I am not a designer, I am a scientist. I write papers in Word or LaTeX, the conference organisers give me a template with fonts, rules like "Caption for figures go below the figure, captions for tables go below the table", etc. I submit a paper in this template, which is reviewed. If it is accepted, I submit the paper (minor corrections are allowed) to the proceedings publishers as a pdf file. The submission system does some very crude automated checking (fonts embedded, page number not over limit) before accepting the file. At some point, a human looks over the file and mails me if there are any problems found. And for me, there are always problems.

I am not a tidy person. Not only don't I righten the proverbial misaligned picture, I don't even notice there's a problem with it. So I don't catch the cosmetic errors with the layout of my files. I look only for the very big things, like whether there is half a page of blank space, and whether the two columns in the ACM layout align on the last page. If there are none, I submit. And then always get requests to repair things like tables running 1 mm into the margins, or the bottom quarter of a line hidden behind a figure. This wastes quite a lot of time for both me and the publisher who waits for me.

Obviously, I need to learn how to proof-look (is there a real word for that?) my layouts better, but I don't know where to start. Is there something like a check list which can teach me what to look for? Can you point me to a good one? I guess there are thousands of things which can go wrong, but I am probably falling into the most common newbie traps, so even the simplest list of known "problem areas" will be an improvement. If there are some general guidelines on how to look, or tricks, or even an easy tool which can take my pdf and point out inconsistencies (but please no heavy-weight design package with built-in checking), I'd be happy to hear about these too.

Edit: I do compose the text with the final layout. My professor insists on this for several reasons, chiefly because there is a hard upper limit on the number of pages and we must judge the length of each chapter and sub-chapter at each revision (2-3 revisions per week) to be sure the final text will fit. Besides, I make many figures and almost all tables directly in Word. Composing the content without the final formatting would be very inefficient in this case.

  • In what context are you proofing the layout? Are you the one who is managing the publication of a document and have the final say? Are you working with a publisher of some kind? It's not "proof-look", it's just "proof". Apr 15, 2011 at 18:48
  • @Philip Regan I don't decide the final look, the conference organizer does. But he doesn't get to see the paper after he has approved the content. There is a publisher who combines all contributions to a book called "proceedings" and takes care of printing, but he is not allowed to make any changes to the files I am sending him, not even to remove an empty line which got inserted after a heading - he must tell me the line is there and I must send the new file.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 19:12
  • 1
    The interesting thing here, is that I am one of those people who can spot two words of Times in a full page set in Times New Roman. And I am not really looking for it. It seems that should you come up against this in the future, the best thing would be to find someone who sees everything that is slightly off at a glance. We exist. And it would save everybody in that process a lot of time!
    – benteh
    Feb 3, 2014 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


This is a difficult question. What you are asking for is a checklist which includes the set of everything. The answer is really "no" there is no checklist, and "no" fancy DTP software will not help you: DTP software is designed to be open ended and non-rigid.

That said, your ideal checklist is going to be the specific template guidelines and a list of all the things you may have had to fix in the past.

I presume that you are composing the paper at the same time as laying it out. This is most likely your problem. if you compose it as a running document with minimal or no styling, and after the content is fixed you then "assembly line it" with the styles required in multiple passes (do one thing top to bottom in each pass), you are more likely to arrive at a styled document with fewer inconsistencies.

  • On the proposal for assembly lining: Once the layout broke when we had almost everything ready (a coauthor opened the Word 2007 document in OpenOffice, made important changes, and saved in an OpenOffice format). I had to recreate the whole formatting from scratch. I still had lots of errors to repair when submitted. Besides, I can't/am not allowed to compose without the final formatting.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 19:23
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    That's a shame then. When I design books, I strip every trace of styling out of an author's submission. "Nuking from orbit: the only safe way."
    – horatio
    Apr 15, 2011 at 19:26
  • On the "includes the set of everything" problem: I hoped that somebody has noticed which areas are most likely to break silently (I would notice a stray bold word in the middle of the text, so I don't need to be reminded of that) and has made a compilation of "problem areas" such as "If a column includes anything different from body text and headings, check the margins, the last line before and the first after the unusual object".
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 19:28
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    @rumtscho: RE: OpenOffice: Everyone in the project needs to agree to a standard set of applications to create and edit content. What you just described is, for all intents and purposes, chaos in publishing terms. That would be completely unacceptable at my company and the last person to damage the document would be wholly responsible for setting it right again. Apr 15, 2011 at 20:11
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    @Philip Regan, you probably work in a company which does lots of publishing. 99% of the text we create at work won't be ever read by anybody not on our team. Any styling more complicated than what we are using here in Stack Exchange posts is just overkill for our daily work. Every one of us produces maybe 2-3 documents for publishing per year, and we place much more emphasis on the content than on the design (just like our readers). We are inexperienced, that's why it doesn't go smooth.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 21:43

You keep asking for a checklist, so let me start one for you. I'll even make this a wiki so everyone else can pile on.

