Essential writing skills: key tricks for proof-editing

In the past few weeks I’ve been exploring the ins and outs of editing – a skill of many facets that authors have to master. This week: proof editing.

Proof-editing is an essential part of the quality assurance process for writers. It involves an editor going through the work looking for consistency of content, consistency of style, and the sense of the wording.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".
“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

It’s essential because the best author won’t get everything right all the time. Familiarity breeds contempt – that’s human nature. And these days it’s all too easy to mis-amend something in the word process and then miss the mistake. Enough misses to re-form the GTO’s, but that’s another story.

Proof-editing is also a delicate skill because the editor must work sympathetically with the style of the author. Sometimes they don’t – I recall one awkward experience with one of my early military histories in which the proof-editor was a frustrated writer who took the opportunity to re-write my work entirely, and badly. I rejected the changes – it was my book, not his.

Another time one of my books was butchered by a proof-editor whose editing was wholly out of sympathy with my style. The house editor handling the book at my publisher refused to bend. I came very close to withdrawing the book on the basis of breach of moral right – I am entitled to object to derogatory treatment of my material. In the end I didn’t, but I bucked my objection up to the managing editor of the publishing house, got the most egregious amendments reversed, and refused to work with their house editor again when she turned up working for a different publisher.

That said, this “total re-style” is a legitimate technique. Some magazines hire proof-editors to do just that. Ever wondered how Time or National Geographic get their styling so consistent? A proof-editor working in this capacity is usually not just an experienced editor but also a quality writer in their own right.

So what it boils down to is that proof editing is, itself, a skill of many facets – running the gamut from quietly correcting another author’s work, to totally re-writing it into a specific style.

Needless to say, authors also have to master it for their own purposes. A manuscript sent to a publisher will be proof-edited by the publisher – but that doesn’t reduce the onus on the author to provide the highest possible quality text. Which means learning how to proof-edit yourself – despite the fact that the familiarity problem makes that a very difficult task. It’s all part of the process.

One trick when doing it is to have a glossary beside you – a list of the consistencies that need checking. Working in chunks, backwards through the manuscript is also a useful technique – it breaks the flow of the work and means you have to concentrate on the details of the actual writing.

Next – line editing. Oh – and does anybody remember the GTO’s?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

10 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: key tricks for proof-editing

    1. Maps work brilliantly to help ground the text – works in non-fiction too. I drew battle maps for some of my military histories which helped sort the text out. The glossary’s also good to send on to publishers. I picked that trick up years ago from another author & it saves a LOT of headaches when they start editing the MS.


  1. I do copy editing. I recently purchased two books, ‘Penguin Guide to Punctuation’ and ‘The Copyeditor’s Handbook.’ I find the Penguin Guide very helpful when I am editing my own work too. I am constantly honing my craft each time I edit a work. It is important to work with the author so as not to change any part of his/her work that would ultimately change the whole context of it.

    There are many differences in our English language especially amongst American English and Australian, New Zealand and/or UK English.

    Thank you for your interesting and educational blogs.


    1. Thank you for reading them! I use the Chicago Style Guide myself – but all these books are handy guides. One of the problems with any sort of editing is that English is such a dynamic language – quite apart from the dramatic differences, in places, between “US English” “English English”, “New Zealand English” and so on. Keeps people on their toes, anyway.


  2. Matthew, that is scary that they could rewrite your work. That is so wrong, in so many ways. If you had meekly accepted, or stormed out, you would have second guessed yourself forever. Thank you for having that special courage to work with the change artists, and preserve the important parts of your works. Thank you, Silent


    1. All authors’ work is altered somewhere by the publisher, though usually only to the extent of ensuring consistency of content and grammatical accuracy. And a publisher may ask for changes. Publishing contracts usually carry a clause stating that if requested changes aren’t met, another author will be obtained to make them. But for the most part, what you read is what the author intended – certainly if the quality is good to begin with. The issue I had with the unwanted editorial of ‘Desert Duel’ was unique and didn’t survive the editorial process – I rejected the changes, and the publisher agreed that they should be rejected. The issue with another publisher’s proof editor imposing change over ‘Fantastic Pasts’ was more to do with insensitivity. I stuck to my guns despite the combatative attitude of the editor I was working with – and, despite the way contracts are written, retained the high ground because I have a right to object to derogatory treatment of my work.


  3. GTO’s…GTO’s…no, I do not remember but I am curious and know you will tell me. Proof-editing seems to be overlooked by a lot of writers, I think. If one uses the technique with one’s own writing it makes it easier in dealing with proof-editors it would seem. Granted, one misses a great deal in one’s writing but understanding the technique is sometimes the problem, if they have not read this post. I agree, a glossary or some kind of note taking is absolutely critical to keep the writing consistent and even then….

    Another fine post, Matthew. Thanks so much.


    1. They were an all girl ‘groupie’ band whose members used pseudonyms preceded by ‘Miss’. Were cultivated by Frank Zappa and released their only album ‘Permanent Damage’ on his label in 1969. I have it on the 1989 CD re-release. Weird period piece. They manifestly couldn’t sing. Allegedly GTO stood for Girls Together Outrageously, but nobody seemed quite certain.


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