PDF Proofreading Markup

A typewriter with a red-and-black ribbon. The word "Proofreading" is centered on an otherwise blank page.

CMOS 2.133 in the Spotlight

Copyeditors typically work in a word-processed manuscript, making and suggesting changes directly in the document. Proofreaders come in at a later stage, after the manuscript has been converted and formatted for publication in a program like Adobe InDesign.

Proofreading can still be done with pencil and paper (on a printout), but it’s more common these days to mark corrections on the screen, in a PDF file that reflects how the publication would look in print. Either way, most proofreaders are annotating a copy for the typesetter rather than making changes to the file.

A convenient way to mark PDFs is by using the commenting tools in Adobe Acrobat. These tools are available in both the free and premium versions of the program, making it easy to try them out.

Before we check out how this works, let’s review the traditional marks.

Traditional Proofreaders’ Marks

Figure 2.6 in CMOS lists the traditional proofreaders’ marks and what they mean:

A list of proofreaders’ marks organized by category: operational marks (for deleting and adjusting text), typographical signs (for changing font and capitalization), and punctuation marks (for inserting commas and the like).

The marks in figure 2.6 are intended to be written in the margins. In the text itself—where space for writing is limited—most of the work is done with carets and lines. For example, a slash through a capital letter would mean to lowercase that letter, a single underline would mean italics, double and triple underlines would mean small caps and all caps (respectively), a caret would mark an insertion, and so on. (All this is covered in CMOS 2.119–33.)

Figure 2.7 shows how the marks in figure 2.6 would be applied. Here’s the first part:

The heading and first ten lines of text of a page annotated by hand with proofreading marks.

What would this pencil-marked page look like as a marked-up PDF file?

Proofreading in Acrobat

Paragraph 2.133, on proofreading tools for PDF, outlines some of the basic principles, especially as they would apply to using Adobe Acrobat.

However, there’s no single “correct” way of using the commenting tools in Acrobat. You could simply use the drawing tool as if you’re working on paper and add explanations as virtual sticky notes in the margin. But there are usually some better options available.

To demonstrate a few of these for this post, we typed the text of figure 2.7 into a page-layout program, saved the document as a PDF file, and then used Adobe Acrobat Reader to add all the markup (except for the crossed-out text annotated with “stet” in the seventh line of the main text in the original figure; corrections in Acrobat can simply be deleted rather than stetted).

The markup in the the following figure isn’t meant to be definitive—again, Acrobat’s tools allow for a variety of approaches—but we hope it will serve as an introduction to the process:

A page annotated with proofreading marks in Adobe Acrobat Reader DC. The first 10 of 49 comments are listed in a pane to the right of the document.

Note that the markup appears in two places: on the page itself and in a corresponding comments list on the right-hand side of the page. (To display the comments list in Acrobat, go to Tools > Comment. Comments can also be viewed as pop-ups, which are hidden by default when the comments list is open.)

The comments list is generated automatically for each mark; our document ended up including forty-nine items. Here’s a brief rundown of the first several:

  1. To tell the typesetter to center the heading, we used the Draw tool (the one with the pencil icon) to add the traditional marks for centering. Then we typed an instruction—“center heading”—and posted it to the list. Note that the two marks— and —are treated as one in the comments list. Each stroke in a pencil drawing will remain grouped in this way until you click on the drawing tool (or one of the other tools). You can then add a comment by double-clicking on the grouped marks.
  2. To mark the word “As” in the heading (the A should be lowercase), we used the Replace Text tool and typed “as” with a lowercase a to add it to the list. (Acrobat spell-checks your comments for you as you type them, but you should still be careful when entering corrections.)
  3. To mark the erroneous indents in the first two lines of text, we once again used the drawing tool. But this time we drew and  separately and added a comment to each.
  4. To mark a change from “used” to “use” in the first line of text, we again used the Replace Text tool and typed “use” as the new text. (We sorted our comments by their position on the page, so this one is listed between the changes to the indents.)
  5. To ask for quotation marks before and after “but please print the proofs in a larger type” (including the final period), we drew an inverted caret in each spot— and —and typed two separate comments: “add opening double quotation mark” and “add closing double quotation mark.” Alternatively, we could have used regular carets as in the hand-marked version of figure 2.7. And we could have connected the marks and commented only once.
  6. To mark the bad break in the fourth line of text, we used the Highlight tool and added a comment to that: “bad break: ridicu- / lous.”
  7. To mark the typo in the fifth line of text (“familar”), we used the Insert Text tool and typed a lowercase “i” in the comment.
  8. Then we marked the typo in “except” using the same tool as in steps 2 and 4.
  9. And so on.

