An American Editor

May 26, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect

Page Proofs and the Domino Effect

by Louise Harnby

If we want to proofread for publishers, we need to be comfortable with working on page proofs. Good proofreading practice requires us to acknowledge that, for example, changing one word, or moving one line, can have unintended and damaging consequences throughout the rest of the book if we aren’t careful.

What are Page Proofs?

The mainstream publisher will usually require the proofreader to work on page proofs: “Page proofs are so-called because they are laid out as exactly as they will appear in the final printed book. If all has gone well, what the proofreader is looking at will be almost what the reader sees if they were to walk into a bookshop, pull this title off the shelf and browse through the pages. The layout process has been taken care of by a professional typesetter who designs the text in a way that is pleasing to the eye and in accordance with a publisher’s brief” (Harnby, 2014. “Not all proofreading is the same: Part I–Working with page proofs”). In this case, the proofreader does not amend the text directly. She annotates the page proofs.

I work on both hard-copy page and PDF page proofs—it depends on the client’s preference. I’m looking for any final spelling, punctuation, grammatical, and consistency errors that remain in the text. However, I’m also expected to check the appearance of the text. There’s a more comprehensive list of what this entails here. Suffice it to say that every amendment I suggest might have an impact somewhere else. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make the amendment; it means, rather, that I need to be mindful of the consequences of my actions—the “domino effect.”

What’s the Domino Effect?

In the UK, proofreaders refer to the indirect consequences of our mark-up as knock-on effects. But let’s stick with the term “domino effect” here because it provides us with the perfect description of what’s at stake.

You line up four dominos: A, B, C, and D. You push over A and it pushes over B. B then knocks over C, which in turn causes D to fall. Domino D’s topple was caused indirectly by Domino A, even though A didn’t touch D. This process can occur on page proofs and can have serious consequences. The changes we make can, if we’re not careful, impact on the text flow, the pagination, the contents list, and the index.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Imagine the publisher’s brief tasks the proofreader with attending to orphans and widows (those stranded single lines at the bottom or top of a page). Solutions that involve instructing a typesetter to shuffle a line backward to a previous page, or forward to the next page, in order to avoid the widow/orphan might cause one, or all, of the following problems:

  • The repositioning of a line onto a different page automatically forces a reflow of text. Things look fine for the next six pages, but on the seventh page after the amendment was made, a new orphaned or widowed line has now appeared. The previous arrangement of the text prevented this.
  • Let’s imagine that the seventh page is still widow/orphan-free. But the reflow of text means that this seventh page now contains a line that appeared on the previous page. This line includes a keyword term that is cross-referenced 130 pages later. The cross-reference is now incorrect.
  •  The index is being created simultaneously by a professional indexer. It’s not uncommon for proofreaders to never see the index, nor to spot check it. The line that’s been repositioned on a different page contains an author citation that is included in the index. The indexer doesn’t know what the proofreader’s done, and the proofreader doesn’t know which terms are being included in the index. Neither of them knows that the index entry now has the wrong page number attached to it.

In all three cases, the proofreader has prevented one problem but caused others. Consequently, good practice involves more than blindly placing mark-up instruction on any given page. Thought needs to be given to how the problem can be tackled and the impact managed so that there is no domino effect. Spotting an orphaned or widowed line is not enough. We might also have to consider the following:

  • Providing additional instructions to the typesetter regarding to how to manage the problem by compensating elsewhere on the page (e.g., increasing or reducing line spaces and page depths, new line creation, etc.) so that the impact of moving one line is restricted to the page where the change has been made and its facing recto/verso.
  • Telling the project manager about the suggested line move so that the manager can inform the indexer.
  • Looking out for obvious key words or citations in lines that have been moved to check whether they are cross-referenced in the text (having a PDF, even when working on hard copy, is a must in these circumstances).

Summing Up

If you’re considering training as a proofreader and want to be fit for the purpose of marking up page proofs, check that your course includes a component about domino/knock-on effects. Even when we are supplied with detailed briefs about an ideal layout, the publisher client expects us to be mindful of the consequences of our amendments. The proofreader’s job is to find solutions to problems in ways that don’t cause unintended damage.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.


  1. When I have a proofreading job, my client usually asks me to mark orphans and widows but does not want me to suggest what to do about them. In other words, I’m to let the typesetter or compositor decide how to handle them, which may mean leaving an orphan or widow once in a while, to avoid that domino effect.

    The other thing that I see often in my work is that publishers don’t like page cross-references, in part because of how the pages can move around in the final stages of production. They’d usually rather have the author refer to a section. I see this quite a bit when I’m copyediting, and the client wants me to change page x-refs to section titles or numbers. (Proofreading stage would not be a good time to do this!) The work I do is often pretty technical, so there are many sections and subsections; other work may not lend itself to section cross-references.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — May 26, 2014 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  2. […] the role and scope of the proofreader, over on Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect. And she wrote a great piece on her own Proofreader’s Parlour blog called Thoughts on […]


    Pingback by The downside of freelancing: links this week » Right Angels and Polo Bears — June 6, 2014 @ 10:57 am | Reply

  3. […] posts here on An American Editor (The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect) and on my own blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour (Thoughts on Proofreading and the Art of Leaving […]


    Pingback by The Proofreader’s Corner: Show Me the Style Sheet! | An American Editor — June 16, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  4. […] Proofreading for publishers and proofreading for other types of client involve, more often than not, different things (see “Not All Proofreading Is the Same: Part I — Working with Page Proofs” and “Not All Proofreading Is the Same: Part II — Working Directly in Word”). Most of the time, proofreaders who work for publishers are dealing with page proofs, not Word files. There is overlap in terms of problems to identify—locating the spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and grammatical blunders, for example. But with page proofs we are also looking more broadly at how the book works in terms of layout, and we have to be aware of the domino effect that our changes can have on the book’s content (for more information about this, take a look at “The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect”). […]


    Pingback by The Proofreader’s Corner: Proofreading for Publishers Outside Your Country of Origin—Is There a Market? | An American Editor — August 11, 2014 @ 4:02 am | Reply

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