Five things that make a good proof-editor

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.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“My proof editor was Sir Francis Bacon.” Maybe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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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13 thoughts on “Five things that make a good proof-editor

  1. I’ve had good and bad experiences with copy and content editors in journalism and long-form work. I LOVE what you said about sensitivity! That’s precisely what great editors seem to have that sets them apart from the others.

    I often tell writers who are considering hiring an editor to request a sample edit and referrals (other writers they’ve worked with) first. Great post!


    1. Thanks! Yes, getting a sample is a great indicator. I think one of the big problems with over-zealous editors is that they’re often frustrated authors themselves, veering into the editing field without having had enough experience of being an author to actually have a feel for it. Then they mess up the work of other authors (sigh)…It’s happened to me a few times, and the it’s remarkably difficult to get a poorly edited manuscript back on par during the publishing process.


  2. I think I meet your criteria, Matt, but I’m too old and cranky to work for free. 😉

    One of the hardest things I had to learn when I started editing the Museum newsletter was not only that other people had a voice, it was my responsibility to help them refine that voice. It was NOT my job to turn them into me. Once I learned that things went along just fine.

    You make a valid point about editors and writers. There are similarities in what they do, but those are misleading. What an editor does, and what a writer does, are two entirely different things. As a trial definition, a writer creates something out of nothing; an editor takes that something, looks at it with a certain degree of objectivity, and starts making it more true to itself. The writer has to make the vision clear enough for others, especially the editor, to see.

    Don’t know about any “encyclopedic” knowledge of grammar, truthfully — mine is mostly empirical, so I’m depending on a gestalt of what I’ve read over the last 4-5 decades.

    Aside from which I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of editing in published works — not epubs, but print books — that’s gotten worse over the last ten years. You might have caught a spelling error every so often twenty years ago, but very little else. Nowadays, you can just about count on finding spelling errors and other glitches in printed works by the big houses, stuff you would have thought Spellcheck would catch!

    Good post!


    1. The quality of editing these days is a worry. Spell check isn’t a substitute, but it’s increasingly used as such when the pressure’s on to get publisher costs down. There are also a fair number of freelancers who’ve maybe got line-editing skills, who’ve set themselves up as all-round editors and clearly struggle when presented with proof-editing (a different skill set).

      Of late I’ve even fielded queries from fellow writers here in NZ relative to finding quality proof-editors prior to sending contracted manuscripts in to the publisher – these authors are prepared to pay their own money – probably, most of the practical returns on the book – just to make sure it;s right before being submitted.


  3. I enjoy editing even a little more than I like writing. You hit on exactly the one thing that worries me, and it is the sensitivity thing. Teaching and parenting have taught me a lot about respecting the voice of another, but I have felt that sensitively maintaining that respect is the most demanding (difficult) part of the editor’s job. I encountered a little start-up magazine a while ago. Within, I was under constant publisher pressure to “just change it,” being told that an editor out-ranks the writer, and that I was being paid to turn out material, not coddle staff… I left the job, frustrated. I couldn’t help but wonder how this sort of attitude helps the publishing industry, and what we can expect of it in future if this kind of place serves as a training ground for the young.


    1. It’s difficult. I don’t know how things are in Canada, but certainly in NZ there are a fair number of magazines started either by ‘content enthusiasts’ or by people who see a business opportunity, but don’t understand the editorial and writing side particularly well. Occasionally a small publisher emerges on the same basis – I recall, years ago, being approached by a one-man-band publisher to write a book he’d been commissioned to produce by a military unit. His attitude was that by making the proposal, he owned me – which didn’t bode well for a good professional association. I declined. He never did produce the book, which was finally published by Penguin (who I was writing for, and who I knew very well). One of those things.


      1. Your observations apply to what I’ve seen here in Canada. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet Doug Gibson, one of Canada’s most respected publishers, now retired. He told me that he always looked for curiosity in his editors; he said a good editor needs to be genuinely interested in many, many things. When I’ve written for other people, I’ve also noted that a little humility can be my greatest asset; there is tremendous value in being limited in knowledge, as it can lead to asking some very important questions.


  4. As always, a post that not only informs but gets to the crux of the matter. As others have joined you in saying, the issue of style cannot be mentioned enough when it comes to editors. Frankly, I am remembering my early days as an editor, and I was not sensitive to the writer’s style. That took some experience and some hard conversation but once I saw the error of my ways….

    As you know, I do not have experience in current publishing but I suspect that stomping all over a writer’s style is, unfortunately, more prevalent, as publishing is so fluid right now. While I find all of your posts on writing most informative, I particularly enjoy those that deal with current publishing, such as it is. You are in and among all of these changes; yours is a voice I trust.


    1. Thank you for your kind thoughts – as always, very much appreciated. There’s no doubt that publishing is in upheaval right now. On my recent experience one of the outcomes seems to be a sudden eruption of over-intrusive proof-editing, driven I suspect by the fact that many people seem to be setting themselves up as ‘freelance editors’, but lack the specific editorial training or experience to be any good at it.

      In just the last 18 months or so, I’ve also noticed that publishers have started relying on Microsoft Word and ‘track changes’ as a tool – which is extremely risky for a whole raft of reasons, not least being that Word isn’t a text file – it’s an XML database, and when it’s pulled through the InDesign import filter by a publisher it doesn’t always work too well. The system also relies on everybody having the same version of Word (Microsoft made some sharp changes between Word 2003 and Word 2007 for a starter) – and what happens to authors who prepare content in (say) Open Office and then save in .docx format? That’s quite apart from other issues I’ve seen where a proof-editor fails to switch on track changes until part-way through the edit, causing a host of un-registered alterations, and so it goes on.

      There’s a point in the publishing process where the old methods of paper proofs and pen-and-ink correx actually work – and, to my mind, remain the gold standard for ensuring the fidelity of an author’s content.


      1. Fascinating and frightening about Microsoft being almost set up as a standard. I had heard this but I hoped it was yet just another rumor. As for paper and pen, they are always my final tools in proofing because for me paper is a different read than a screen. Always has been. Thanks so much for all of this information, Matthew.


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