Here you will find answers to many questions.
If you would like more information on any aspect of proofreading / editing, I’d be happy to help.
Common proofreading questions. Simply click on one of the buttons below to see the corresponding answer.
What is proofreading?
After the material has been copy-edited, the publisher sends it to a designer or typesetter. Their work is then displayed or printed, and that is the proof – proof that it is ready for publication. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up. However, some clients expect more than that.
Many proofreaders find they spot more errors on paper than onscreen, but proofs may be read and marked in either medium. Proofreading is now often ‘blind’ – the proof is read on its own merits, without seeing the edited version.
A proofreader looks for consistency in usage and presentation, and accuracy in text, images and layout, but cannot be responsible for the author’s or copy-editor’s work. The proofreader’s terms of reference should be agreed before work starts.
What is proof-editing?
Many organisations publish: local councils, businesses, charities, schools. If their staff have no editorial expertise, they cannot specify what they need, nor exactly what they want. The text may be a team effort, so no one has looked at the whole, or it may be the chairman’s and Not To Be Altered. It may not have reached the proof stage, or it may be so heavily designed that few changes are possible.
Such clients need and expect more than proofreading, but do not yet realise what a difference a copy-editor can make. This is the world of ‘proof-editing’. The proofreader has to explore what is required and negotiate a budget and schedule that allow for more editorial decisions and intervention.
What does a proofreader do / not do?
Page proofs or draft webpages are usually the last chance to see everything – words, footnotes, images, graphs, tables – integrated with the design before going public. Now the work is largely fixed and changes have to be limited.
The proofreader uses care, judgement, skill, knowledge and experience in checking that the work of author, editor and designer/typesetter is satisfactory, marking amendments and advising the client of problems, all with the aim of optimising the result while minimising cost of production and delay to publication.
Professional proofreaders will:
- Compare the proofs to the edited copy line by line or read “blind”.
- Check page numbers and page headings.
- Check the table of contents against chapter titles, page numbers and endmatter – appendices, index, etc.
- Ensure consistent styles – of spellings and hyphenation particularly – by following a style guide, if supplied, or compiling their own.
- Watch out for omissions and inconsistencies in typography, layout and content.
- Judge the need for changes in view of the budget and schedule. Changing just one word can have drastic knock-on effects.
- Identify necessary changes and mark the proof (on paper or screen) using British Standards Institution (BSI) marks or another agreed method.
- Check or insert cross-references where appropriate.
- Eliminate inelegant or confusing word, column and page breaks, including ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’ – short last or first lines of a paragraph at the top or the bottom of a page, respectively.
- Ensure that illustrations, captions and labels correspond with each other and with the text.
- Check that content looks right and is logically arranged.
- Liaise with the author(s) to resolve queries or advise the client.
- Collate the author’s changes with others, including their own, rationalising or querying conflicting instructions.
Part of the job is light editing within tight limits, but professional proofreaders do not re-edit the material. They intervene only with good reason.
Here is a list of things a proofreader doesn’t do:
- Copy-editing – changes on proof are costly. If extensive changes are needed, the proofreader will first discuss the situation with the client.
- Indexing – the Society of Indexers can refer you to qualified indexers.
- Page layout / design – this too is a specialist skill.
- Seeking permission(s) – permissions to use copyright quotations or images should be obtained before typesetting.
I offer a copy-editing service, but it is not automatically included.
Common copy-editing questions. Simply click on one of the buttons below to see the corresponding answer.
What is copy-editing?
Copy-editing takes the raw material (the ‘copy’: anything from a novel to a web page) and makes it ready for publication as a book, article, website, broadcast, menu, flyer, game or even a tee-shirt.
The aim of copy-editing is to ensure that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, fit for purpose and free of error, omission, inconsistency and repetition. This process picks up embarrassing mistakes, ambiguities and anomalies, alerts the client to possible legal problems and analyses the document structure for the typesetter/designer.
What does a copy editor do?
If you have something to say or show, a copy-editor helps you to do that effectively.
