/Substantive Editor to help you get your manuscript in shape and ready to submit to literary agents of publishers, or if you’re going to self-publish, shoot us an email at Support@novelmasterclass.com


We at Novelmasterclass offer affordable editing, and we’re also writers, so we know what you’re trying to achieve in your fiction. We look forward to hearing your story.

From all of us here at Novelmasterclass.com, Happy Writing.


Cully Perlman is a Developmental/Substantive editor, a published novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer. He holds the below degrees:

  • MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction

  • MA in Literature in English

  • BA in English Literature

  • MBA in Market Strategy and International Business


Cully has been an editor at numerous literary journals, as well as won numerous writing contests and writing awards. His novel, THE LOSSES, was on the short list of finalists for the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition for a novel.

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