The Wordstitch blog

It’s not uncommon to hear editors alluding to what they do as a kind of midwifery. Editors (for which read ‘copyeditors’ and ‘proofreaders’ throughout) help clients to ‘birth’ books – to bring them into the world in the healthiest and best-prepared state they can, with the minimum possible fuss, mess and pain. They support clients (parents), listening carefully to their desires for their book (birth plan) and doing their utmost to make those desires a reality. And they work diligently with other editorial professionals (doctors, nurses and other specialists) to ensure the service (care) they give to the client is comprehensive, appropriate and respectful. Wikipedia even says that part of the role of a copyeditor is ‘to midwife content’.

In contrast, my cousin Bryony is a real midwife – as in, she helps small humans into the world. A while back we were talking about her work, and she said this:

When you apply to a midwifery course at university, one of the worst things you can say is that you ‘love babies’.

Her words struck me, as they put a new perspective on a sense of unease I’ve always felt whenever anybody describes a ‘love of language’ as a motivation for becoming a professional editor or proofreader, as if this is somehow enough.

What’s wrong with a love of language?

Nothing whatsoever.

There is nothing inherently bad or damaging or undesirable about loving language. Although I don’t personally use the phrase to describe how I feel about language because I’m uncomfortable with its imprecision, I frequently feel a frisson of satisfaction at a clever turn of phrase, quiet appreciation of an instruction parsimoniously and unambiguously expressed, or a sense of yearning in a phrase elegantly curled around a hollow of truth.

The ability to be moved by language is one of the great transcendental experiences of being human, and nobody should try to take that away from anybody else.

But a ‘love of language’ comes up short as a basis for working as a professional editor, because it fails to get at the heart of what the author–editor relationship is all about. Here’s something else Bryony said:

Midwife means ‘with woman’ – it refers to being with women. Saying you ‘love babies’ is basically saying you’ve completely missed the point of midwifery.

In the same way, a professional editor needs to be ‘with’ their author – they cannot focus on the language (baby) to the exclusion of the author’s goals. This applies whether the ‘author’ is a poet, an academic writer, a business, an organisation that produces informational content, or anyone else who has strung some words together for the sake of communicating with others. In all these cases, the author’s goals, their style or brand, and what they want to communicate should be the editor’s focus.

Love is blind

They say that love is blind, and what author would want an editor who is blind to the flaws in their manuscript? This can work in two ways:

  1. A manuscript may be beautifully written, but it may also have poor structuring, inappropriate tone, language that is too complex for the readership, broken cross-references, inconsistent capitalisation, missing references, plagiarism or any one of a host of other potential issues.
  2. A manuscript may have all of these problems and not even be well written.

In case 1, an editor who simply noticed the beautiful writing and missed the manuscript’s flaws would be missing the entire point of working as a professional editor.

In case 2, an editor whose raison d’éditer* was a ‘love of language’ might simply tut over the language issues, make the text read more ‘beautifully’ and miss all of the other problems. They might even hyper-focus on the language flaws in the manuscript and end up making pedantic or unnecessary interventions in the text.

Both of these editors would be failing their client.

Editors should be able to appreciate good writing and identify language in need of work, but they cannot allow either to blind them to the technical issues in a manuscript. Editors need a professional awareness of the rules, conventions and trends of language use in the client’s field, and how these can best be employed to serve the client’s goals.

Neither blind appreciation nor unregulated scrutiny is appropriate.

‘Undisciplined love is disastrous’ (Gillian Flynn)

Setting aside the complex psychological motivations at the heart of Gone Girl, I believe this quote has a point: love without discipline, without self-improvement, without a drive to understand and be understood is likely to lead to disaster.

A professional editor knows that being the best possible editorial partner to their clients involves working on themselves as an editor – attending training courses, keeping up to date with how language and editorial practice are changing, and keeping a rigorously critical eye on their day-to-day editorial decisions (Could I justify this change if questioned or is it based on a personal preference? What reference could I cite?).

Professional editors also hone their business skillset so that they can offer an efficient and reliable service to their clients. They schedule appropriately and practise good communication, so they can deliver on time and enable their clients to trust them. They turn down work they aren’t qualified to do (even if it looks incredibly interesting). They invest in editorial tools to improve their accuracy. And they do all of the other million things anybody else has to do when they’re CEO, IT department, marketing director and admin assistant of their own company.