A professional copy-editor begins by checking that the copy is complete. Do the chapter titles and other elements match the list of contents? Are all the illustrations to hand? Is there a list of captions? What system of referencing is required? Are there footnotes or endnotes? Then the editor cleans up a copy of the document, fixes page set-up, spacing and fonts, cuts unwanted formatting, creates a stylesheet and starts to identify problems.
Working through the material, the copy-editor corrects errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, style and usage, but also very long sentences and overuse of italic, bold, capitals, exclamation marks and the passive voice. They correct or query doubtful facts, weak arguments, plot holes and gaps in numbering. In fiction, they also check that characters haven’t changed their name or hair colour, look for sudden changes from first to third person and monitor the timeline, among other things.
At the same time, the copy-editor is also looking at the bigger picture:
- Content and structure – Is anything missing or redundant? Is the order logical? Are the headings doing their job? Are footnotes essential? Could supporting material go in an appendix? Is a bibliography needed? Should there be a glossary? Are clickable links needed? Do they work?
- Information chunks – This depends on the readership, the material and the means of access (e.g. book, comic, desktop, tablet, advert), but usually sentences should be short and straightforward, with paragraphs to introduce new ideas and break up the page. Headings also break up text and make it more digestible: are there enough of them? If there are too many levels of subhead, the structure may need rethinking. Typesetting may affect line length, and the copy-editor will know how to allow for this.
- Illustrations, graphs and tables – Images ought to support the text, with self-explanatory labels and captions that match. Text should comment on the data in graphs or tables, not just repeat it. The copy-editor advises the typesetter on the location of each element, checks that all the artwork is suitable for printing or reproduction on the web and notes the existence of permissions and wording of acknowledgements.
- Wording – Is the language pitched at the right level for the likely readers? Do any terms or abbreviations need explaining? Are tone, style and vocabulary appropriate? Do they add authority, or undermine the writer? Of course, language changes constantly and context is all, but copy-editors are aware of informed opinion on what is acceptable and what is best practice. George Orwell’s six rules for writers, in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’, remain the basis of good wording.
- Consistency – All the time the copy-editor keeps a list of decisions on alternative spellings, hyphenation, italics, capitals, units of measurement, how quotations are presented and much else. The text must not contradict itself, nor any illustrations, tables, graphs and captions. Internal links/cross-references must work.
- Accuracy and anomalies – Writers are responsible for what they write, but copy-editors will often spot misquotations, errors of fact, misspelt names, misused words, numbers that don’t add up and incomplete references, and will check or query them. Copy-editors will also query anything that does not seem to make sense. They scrutinise facts, dates, quotations and references, but do not routinely check every one unless this is budgeted for and agreed at the start.
- Legal issues – Copy-editors will flag up any instances they see of
- plagiarism or breach of copyright
- incitement to racial hatred.
– but responsibility for these remains with the writer and publisher.
- Extent – Is the work too long or too short? A book or journal publisher will know how many pages to expect; other clients may need guidance. Does the writer want to change or add material? The copy-editor can suggest ways to reduce the length or use space better without making the typesize too small or spacing too tight.
- Technical matters – Experienced copy-editors know enough about the technical aspects of publishing (e.g. printing, typefaces, web design) to be able to discuss various issues – extent, page breaks, special characters, types of image – with client, designer, typesetter or printer, to minimise costs and maintain schedules.
The above is only a summary of the main tasks in copy-editing. The result of all this work is a document that is clear, correct, coherent, complete, concise, consistent and credible – the seven Cs of editing.
What does a copy editor not do?
If you request copy-editing, you will not normally get any of the following:
- Extensive rewriting or restructuring (developmental / substantive editing).
- Ghost writing.
- Proofreading (see What is proofreading?).
- Text or cover design.
- Indexing (the Society of Indexers has a directory of qualified indexers).
- Research or fact-checking.
- Picture research.
- Copyright permissions.
- project management.
I do offer some of these services.
What’s the difference between proofreading and copy-editing?
Find out the difference between proofreading and copy-editing. Simply click on one of the buttons below to see the corresponding answer.
What is copy?
The copy is the raw material. It can be anything – a novel, website, journal article, leaflet, podcast, textbook, exam, menu, flyer, game or even a tee-shirt – and it may include various kinds of text, tables, graphs, diagrams, illustrations or animations.