  • Headlines are in the correct font and size.
  • Type is in the correct font and size.
  • No images or tables violate the margins.
  • No extra return between headline and text.
  • No half page of blank space.
  • Words are not hyphenated over a page break.
  • Look at the top, left, right, and bottom margins of every image or table which breaks the flow of text. Is any text cut off? Is any text IN the image or text cut off or unreadable?
  • Does every image or table have a source?
  • Is there a header? is it correctly formatted?
  • Is there a footer? is it correctly formatted?
  • Check for fraction glyphs to confirm they are fractions and not corrupted dingbats. (you may have to skim your text throughout unless you made notes where they are.)

jump in when you know the words, gang.


Why don't you look over your last five or ten submissions, make a note of all the mistakes which someone flagged, and turn that into a checklist? If three of your last four papers had tables which leaked over the margins, you know that when you're done and you print out your proof copy, you have to take a pencil and draw a line down the right-hand margin of the text on every page and see if any tables leak over it.

It doesn't matter what a standard checklist might encompass. It matters what mistakes you might be making.

  • I find this very sensible, only it looks like I am very innovative in my mistakes. If I can find a standard checklist, I'll use both.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 19:31
  • @rumtscho: You're going to have to start exercising some discipline here. This is where experience and skill come into play in graphic design. There aren't ready-made tools or checklists outside of the standard, overaerching rules of grammar, punctuation, typography, and layout to tell what is right and what it wrong. Every process and document is unique. Your publisher and/or conference organizer will have guidelines to help you specific to their needs and requirements, but you need to find other ways to keep yourself in check as you move from project to project. Apr 15, 2011 at 20:15
  • @Philip Regan Typography is (luckily) given in the guidelines, and I know grammar and punctuation reasonably well. But maybe what I need is a good source to learn the very basic rules of layout. I agree that an artist should be allowed to place an image asymmetrically; for me, it is enough to center it, but I need something to remind me to check if a jerky mouse movement hasn't shifted it a bit to the right, because I don't have the eye to notice that something is amiss when I just look at the page.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 21:27
  • @rumtscho: There have been a couple questions already here about how to teach design and layout to non-designers. A quick search will reveal them. But that still won't help much unless you are willing to put in the effort to maintain consistent styles to text and objects. That's part of the deal here. Apr 17, 2011 at 12:23

Based on your comment...

I don't decide the final look, the conference organizer does. But he doesn't get to see the paper after he has approved the content. There is a publisher who combines all contributions to a book called "proceedings" and takes care of printing, but he is not allowed to make any changes to the files I am sending him, not even to remove an empty line which got inserted after a heading - he must tell me the line is there and I must send the new file.

...it sounds as though there is some kind of a production process in place. I suggest you speak with the conference organizer and the publisher to see if they have editorial and production proofing guidelines to go by.

Beyond that, since you are the one who is doing the layout and proofing your own work, then the onus is on your to apply all due diligence in making sure that your layout is consistent and correct. To help you with this, I suggest you find a LaTeX-savvy page layout program that utilizes object, paragraph, and character style sheets to help you maintain a consistent look. If you can't do that, then I suggest asking the publisher who they recommend to proof your pages for you.

To answer the specific question of "How can non-designers learn to approve a print layout?", the simplest answer is practice. Get a set of editorial and design guidelines from your publisher, professor, or whomever maintains editorial control over the content, and go against that. You will never catch everything you do wrong, however so its always a good idea to get a proofreader to go over the document for you not matter how many times you do it.

  • There are (short, simple) guidelines, but they are mostly already incorporated in the template anyway, as in "body text must be Times New Roman size 9". Some can be checked, like "There should be no empty line between a heading and the following paragraph". But then there are some which are probably too much "common sense" to have been listed explicitly, like the thing about the table margin. It seems that my co-workers just catch these, while I don't. And LaTeX is quite rare, because most prefer Word. There is no budget for a professional proofreader on our side.
    – rumtscho
    Apr 15, 2011 at 21:20

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