All of this takes time, effort and disciplined focus, and it can mean spending a large proportion of your working week on tasks that are essential to providing a good service to your clients but have little if anything to do with loving language.

‘If you love someone, set them free’ (anon.)

For me, this phrase has always been about letting go of our ego (our desires) in order to allow our loved ones to be themselves. It means respecting their autonomy and encouraging them to choose their own course.

In the editorial world, then, editors must not allow their love of language to make them forget that it is never, ever their language that they’re working on. It is always the client’s ‘baby’, and the editor’s job is to support the client and facilitate their wishes as far as possible, not fuss over the baby. Whether an editor is proofreading, copyediting, substantially overhauling structure, rewriting passages or even offering a complete ghostwriting service, their feelings and desires are only relevant to the extent that they contribute to the client reaching their goals.

This isn’t to say that editors can’t find deep enjoyment in their contributions to a manuscript. Editorial work often involves inhabiting a text almost to the same degree as the author – getting to know it inside out; feeling around for its themes and strands so as find the best way of ordering and organising them; and even suggesting or writing entirely new parts. It can be draining, and it’s easier to do such work when we are enthusiastic and perhaps even emotionally invested in what we are doing.

But ultimately every decision is the client’s.

So, a professional editor might have a brilliant idea that they know (from considerable industry experience) would enhance readers’ experience of the manuscript and make the client’s ideas more accessible. The editor might then spend considerable effort clearly explaining their idea to the client. However, if the client doesn’t want to use it, the only thing to do is to shrug and remind yourself that it’s their decision.

‘We are most alive when we’re in love’ (John Updike)

Having a love of language (however you define that for yourself) can be a huge asset for an editor. It can enhance our enjoyment of our work, and an editor who is enjoying themselves is likely to have better focus and more creative ideas. It can also make us more willing to invest in our skills and development, because we want to understand this thing that we love better, and thus become better able to work on it with others.

But love of language on its own is not enough to work as a professional editor. We must love working with authors on language, and that requires a broad arsenal of skills and resources. For example, a professional editor must have:

  • professional accountability (e.g. the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which I am an Advanced Professional Member, has a code of practice that is binding on members)
  • technical training from industry-recognised bodies
  • knowledge of appropriate sources of information (e.g. style guides, reference works)
  • the ability to provide objective and constructive criticism (and to communicate this criticism kindly)
  • a desire to support clients’ goals and help them to achieve their vision – regardless of whether the publication’s language is aesthetically beautiful or of a more functional kind
  • an ability to adapt to different specifications, publication types and writing styles, and to offer a choice of approaches to editing
  • knowledge of publishing processes
  • the ability to spot patterns, gaps and consistency issues
  • creative problem-solving skills
  • the ability to explain the reasons behind suggested changes
  • tenacity – the will to track down an answer to an obscure or tricky issue
  • clear knowledge of their own professional limits (i.e. they turn down projects they are not qualified for)

A love of language and being an excellent editor can happily coincide and will often bring out the best in one another. But one does not automatically lead to the other.

It’s never our baby.

* French speakers, please forgive the licence I’ve taken with your language here! (go back)

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As we’re all currently discovering, sometimes all the determination, foresight and savvy in the world cannot prevent a project from being brought to its knees – or, far less dramatically, being rendered irrelevant with breathtakingly savage immediacy.

Pause symbol and play symbol

But even in these difficult times, many projects are going ahead. And in more normal times too, a less existential but still very serious crisis can threaten to overwhelm a project that might otherwise have been able to proceed if some simple people-focused steps had been taken.

It’s all about people

In this article I’m focusing on people – key stakeholders whose contribution can make or break the progress or completion of a project. In the editorial world, their absence could mean (for example) that a set of proofs isn’t signed off on time, or the index isn’t delivered when needed, or the necessary briefing documentation isn’t available to induct a vital new team member into the project. These stakeholders could be project advisers (such as an editor-in-chief or reviewer), suppliers (such as a copy-editor or typesetter) or anybody else affiliated with a project. In this article, I’ll refer to them simply as ‘project members’.

I don’t particularly seek here to address the current COVID-19 situation (in fact, I drafted most of this article before there was any idea of the effects the pandemic would have in the UK). Instead, I offer some broad suggestions on measures to consider when a project faces a threat due to a project member unexpectedly being unavailable or having reduced capacity – for example, due to a bereavement, loss of property or workplace, or other personal difficulties.