So, what is the difference?
Copy editors get the raw material into shape for publication: they edit copy. When they have finished, and the layout has been created by the designer and/or typesetter, the work needs to be ready to go. It’s like putting on a play: these stages are the rehearsals.
Proofreaders do the quality check and final tidy-up: they read proofs. They pick up anything the copy-editor missed and check that nothing went wrong at the design/typesetting stage. Proofreading is the last stage, the dress rehearsal, before the public gets to see the result.
They are both editing, which is wrestling with words; but proofreading is like wrestling in a broom cupboard.
What is a proof?
Copy-editors, designers and typesetters make many small changes. There has to be a quality check to prove that the changes have worked. That’s the proof: supposedly the final version. The proofreader marks any last-minute corrections on the proof, and the printer or webmaster adds them in before pressing the Go button.
Standards in proofreading
Find out the standards in proofreading and copy-editing. Simply click on one of the buttons below to see the corresponding answer.
How do proofreaders mark corrections?
Proofreaders mark corrections by using BS5261 – the set of standard symbols issued by the British Standards Institute – or using ISO5776, the international standard closely based on BS5261. Most of the marks are self-explanatory, but the proofreader will explain if you ask.
Proofreading can be done on paper or on screen. BS mark-up on hard copy (paper) is faster and can be clearer; BS mark-up on screen (using PDF stamps) is more convenient for the user correcting the source file. Whatever way the proofs are corrected, the mark-up must be perfectly clear even to a user who does not know a word of the language – a situation which is not unusual.
If a client prefers mark-up on screen using tools built into a PDF program, then the proofreader will use those tools, though they are not ideal. Ask yourself: are the comments and mark-up as clear as they would be in PDF stamps? For example, has the same tool been used for typesetter instructions and textual changes?
Mark-up on paper
Here is part of a printed proof, read against copy. In BS5261, each mark in the text is explained by a mark in the margin. The proofreader has used red pen to delete a comma and change J to I – the typesetter’s mistakes – and blue for an editorial error, changing i to j (italics are shown by an underline). The proofreader has taken in the author’s corrections in black. Really clear mark-up like this takes only seconds, and this is the standard to aim at; anything less leads to new errors, queries and delay.
Mark-up on screen
Here is part of a proof read ‘blind’ and marked up on screen, using PDF stamps for the BS5261 marks and the Typewriter function for new text. The marks are grouped, so clicking on the circle around R also selects the downcase symbol and the solidus (forward slash) that marks the end of the correction; using this system, the designer or typesetter sees these three marks as a single change in the comments list. The solidus (forward slash) after the delete symbol beside line 1 is a space-saving way of showing a repeated change. Really clear mark-up like this takes only a few more seconds, and this is the standard to aim at. This was a real job, done at normal speed.
If the client prefers PDFs marked up on screen using the program’s built-in tools, that is what the proofreader will use. If the client supplies material in Word or a similar program, this is not a proof, though many proofreaders may be willing to ‘proof-edit’ it.
A good copy-editor picks up 80% of errors; a good proofreader picks up 80% of what’s left. Why bother? Because people will judge you on the quality of what you put in front of them. Because people will not take you or your message seriously if it is unclear, inconsistent or poorly presented. Because you are asking people to spend time reading it, and it is simple courtesy to smooth the reader’s path.
How fast do proofreaders work?
That depends how complex, difficult or badly written the text is. How many problems did it have to begin with? How well was it edited? Unless the material is straightforward, it will need at least two passes – one for headings, numbering and layout, say, and one for content.
Proofreading is tiring for the eyes and the brain, so proofreaders cannot work for hours at a time and remain efficient. It also takes time to get up to speed, reading or re-reading the brief and style guide, so short jobs are slower by their nature.
Allowing for all the factors mentioned, an experienced professional can usually proofread and correct 2000 to 3500 words per hour – about 6–11pp. in many books – and 2500 is typical.
If the budget or schedule turns out to be too tight, our ideas of what is ‘good enough’ have to change. In that case, the proofreader will minimise and simplify any changes, partly because time is now tight for the designer or typesetter to take in corrections.
