Proof-editing, Proofreading

When is a proofread not a proofread?

‘ … when it’s a proof-edit!’

(tumbleweed blows across stage, wind whistles, proofreader and would-be comedian exits stage left to sound of audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats … )

Okay, as a punchline it needs some work, and I promise I’m not thinking of changing professions any time soon, but the question is one that is ever more relevant in a world where more and more authors are seeking to self-publish their work. In this post I’ll address this question and try to untangle some of the issues involved.

Many independent authors, students or businesses needing their work edited or proofread don’t necessarily know the differences between the various levels of editing that a work can go through before publication – and why should they? Writing and creating content is their job and, to a degree, editing is someone else’s – that’s why they want to hire a professional. The problems arise with each author having very different expectations of how much editing their work might need or, more often perhaps, how much they expect from the term ‘proofreading’.

In traditional publishing, a novel may well have undergone several stages of editing – developmental editing, line editing, copy-editing – before it reaches the proofreader. Here’s a brief summary of each of these roles:

  • developmental – the editor looks at the manuscript in the broadest possible terms and may suggest structural changes (eg would the second chapter serve the plot better if it came first?) as well as drawing the author’s attention to plot holes, inconsistencies in tone and problems with character development, dialogue and pacing.
  • line editing – the editor addresses the author’s use of language line by line. He or she draws the author’s attention to repetitious phrasing, redundant sentences or passages, overuse of generalisations and clichés and suggests changes that can be made to improve or enhance meaning, clarity and fluency. In short, the line-editor helps to improve the readability of the author’s work.
  • copy-editing – the editor checks the author’s work at a more technical level, correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. A copy-editor also checks the work’s internal consistency on two levels: first, that it’s consistent in its choice of spelling, hyphenation, font, capitalisation and numeral styles (see What is a style guide? Part I & Part II); and second, that it is consistent in its presentation of details such as character traits (in the case of fiction) or factual information (in non-fiction), thus ensuring, for example, that characters don’t come back to life in chapter 12 when apparently killed off in chapter 5, redheads don’t turn blonde and so on. Another aspect of the copy-editor’s job may be to seek legal permissions (when quoting previously published material, for example) or draw the author’s attention to instances where the laws governing such matters as libel or plagiarism  may have been broken.

All this is fine and dandy for the traditional publisher with the resources to finance four rounds of editing (don’t forget the proofreading that comes after the copy-edit), but where does all this leave the independent or self-publishing author with limited funds? An independent author who asks for their work to be proofread might think it would receive a combination of the above four editing procedures from the one editing professional they contact, but only copy-editing and proofreading share many of the same tasks.

So, what’s to be done? Well, if funds allow, then there’s nothing to stop an author hiring separately an editor (perhaps combining the jobs of developmental and line editor), a copy-editor and a proofreader. After all, the more a typescript is overseen, the more polished the final product. Realistically, however, the self-publishing author will, in many cases, only hire one editing professional.

Probably the best course of action is for the author to try and assess the state of his or her manuscript and decide what still needs to be done. If, for example, it has undergone no or only limited redrafting, perhaps hiring an editor with developmental editing experience would be the best first option. However, it will probably still need, at the very least, a copy-edit or proofread, so perhaps the author himself should undertake to redraft the manuscript as much as possible, saving his funds for a final proofread. Not ideal perhaps, but here is where well-read friends and relatives – who you can trust to give honest and unbiased feedback – can prove invaluable.

However, the author’s manuscript, in all likelihood, will still need a dose of error correction – the domain of copy-editors and proofreaders. If you can only afford one, which to choose?

Many copy-editors and proofreaders have training and/or experience in both disciplines and, like myself, can offer a combined service often termed a proof-edit. As the name suggests, this combines aspects of both jobs and allows the proofreader, in particular, more freedom to edit the text, rather than correct only what is wrong. In other words, he or she can take on some of those aspects of the copy-editor’s job listed above (such as checking a work’s internal consistency, a certain amount of line-editing, basic fact-checking) while still conducting a thorough proofread.

For many individuals, this turns out to be the ideal option, though it’s worth pointing out that some proofreaders stop short of covering every aspect of the copy-editor’s remit (such as seeking legal permissions, for example), so it’s worth checking at the outset what aspects of editing your chosen professional will cover.

Before the self-publishing boom, I suspect the term proof-editing was little used. Now it has an accepted status within the editing industry, which even the august Society for Editors & Proofreaders acknowledges.

Traditional publishing could, and still can, afford to commission several rounds of editing with each job clearly delineated, and I’m sure there are copy-editors of long-standing experience who probably blench at the term. On the other hand, many indie authors, businesses and students have found a proof-edit suits their requirements perfectly, so perhaps that punchline isn’t such a bad one after all. (Still not funny though.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.