Note that the word ‘consider’ is crucial here. While it’s been my experience that most people remain committed to projects to some degree even in the depths of a personal crisis, simple emotional decency and consideration for people’s well-being should never be overridden for the good of a project.

Ways to keep projects moving

Ask questions

If the project member is able to answer questions and it’s appropriate to get in touch with them, try to establish some basic facts. When will the person be utterly unavailable? When might they be able to deal with a limited workload? Can they forecast when they might be back to full capacity?

If they are not available to answer questions or are unable to say how the future will pan out, consider asking for a check-in or review date for them to update you on their status. This enables you to make provisional plans in the hope that, after the review date, you will be able to hit the ground running with one of those plans rather than starting from scratch.

Don’t presume

Don’t presume anything. Everybody has different ways of dealing with a crisis, and every crisis affects people differently. Some people may be unable to focus on their work, whereas others may find strength in its routine. While being careful to avoid intrusiveness or overstepping professional boundaries, try to establish how the project member wants to be treated and the extent to which they want to be involved in planning around the crisis. This will respect their needs while potentially gaining you better-quality information to work with.

Be clear on priorities

Which tasks absolutely have to be done on schedule and which can wait? How long can they wait? What will be affected by the delay and what will the knock-on effects be?

Planning this out will enable you to present the project team with a clear set of priorities, and it may even reveal that you have more time to play with than you thought.

Clearly state the impacts

There’s no point being coy about knock-on effects. Schedule changes must be explicitly publicised throughout the project team, so that everybody understands how things have changed and can plan their future contributions.

It’s also important not to assume that everybody is on the same wavelength about catching up any delays. For example, if the project member has to be out of the country for three weeks and a scheduled task is delayed accordingly, don’t assume they will be able or willing to work extra-hard to catch up when they return. Ask about their capacity and what will be realistic for them.

Consider who else might be able to help

Is there another member of the project team who has the skills and knowledge to take up the slack for a while? For example, an associate member of the editorial board might be willing to delegate for an editor-in-chief.

If so, be very clear with each person which tasks you’re proposing are delegated and ask for any limits on the remit of the delegation. Also make sure the person who is temporarily taking over the responsibilities is clear about the scope of the work. If the task is bigger than they’re expecting or requires knowledge that they don’t have, they may not be able to cope with it and your carefully laid contingency plan may fall apart.

Consider what can be brought forward

Sometimes it’s possible to do some of a future task in advance and then finish it off when other information or materials arrive. This may not be the most efficient way of doing things, but it may be worth the complication if it minimises a delay to a crucial date.

Highlight key information

In your communications, consider how best to make key information quick to find. Highlight key dates and names. Use bold or colour. Segment your communications by person. Segment your communications by order of importance. Use comprehensive (but concise) status reports rather than ad hoc updates so your contacts don’t have to wade back through emails to understand the context of what you’re telling them.

And, if your email doesn’t need a reply or can be ignored by certain people until a certain date, say so. For example, you could put at the top of an email:

Key dates below are in bold. Peter, this is FYI but no action is needed until you return on Tuesday.

Measures such as these cut through any ambiguity about what you need from people and when. It also creates trust that you’re not sending frivolous emails or asking for information more quickly than you genuinely need it.

Consider alternative means of communication

If there are key pieces of information that you simply cannot get from anyone other than the project member who is experiencing the crisis, ask whether a particular way of communicating might make it possible for you to raise your questions. For example, the project member might not be able to sit down to an email, but they might be able to spare you a five-minute call while they’re out walking their dog (just make sure you document the call in a follow-up email afterwards). Text messages are sometimes perceived as unprofessional but they could be the way to keep your project moving.

Consider, too, whether and how you send any supporting materials. A heavily involved project member who normally likes to be made aware of every detail may be willing to receive brief, quick-fire queries for a period of time, so that key decisions can be made. They can be sent the back-up information separately or later.

Putting people first

In a crisis, clear communication lessens stress and burden. It frees people up by letting them know exactly what is needed and when – and also, importantly, what is not needed for now. This lets them focus on what you need as a project manager and forget about everything else to do with the project, giving them maximum mental space for all the personal rubbish they’re juggling.

It is people who ultimately deliver a project, so paying attention to what people need and what they can provide (and when) is usually the best starting point when a project is in peril.