Will my text be perfect?
That is the aim, but perfection is rarely possible. By the Law of Diminishing Returns, perfection requires inordinate amounts of time and money. It is not realistic, but nor are some clients. Even when time is tight, they still want perfection while paying only for ‘good enough’. If they did not pay for copy-editing, the proofreader can only sort out the worst problems.
The document may be diabolical, but the proofreader is only human. What can make their job impossible?
- Different people wrote various parts of the text, the boss added a few touches, the office junior corrected it, everyone made last-minute additions or changes; nobody hired a copy-editor, nobody briefed the designer.
- Parts of the document are now inconsistent, incoherent or incomplete; layout, images and sense do not match.
- The proofreading budget will buy one pass from a beginner; the schedule is unrealistic.
You look at the corrected proof, and three errors jump out at you. ‘That’s not good enough!’ Then you go through the mark-up and see all the errors, omissions and other problems. The proofreader successfully dealt with over three quarters of them. Is that good enough?
How good is ‘good enough’?
SfEP mentors have standards for what is good enough in proofreading.
Trainees (not beginners), proofreading a professionally copy-edited typescript, are normally expected – after some practice – to spot and deal appropriately with at least 70% of errors; this is based on finding 80% of typos and 60% of editorial errors or oversights. If a mentee finds fewer mistakes than that, they need more training or guidance.
An experienced professional proofreader, reading a copy-edited typescript, should be able to spot and deal appropriately with at least 80% of all errors but at least 90% of typos – other things being equal.
Other things are seldom equal. Was the writer accurate, consistent and reasonably coherent? Was the material edited? How tricky is the subject matter? Did the author respond to queries? Did the author, project manager, journal editor or designer add new mistakes? Did the proofreader have enough time and money?
Good enough for what?
How perfect do you want it? What counts as an error? And will even one error matter?
Sometimes only perfection is good enough, and the Wicked Bible of 1631 was not good enough. Its Ten Commandments contained one mistake: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. The edition was pulped.
You don’t want that to happen. Even so, perfection is usually out of reach, though you can get very close. Not every error matters equally. After all, how many readers will notice that italic comma? (Go back and look!) Clients have to decide what matters to them, but they need to be prepared to take the proofreader’s advice.
No publication is likely to be good enough if it has not been edited. However, copy-editors do a lot more than pick up mistakes, so they may not catch all of them, especially if the material is complex, difficult or badly written.
Complex, difficult or badly written?
A complex publication is typically one that makes numerous connections: for example, a school textbook, where the same topic may appear in various forms (image, table, text, citation) in different places, but where the content also has to link to the teacher’s handbook and an external syllabus.
A difficult publication is usually defined by its subject matter, such as philosophy or biochemistry, by its language – Arabic philology or Joyce’s Ulysses for example – or by a hard-to-reach audience.
A well-written text should be not just grammatical, well punctuated and correctly spelt, but also consistent, logical and readable. It should be well judged in tone and level, use appropriate vocabulary, tell the reader everything they need to know, explain anything unfamiliar and not leave out steps in the plot, argument or directions. Copy-editors practise these skills every day, and they know what to look for.
How to use the services of a proofreader / copy editor
Find out the how to hire a proofreader / copy editor. Simply click on one of the buttons below to see the corresponding answer.
Why do I, the author, need a copy editor?
If you are an author, you may have been crafting your work for a long time. You know it better than anyone. The idea of some stranger altering so much as a comma may seem unthinkable.
However, your very closeness to and familiarity with your work may be blinding you to its flaws. You hold the whole text in your mind, and you have developed its ideas in sequence right through to its conclusion. You can’t now put yourself in the reader’s place by somehow ‘unknowing’ any of this. A copy-editor, though, will bring fresh eyes to your text, helping you to reveal your concepts in a logical order.
You may also be less than confident in spelling and in your use of grammar (and it’s unwise to rely on spelling and grammar checkers). Perhaps you know what you want to say but find it hard to put it into words. A copy-editor will be sufficiently detached from the writing process to spot mistakes and inconsistencies that distract the reader.
