Perfect 10 editing

What to look for to ensure you get the best editing and proofreading

bookediting.co.uk editor Lee Dickinson

By Lee Dickinson

Fixing writing mistakes is often plagued by errors. Proofreading. The epitome of written perfection. You’d think.

But the job of gaffe removal’s in danger when even the word ‘proofreading’ is abused. You’d be worried if you paid me to clean your home then found me dismantling your boiler. It’d be more troubling if the boiler wasn’t broken. That’s what some ‘proofreaders’ do. I know, because I’ve been called in to mend the wreckage from what was supposed to be copy editing. They’re distinct, and if that’s not explained, entrust your words instead to someone who knows the difference.  

There are at least nine other copy editor/proofreader essentials. Let’s start with that vital definition. Your copy editor or proofreader should:

1 – Know the difference between copy editing and proofreading

Copy editing includes all of proofreading’s spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting corrections, but adds a deeper look at the likes of syntax (sentence structure). Great copy editing will make your writing organised and succinct. A proofreader will dust the front of the boiler and check the buttons all work after the copy editor’s had his spanners out. Proofreading can only be done after copy editing, because it involves reading ‘proofs’ which are the final part of the writing process. Making changes at this stage can be more complex because of things like layout considerations, so proofreading is, by necessity, less exhaustive. Copy editing costs more.

2 – Know their stuff

Some ‘proofreaders’ do no more than run a spellchecker, and computer checkers fail you. Many of these ‘experts’ have howlers even in their advertising copy, which tends to appear on the likes of free social media platforms. If they’ve spent no time on something as basic as getting a website or a free LinkedIn profile, will they spend enough time fine-tuning your hard work? Some aren’t being dishonest, but think being able to read qualifies them for the job in the same way, presumably, holding a brush makes them Picasso? Like any professional, your copy editor or proofreader should have relevant experience.

3 – Print it out

Copy editors and proofreaders should confine their planet-saving acts to outside the office. Inside it, proper checking can only be done on paper. The eye works differently on screen to the printed page, which reveals much more.

4 – Proof, not read

You can ‘get lost in a good book’, and great proofreading vanishes if proofing becomes reading. When the brain’s absorbed in the writing, both eyes aren’t fixed on potential errors. For this reason, the editing and proofreading stage should be done separately. 

5 – Be respectful

Clients and editors can clash. I’ve stepped in when a relationship has soured and, on reading the previous editor’s margin comments, the reason’s obvious. A proofreader’s recent notes to an academic included the likes of: “This has come up a few times. Be careful.” It wasn’t even clear where the client needed to “Be careful”. He was paying the proofreader for that care, not to be scolded like a naughty child.

6 – Double-check

A great copy-editor presumes nothing. They’ll check even the basics, using more than one trusted source. It’s time-consuming, but an indicator of the sort of quality service which has saved many a writer from professional embarrassment.

7 – Be consistent

Correctness has to be paired with consistency. “Organisation” should never become “organization”, and vice versa, which calls for extra vigilance amid the use of American spellcheckers. Adopting a style book to implement at the outset will help. If your proofreader uses Oxford style, they should check your preference and be prepared to adapt to a US style such as AP. You’re in charge.

8 – Watch for tense changes

They’re sneaky. If typos are the smash-and-grab errors, tense changes are the opportunists. The only answer is to be vigilant, and this one’s top of my sentence-by-sentence checklist.

9 – Be a writer

You wouldn’t take driving lessons from someone who’s read about the process from a book but never changed gear. Please, don’t let non-writers edit your words.

10 – Use ‘fresh eyes’

Your eyes aren’t as alert as they were at the start of this 700-word blog. After 10,000 words, there’s even more danger of errors sneaking through the haze. Regular breaks help, but the key vigilance weapon is coming back to a project another day with eyes rested and watchful. Go on, let your copy-editor take a rest. That way, they’re more likely to score a perfect 10 

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.