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Working as a freelancer means inhabiting a strange world of paradoxes:

We must be solid and grounded in our professional self-sufficiency but fluid in responding to our clients’ needs.

We must strive for stability but embrace the inevitability of change – both self-imposed and thrust upon us.

We must invest in building and refining our skillset even when we’re wondering where our next paying job will come from.

We must maintain scrupulous standards of professional accountability to our clients and suppliers even as we become lifelong friends with some of those same people.

We must work in competition with our fellow freelancers while nurturing each other and our joint community for the good of us all.

We must be experts without ever forgetting how little we know.

We must connect in our isolation.

In short, we must be flexible and adaptable. Always, onwards, adapting.

To an extent, this is an existential drive, almost evolutionary. If we don’t change as the world changes, if we are not ready to overcome threats to the very survival of our businesses, we cease to exist professionally.

So, when a huge shock hits, we may worry about how we will survive, but in a sense we are already surviving. We might have to shift our trajectory, but we are already in motion.

To return to our paradoxes, when crisis happens:

We shore up our self-sufficiency, bracing for financial and professional shocks, while testing out new pools in which to exercise our fluidity. The pools might be more perilous than we’d ideally like, but we can handle this because we’ve done it all before, on different scales, at other times, in other pools.

We gather around us all the things we find essential – all the things that make us feel stable – but at the same time we purposefully go out of our comfort zone to find new opportunities and positive currents of change.

We continue to invest what we can (even if it’s only time) in broadening our skills even as we may face some of the biggest financial challenges of our careers.

We continue to hold ourselves accountable to our clients and suppliers on the hard, practical side of business (deadlines, fees and so on) so that they in turn can deliver on their promises to others, but we remain ready to be human and kind when our clients are struggling.

We continue to ethically assert our right to further our business success while redoubling our efforts to give a helping hand to our colleague-competitors.

We seek out new ways to put our hard-earned expertise to use while acknowledging that there may now be even more areas where our knowledge is lacking – more questions to which we don’t yet know the answers.

We are creative in finding more ways to connect in our heightened isolation, offering support and help to others at a distance.

In this new world, we are already surviving.

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Psychological safety – people standing on each other's shoulders

HBR defines psychological safety as allowing for ‘moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off’.

In the professional sphere, it’s about trust, openness and confidence that we will receive a reasonable and proportionate response when we raise questions or concerns with our colleagues.

As a project manager, it’s something I try to establish in all my projects. And it’s a concept that I think we need more of in the editorial world, particularly in client–freelancer relationships, where the success of a project often hinges on speedily establishing a collaborative working relationship from scratch.

Why is psychological safety important in editorial work?

Let’s consider an example of how problems can arise on an editorial project when somebody feels they can’t ask a question.

A proofreader has been engaged to proofread an academic book and liaise with the author to collate the author’s corrections with their own. The project manager (PM) has provided the proofreader with a brief, which includes the instruction to ‘follow APA style’. However, as the proofreader works their way through the job, they realise that an aspect of APA style has not been followed.

The proofreader is nervous about contacting the PM because their project handover was quite brusque and they give the impression of being very busy. Therefore, as the proofreader is already in touch with the author on a regular basis, and the author is friendly and approachable, they ask the author whether the particular aspect of APA style should be followed. The author emphatically says ‘yes’. As the author’s answer correlates with the PM’s instruction to follow APA style, the proofreader decides to go ahead and mark the necessary changes throughout the proofs. This results in around 30% more corrections than there would otherwise have been.

When the PM receives the proofs, they are aghast at how many corrections they contain. They weren’t aware of this particular detail of APA style and they know the publisher won’t want the corrections to be made. However, when the PM broaches the topic with the author, the author insists on the corrections being kept, on the basis that they were agreed with the proofreader, whom the author sees as the publisher’s representative.

The publisher feels they have no option but to make the changes for the good of their relationship with the author. However, because of the extra work involved, it has to pay higher fees to the typesetter (to implement the corrections) and the revised-proofs checker (to ensure they have been made accurately). Additionally, the corrections cause text to move between pages, meaning that the indexer has to be paid to update the index.

These extra costs reduce the commercial viability of the book. Furthermore, extra corrections mean a higher chance of errors being introduced through commission or omission, so the quality of the book is at risk.

