You’ve been speaking English for years, know that the sort of language you use is important and, even if your spelling isn’t perfect, you know to go beyond the spellchecker and how to use a dictionary. You’ve drafted and re-written and checked and fixed your document or presentation, your post or webpage, your dissertation or book so why do you need an editor or proofreader?
Because people notice other people’s mistakes. Even nice people, who do their best to ignore them and won’t post them on Twitter for the world to laugh at, are left with a vague impression that you’ve been sloppy when you’ve been anything but careless.
You’ve worked hard on your writing but were so busy finding just the right analogy you didn’t spot the guerrilla on the basketball court (see what I mean?); you’ve changed the name of your hero—Robert should have been Richard all along—but weren’t confused when his mum called him Bobby; you’ve spent hours on your dissertation or thesis only for your tutor to tell you the content’s fine, but it sounds like an ‘A’ level essay.
Maybe English is not your first language and people smile at the way you phrase things when you want to impress rather than amuse. Or you’ve had your website translated but it still doesn’t seem to have been written by a native speaker.
There really is no substitute for a fresh pair of eyes, but it’s best to make sure those which spot the problem don’t belong to your readers.
I’ve been told that there are companies out there who take your words, run them through a slightly more sophisticated spelling and grammar checking programme than those bolted on to the programmes the rest of use daily, and call that proofreading. I won’t do that. There are certainly companies out there that charge you extra for checking that you are being consistent (for example in how you format abbreviations, or in the voice you use in a paragraph). I won’t do that. There are people that will ignore malapropisms because you have asked them to just proofread, or anachronisms because you haven’t asked for a fact check—I won’t do that (although I reserve the right to charge you a bit more if there’s a lot of it to be done). I will read every word you have written myself* and look at any or all of the following:
- spelling (including typos), punctuation, grammar, incorrect / ambiguous word usage or order, frequent or close repetition
- consistent use of hyphens, abbreviations, capitalisation, layout (eg bullets/numbers)
- obvious inconsistencies in tone / style / plot / characterisation / point of view
- basic fact-checking eg dates / correct names of real people / events / products referenced
- consistent formatting for headings / labels / references – and that they refer to the right place
- and, if it’s in its final format, poor line / page breaks and other distracting layout.
Some of those are copyediting tasks, some are proofreading (see this very clear description of the differences between editing and proofreading from Liz Dexter of LibroEditing), so you may want to ask me to leave some out.
- If you are sure your content is spot-on, and everything has been laid out for printing, then you won’t want me to tell you that I don’t think this character would pick exactly those words to tell someone to go away, or that I don’t think it’s necessary to include that information in both graphical and tabular form. You’ve already made those choices knowing your characters or / and audience and, at this stage, my job is just to make what you’ve decided to publish look right.
- On the other hand, if we both know you are likely to do some fairly hefty post-edit re-writes, then it would be silly to suggest ways of tidying up bad page breaks, or point out that what you say about little green beetles is on p42 not p43 (although I would put in a note alerting you to check in final version).
- If you’re at an earlier stage in your writing and would like more focus on the overall structure, content or /and style (what Liz refers to as a substantive edit), then I can provide that too.
Whatever we decide that you need me to do, I will show all the changes I suggest, explain the reasons for the more complex (the ones that won’t leave you saying ‘that was my brain racing ahead of my fingers again’), and always leave you the option of accepting or rejecting every one of them.
- Demonstrate your professionalism, commitment to quality and respect for your readers —by reducing errors and being consistent.
- Improve your chances of being understood correctly—by being alerted to poor phrasing and inappropriate vocabulary.
- Save time—by avoiding the consequences of errors: rebuilding a webpage, re-issuing a book, reprinting a brochure or simply dealing with enquiries from confused clients.
*If I can’t, I will suggest someone else you might try, but I won’t pass your details or work on without telling you.