An experienced writer that I know told me a little while ago that he’d given up writing books. Mainly because he got sick of labouring at a manuscript, only to then spend more hours undoing the heavy-handed botch-ups that over-zealous proof-editors were making of his work during the publishing process, as if he were an inexperienced or incompetent newbie rather than one of the most published authors in the country.
I knew what he meant. I’ve had a few adventures myself along those lines. I swear some of the proof-editors involved were frustrated writers themselves, stamping their preferred style across mine, even inserting (incorrect) content as if they were co-authors or subject experts.
To me that’s not what proof-editing is about. Sometimes a newbie author needs guidance – but when an author’s got dozens of commercially published books in their list and have been three-plus decades in the business (as both my friend and I are) it’s a different calculation. If a publisher’s concept of a book is so different from what’s delivered that they think it needs re-writing, it should be sent back to the author with queries.
Thing is, writing – formulating words to convey meaning and carry a reader forwards – is not proof-editing, which is the art of checking those words to make sure they have integrity. They are totally different skill sets. Proof editing is an art of its own, and the task can be summed up in a sentence. Proof editors ensure the quality and consistency of an author’s work and style.
To do that, one of the key skills a proof-editor needs is sensitivity – an ability to detect style and work sympathetically with an author’s words. To achieve their role efficiently and effectively, a good proof-editor should:
1. Understand writing style – how it works, what it’s about, and how to control it.
2. Understand the content sufficiently to make intelligent edits, but not think they know it better than the author.
3. Have an encyclopaediac knowledge of grammar conventions and standards.
4. Be able to work quickly and accurately under pressure.
5. Don’t change their mind half-way about the consistency they’re applying.
This last sounds crazy, the proof-editor’s job is to be consistent – but it’s happened to me.
Have you ever had experiences with proof editors? Good? Bad? Indifferent?
Oh, and if you do meet the criteria and are happy to work for free, call me. :-)
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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