This example – which is fabricated but drawn from real experience in the editorial world – shows the kinds of problems that can arise when editorial professionals don’t feel they can ask pertinent questions.

What can be done to increase psychological safety in editorial work?

To answer this question, let’s consider some of the things the project manager and proofreader could have done differently in the above example.


Undoubtedly, the project manager was genuinely busy and probably didn’t mean to seem unapproachable. They may even have included a phrase such as ‘let me know of any queries’ in their handover email. But such phrases can come across as perfunctory, leaving a freelancer unsure of how welcome queries would actually be.

Especially when I first start working with a supplier, I always emphasise that questions are not just allowed but encouraged. I explain that I would much rather answer questions now than risk problematic misunderstandings arising later.

This is partly because I’m aware that I’m not infallible – I might have omitted something important from my brief or written something ambiguous. Or the freelancer’s prior industry experience may mean that they are used to different (but valid) norms of working, with the result that they interpret my instructions differently from how I intend.

PM tip: Especially when I’m working with multiple copy-editors, I tend to specify a day of the week for freelancers to send me style sheet updates and queries. That way, freelancers know that I’m expecting queries, which may help to overcome any doubts about whether I have time to answer them.


In many ways, the proofreader followed a logical and conscientious decision-making process. Nevertheless, their nervousness about contacting the project manager played a significant role in their decision.

If they had set aside their nervousness, they might have decided that raising a query would be the safest option. This might have taken some courage, if the project manager really did give off a hostile air when handing over the project. But sometimes asking questions is not only about the good of the project but also about looking out for ourselves. The fallout for the proofreader from this scenario could be severe – anything up to losing the client entirely.

So sometimes it’s necessary to grit our teeth, make our enquiry as concise and quick-to-answer as possible, and just ask. In a sense, it’s about creating our own space of psychological safety, even if others aren’t creating one for us.

PM tip: Even when others aren’t granting us psychological safety, to an extent we can create it for ourselves. We can ask the questions we feel we should, understanding that others may not react optimally but that it’s not our job to mitigate their reaction as long as we’re asking professionally relevant questions in a well-thought-out way.

But where does ‘asking questions’ end and ‘bothering the project manager’ start?

What is ‘too many’ questions will vary from project to project and from individual to individual, so it’s impossible to answer this question definitively. In my experience, though, when there are too many questions, it is usually a symptom of an underlying problem.

I would argue that in many cases, fixing this problem sits within the control of the project manager, not the freelancer. For example:

  • Wrong freelancer: the freelancer and the project might not be well suited to each other, such that the freelancer is unfamiliar with the type of work and has to ask many basic questions. Project managers can do a lot to avoid this possibility by giving a full and accurate picture of the project to the freelancer when proposing the project, so that the freelancer can decide whether they have the necessary time, skills and capacity.
  • Insufficient context: if it’s an important project, if it’s had a difficult history or if there’s something else unusual about it, the freelancer needs to know. Context can add nuance to a freelancer’s decision-making process, better enabling them to judge which questions to ask and when.
  • Insufficiently established expectations: a house style document is not a brief. A proper brief establishes the freelancer’s remit and ideally gives examples of what sorts of issues the freelancer should raise with the project manager.

Psychological safety is a vital part of any editorial project

Let’s consider a second and final example.

A copy-editor is sent a manuscript written by an author who is prominent in their field. It’s well written and the referencing seems solid: the style is consistently implemented and the author’s assertions seem to have citations where appropriate. However, in checking the references, the copy-editor notices that many of them have newer editions. Crucially, nothing is incorrect. However, the copy-editor wonders whether updating the references might make the book more current, more relevant to readers and therefore a better product for the publisher.

When the project manager (PM) handed the project over to the copy-editor, they made clear that the project and the author were highly important to the publisher. The author should be sent as few queries as possible, and minimal changes should be made to the script. Additionally, because of the importance of the project, the PM let the copy-editor know that they wanted to be involved in decision-making and be told about any unexpected issues.

Had the PM only mentioned the importance of the author and the need for minimal changes, the copy-editor might have assumed the old references were acceptable and left them alone. However, because the PM took pains to establish a collegial relationship with the freelancer, and because the PM stated how important the book was to the publisher, the copy-editor feels comfortable sending the PM a quick query asking whether the old references need to be updated.