Above all, he or she can add a professional finish to your work that will make it a cut above the rest.
Why do I need a proofreader?
It’s a truism that no one should proofread their own work – no matter how many times you check it, there will invariably be an obvious error that you miss. You see what’s on the page but your brain interprets what it wants or expects to read, not always what is actually there, and it takes a ‘fresh eye’ to break this pattern.
In addition, a professional proofreader will be familiar with the production process and will know which changes will be uneconomic. Adding or removing even a single word may, in some circumstances, have a ‘knock-on’ effect that drastically alters page layout, resulting in unacceptable costs and delay.
What should I look for in a proofreader / copy editor?
- Training – ideally by the SfEP or the Publishing Training Centre, although other courses are available.
- Experience – preferably in your subject area.
- Specialist knowledge – desirable if your text is aimed at professionals.
- Communication skills – as well as an eye for detail, editing and proofreading require tact and sensitivity, especially when raising queries.
- Good knowledge of English – not only ability in spelling and grammar but also an awareness of the evolving nature of the language.
- Good judgement – Copy-editors: the ability to assess when to be flexible in applying house style and the rules of grammar. Proofreaders: the ability to assess when to make changes without incurring excessive costs/delays. Pedantry is an occupational hazard but should be tempered with common sense.
- Restraint – in not rewriting in one’s own style, to ‘let the author’s voice come through’.
- Ability to keep to deadlines – major queries should be raised and answered without delay; minor queries should be handled as convenient to both parties but in sufficient time for the copy-editor/proofreader to return the job by the agreed date.
Why do I, the publisher / company, need a copy editor?
Many of the same arguments presented in the FAQ above still apply. It is also important that your customers feel they are getting value for money – publishing poorly edited copy (or copy that has not been edited at all) could reflect extremely badly on you and/or your company/organisation. And if the text is about something that could potentially harm someone – say, medical or DIY instructions – it would be extremely foolhardy to allow the copy to be released to the public without it first being checked by an editor.
How long will it take to proofread or copy-edit my book?
It is not easy to give an average number of words per hour that can be used to estimate how long proofreading will take. However, a basic rule of thumb for a straightforward, mostly text, publication is to allow for a proofreading rate of about 10 pages per hour with about 300 words per page.
There are so many variables involved in copy-editing – the state of the manuscript/computer file, the author’s ability to spell, use grammar, etc., the amount of fact-checking required, to name but a few – that it is very difficult to make a stab at the time it will take to edit without a detailed look at the manuscript. Thus such a ‘guesstimate’ should be used only as a guide.
Be prepared for your copy-editor or proofreader to come back to you with a revised estimate after they have read some of the copy and found it more problematic than originally envisaged.
How should I brief a copy editor?
You may discuss the work initially with the copy-editor by phone or in person. If so, follow up by email or letter right away with what you’ve agreed. When you send the job to the editor, include the following information:
- Enclosures – What exactly have you sent the editor in addition to the manuscript or disks – photographs, illustrations, graphs, author’s comments? Include a list of these things. Have all computer files been virus checked?
- List of outstanding material – If there is anything still to come, list it – and tell the copy-editor when to expect it.
- Tasks to be performed – Give guidance about the depth of editing. What is required: minimal intervention, restructuring and/or rewriting, or something in between? (More information about levels of editing can be found in section 5 of the SfEP Code of Practice.) Is the editor required to prepare preliminary pages, running headings, cover copy? Should electronic styles, codes or tags be used?
- Important features – What is the target audience? Is the book in a series? Is there a house style or design specification? (If there is, enclose it.) Are there any exceptions to the house style? Is the work to be published in electronic form?
- Presentation and listing of illustrations – Are labels on line drawings to be edited? Should photographs be scaled or cropped? If any images are copyright, has permission for reproduction been obtained? Are any acknowledgements needed? Is the copy-editor required to compile a list of artwork? Who is to write any captions?
- Relevant background – Are there any specific requests – e.g. from expert readers? Has anything been agreed with the author or publisher that the copy-editor should be aware of? With whom should the copy-editor liaise over queries? Be sure to give all contact details.