Figure 2.7, which is full of errors planted in the document for demonstration purposes only, is far messier than a typical page of proof would be. In real life, the process will almost always be neater. But even a messy-looking document can be easy enough to manage—thanks to the list.

Keeping Track

Some of us worry about the typesetter missing a change if it’s not sufficiently visible on the screen. We’re used to working on paper, where everything depends on the typesetter seeing our marks.

But that’s what the right-hand pane is for. Whenever you insert a mark or comment of any kind, it gets added to the list automatically. The typesetter can click through the list, comment by comment, and make each change as it comes up. Plus, as each item in the list is selected, Acrobat outlines the visible annotation in the document to make it stand out on the page.

The typesetter can also use the Set Status feature (by right-clicking on a comment or by using the three-dot menu)—for example, to mark a change as completed (note the green checkmark):

A comment in Adobe Acrobat Reader DC marked as completed (with a white check mark in a green box). The comment, “center heading,” is labeled “proofreader” and dated May 6.

So even a change like the one that adds the missing i in “familar”—which shows up on the page as a tiny blue caret—shouldn’t be missed. For good measure, it’s easy enough to click through the right-hand column on the original marked-up PDF and double-check it against the revised pages to look for any such omissions.

Still, it’s tempting to want to add a Sticky Note (using that tool) to draw the typesetter’s attention to a less-than-obvious change. And the occasional note is fine. We added one—next to the correction calling for “A.D.” before “1165–70” (the text of the note, not shown in our figure, says to put the letters in small caps).

But resist adding too many such notes. Each tool allows for comments (whether in the form of instructions or corrections—or both),* and these stay with the mark, so you shouldn’t need sticky notes on top of that except for general instructions and the occasional clarification.

If you want to create a more visual presentation, there are some other options. For example, Acrobat includes a stamp tool. You can use that to add or import your own set of proofreading marks to use again and again. For more on how that would work, see this post from veteran fiction editor and proofreader Louise Harnby.

There are also tools for typing visible instructions right on the page: Text and Text Box. To find out more about these and the rest of Acrobat’s commenting tools, consult Adobe’s Help pages. Start with the pages that cover using the annotation and drawing markup tools and marking up text with edits.

✏️ ✏️ ✏️

Acrobat’s tools have gotten better over the years, but they can still be a bit cumbersome to use. If you’re having trouble, and you have the option of working on paper, you might try that. Make a printout of the file, mark it up by hand, and scan the results, saving the scan as a new PDF file. But you’ll lose the benefit of the original PDF’s searchable text—and the comments list.


* To differentiate between a correction and an instruction within a single comment, the instruction can be set in square brackets, on a separate line.

Typewriter photo by Michail Petrov / Adobe Stock.

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4 thoughts on “PDF Proofreading Markup

  1. For print production, it’s still a best practice to proofread on paper. We read differently on paper than we do on-screen, and a printout can reveal problems with typesetting that may go unnoticed on-screen.

  2. Great article. Our house has imported stamps and we wouldn’t go back to AR-only tools. We use some of those tools but find this to be more efficient and precise—and it’s also printable (i.e., you can print out the file with the markup, like a marked-up hard copy used to look).

    • Unfortunately, printouts of edited PDFs with the Comments panel usually print out in a very reduced font size, making it difficult to read, unlike a marked-up hard copy.

      • Sorry, Madeline, I wasn’t clear! The Comments panel isn’t included, so we get normal-size designed pages (with crop marks, etc.), just as it would be printed out for hard-copy proofreading. And the marks are all within the text and margins, so it looks like the “old”
        hard-copy proofreading.

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