The PM consults with the publisher’s commissioning editor (CE), who has a long-established relationship with the author. When the CE tactfully asks the author about the old references, it turns out that they are an oversight by a PhD student who helped with the references at an earlier stage. The author is pleased to have had the issue spotted and offers to mark the necessary updates on the edited manuscript when they receive it from the copy-editor. The PM passes this information on to the copy-editor, thanks them for noticing the issue so it could be fixed at a stage when it will cause minimal problems, and reiterates that further queries are welcome.

The outcome is that the publisher and CE get a more relevant product, the author avoids the risk of reviewers commenting on their sources being out of date, the PM gets to avoid complications at proof stage, and the copy-editor boosts their reputation with their client as a conscientious freelancer who offers added value.

Again, this is a contrived example. But it illustrates how, when people are made to feel they can point out when things don’t seem right, problems can be dealt with at the optimal time and quality can be improved.


Psychological safety is about giving people the information they need to make sensible decisions, and then allowing them the space to communicate when those decisions lead to valid questions. Sometimes it can be about courage too – about giving ourselves psychological safety.

Ultimately, wherever possible, it should be an ongoing collaborative process, whether the client–freelancer relationship is short term or expected to last well into the future.

Image credit: ‘LuMaxArt FS Collection Orange0176’ by Scott Maxwell is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0.

Posted in Client relations, Freelancing, Professional development, Project management | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

In the editorial world, it’s generally thought that the person who copy-edited a text shouldn’t also be the person to proofread it.

This is a sound rule to follow wherever possible: a proofreader is often referred to as a ‘fresh pair of eyes’, and this freshness can be invaluable. In the same way that an author can become blind to the errors in their own work through overfamiliarity, a copy-editor tends to lose that ‘edge’ that comes with seeing a text anew.

Therefore, having a separate proofreader is usually the best strategy.

However, there are various valid reasons that an editor might find themselves proofreading text they’ve already copy-edited. For example, the anticipated proofreader might have dropped out at short notice. Alternatively, it can be attractive for authors if an editor offers a package of services containing both copy-editing and proofreading.

So, if you find yourself in this situation, what should you keep in mind? Following are some suggestions covering tips to avoid the disadvantages and aspects you can turn to your advantage.

Tips to avoid the disadvantages

1 Leave it as long as you can

The longer and more complete a break you can have from the text after you’ve copy-edited it, the better. This will help you to approach it with fresh eyes.

2 Clarify the brief

Make sure you’re clear on what your client wants you to do. For example, if you were given considerable latitude to suggest amendments in copy-editing, check whether creative input is still welcome in proofreading or whether a more restrictive approach (e.g. only correcting obvious errors) is required.

3 Change the format

Often, the text you’re sent for proofreading will be in a different format from the text you copy-edited (for example, text in a Word file may have been typeset and converted into a fully designed PDF). However, if this isn’t the case, consider changing the font, the font size, the text colour, the background colour, the margin depths, and anything else that could fool your brain into seeing the text as if for the first time. Print it out if you need to. Do the work in a different room. Changes of this kind will make it more likely that you’ll spot errors.

4 Use what you learned while copy-editing the text – but not too much

Whereas it’s sensible to keep in mind your thought processes from copy-editing so you don’t end up reinventing the wheel or reversing previous decisions, it’s important not to rely on this previous decision-making too heavily. For example, don’t skip over passages simply because you know a lot of effort was put into them in copy-editing (in fact, this should be more of a reason to concentrate on a passage, as text that has been heavily edited can be more likely to contain errors). The trick here is to have the editing history at the back of your mind, not the front.

5 Look everything up again

It doesn’t matter if you checked all names and dates during copy-editing. Look them up again. Whatever you would normally do as a proofreader, you should do this time, regardless of whether you already did it as a copy-editor.

6 Don’t trust your style sheet too much

If you created a style sheet during copy-editing, treat it with a fresh eye too. Try to approach it as if it was written by somebody else. Is it internally consistent? Logical? Compliant with any house style guide provided by the client?

7 Don’t forget the design

Proofreading usually requires an eye for design consistency as well as textual accuracy. Be sure to engage the design part of your brain and don’t just plough ahead looking only at the text.

8 Be extra-vigilant about personal preference

We all have our knee-jerk edits (changes we make almost out of habit, because we take the need for them for granted). In most cases these are probably fine, but proofreading can be a great opportunity to identify and change instances where a copy-editor (in this case, you) has applied a zombie rule (or perhaps a rule that’s partly putrefied and is on its way to becoming zombified). Be sceptical regarding your assumptions about what changes are ‘essential’ or ‘standard’, and be sensitive to the possibility that you may have made inappropriate changes in copy-editing that have skewed the text.