- Agreed fee, expenses, dates – What has been agreed for payment – an hourly rate? a page rate? a flat fee? If an estimate was requested beforehand, ask the copy-editor, once they have seen the material, to confirm or revise it. Which expenses will be reimbursed – e.g. postage, photocopying, telephone, travel, printer consumables? When is the edited material to be returned? Ask the copy-editor to contact you immediately if any unforeseen problems come to light that might affect the schedule/budget.
- Administrative requirements – Should the copy-editor produce handover notes for the artist, designer and/or typesetter? You should insure against loss or damage to the contents of anything sent to the copy-editor, such as original artwork (and that includes insuring items in transit). How long should the copy-editor keep copies of electronic files and correspondence after publication?
Can I copy-edit my own work?
You may be able to deal with all the editorial functions outlined in What does a copy-editor do?. But you will lack the fresh eye that a copy-editor will bring to your work, and this could lead to mistakes creeping in. In fact, most copy-editors never agree to edit their own writing for just this reason.
How much does a proofreader or copy-editor cost?
Cost is a matter of negotiation between an individual freelance and a client. However, the SfEP suggests minimum hourly rates for various editorial services, and the National Union of Journalists’ freelance fees guide lists similar rates, plus others for writing, design, translation, etc.
Although these rates are only suggestions and not enforceable, we would always encourage members and others working in the profession to accept lower rates only if they feel they are fair and reasonable for the job in hand, and never to accept unworkably low rates even to gain experience. You may be able to find experienced individuals who will do editorial work for less than the suggested rates, as there is some variation depending on subject area, and an individual may always choose to accept a lower rate to take on a job of particular interest to them. Less experienced individuals may also be willing to work for a somewhat reduced rate to gain valuable experience. However, a member of the SfEP will always expect to be paid a fair and reasonable rate to reflect their professionalism, and we would always support them in this regard and suggest to clients that a good job is worth paying for. Non-SfEP editorial professionals may accept lower rates, but may also turn in a less professional piece of work.
Many freelances prefer to negotiate a flat fee for an entire job. This has the advantage of allowing the client to budget for work more exactly, and it is also a method preferred by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). However, it can be difficult for a freelance editor or proofreader to give a realistic estimate of how long a job might take or how difficult it might be, especially if they have not had sight of the material before making the estimate. Therefore, it should be possible to renegotiate a fee up to a certain point in the work – say, when a third has been edited/proofread – by which time any potential difficulties should have been discovered.
All freelances should be paid promptly, in full (unless part payments have previously been agreed) and in accordance with the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, amended and supplemented in 2002. Check out the Better Payment Practice Campaign website for more information.
How should I brief a proofreader?
You may discuss the work initially with the proofreader by phone or in person. If so, follow up by email or letter right away with what you’ve agreed. When you send the job to the proofreader, include the following information:
- List of enclosures and outstanding material – (and date when this is expected to arrive).
- Tasks to be performed – Are the proofs to be read against copy/previous proofs or ‘blind’? Differentiate editorial and typesetter’s errors? Collate proofreader’s and author’s proofs?
- Important features – What is the target audience? Is the book in a series? Is there a house style/design specification? (If so, be sure to enclose it.) Are there any exceptions to the house style? Is the work to be published in electronic form?
- Illustrations – Are labels on line drawings to be proofread? If any illustrations are copyright, has permission for reproduction been obtained? Do any acknowledgements need to be added (copyright owners sometimes require specific wording)?
- Relevant background – Are there any specific requests – e.g. from the author? Has anything been agreed with the client of which the proofreader should be aware? With whom should the proofreader liaise over queries? Be sure to give all contact details.
- Agreed dates, fee, expenses – When are the proofs to be returned? What is the agreed fee (hourly rate with estimated hours/page rate/flat fee)? Which expenses will be reimbursed (e.g. postage, photocopying, telephone, travel, printer consumables)? Ask the proofreader to confirm that they are happy with any estimates once they have seen the job and to contact you immediately if they find unforeseen problems that might affect the schedule/budget.
- Administrative requirements – You should insure against loss or damage to the contents (and that includes insuring items in transit). How long should the proofreader keep copies of electronic files and correspondence after publication?