9 Check your ego

During proofreading, you will find (and should expect to find) errors that you missed in copy-editing. This is natural – you’re only human (or I assume you are). When you find these errors, mark them just like you would in any other proofread. Don’t allow worries over exposing your own slips to cloud your judgement about what needs to be corrected. If you do, you’re not fulfilling your obligations to your client.

Don’t assume anything: Take your copy-editing hat off, lock it away in a cupboard, and then put your proofreading hat firmly on. Do whatever you need to do to fully disengage your brain and then re-engage it in a different gear.

Things you can turn to your advantage

If you find yourself proofreading text you’ve already copy-edited, you may as well take advantage of the following positive possibilities.

10 Knowledge of your client

Copy-editing often facilitates a closer level of engagement with a client than proofreading, so you may have an advantage here over somebody who only proofreads for the client. Copy-editing may have enabled you to build up a solid understanding of the way the client prefers to work and the kinds of things they care about in relation to their publication. This may enable you to better tailor your service to match their goals and requirements. (However, see tip 2 above for a caveat.)

11 Knowledge of the text

It can be an advantage to know the text already. You will know what issues have already been discussed and the details of how they were resolved, and this knowledge may help you to spot knock-on effects or related issues that weren’t noticed in copy-editing. (However, see tips 4–6 above for caveats.)

12 Potential for efficiency

You’ll already have a feel for the project and be familiar with the style sheet, so, despite the need to approach everything with a fresh eye, this will give you a step up in terms of time and efficiency. (Again, see tips 4–6 for caveats.)

13 Potential for learning

Most of the time, copy-editors don’t get to see the details (or indeed anything at all) of what happens to a text during proofreading. However, it can be invaluable to see what a fellow professional finds to correct. Although this possibility is naturally rather limited when you’re your own ‘fellow professional’, it can still be edifying to see what you missed and how you might be able to improve your copy-editing practice in the future.

Find the silver lining: The very thing that puts you at a disadvantage (familiarity with the project) can be squeezed for advantages if you go about it carefully. And don’t forget to learn from the opportunity to evaluate your own earlier work.


As the caveats included in tips 10–12 may suggest, proofreading text that you’ve already copy-edited is very much a balancing act. There can be major advantages, but the potential pitfalls – blindness to errors and overconfidence that aspects have already been dealt with – are serious.

In my opinion, in an ideal world, the copy-editor and proofreader should always be different people. However, reality doesn’t conform to ideals. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to be prepared, so you can mitigate the natural disadvantages and turn everything you can to your advantage, in order to provide the best possible service to your clients.

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At some point (hopefully very rarely), every proofreader and copy-editor will find themselves working on a project where it seems that somebody, somewhere, at some point, dropped the ball in a big way.

As a copy-editor, you might discover that the developmental editor seems to have let through major inconsistencies and that swathes of detail are missing. Or, as a proofreader, you might find that the copy-editor appears to have fed the style guide to a passing llama or didn’t seem to heed that the order of words in a sentence is actually somewhat important.

It can be really difficult to determine the most ethical and professional way to approach a situation of this kind. On the one hand, you might feel that the issues are so bad – so systemic – that they raise serious questions about the quality of the previous work. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that you have the whole picture: there are all sorts of potential reasons a manuscript could have reached you in a poor state, and you have no way of knowing who is responsible – if, indeed, any single person is responsible.

It’s a dilemma, and deciding how to approach the situation can feel like a big weight of responsibility.

What to do?

So, what do you do? Do you quietly fix the issues and say nothing to your client? Do you send a few pointers of feedback but keep silent about the real scale of the problem? Or do you shout from the rooftops about how dreadful everything is and how unreasonable it is for you to be expected to fix it?

The answer will probably be none of the above (and it’s never the last one).

Instead, in my experience at least, I’ve found it’s best to give full feedback in an honest and objective manner – but, crucially, to leave all questions of who (who is responsible?) and why (why did this happen?) to the person who knows the circumstances best: the client.

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the possible ways to achieve this.

Frustration at the issues you’re facing is natural, but it’s vital to be as objective as possible in how you handle the situation.

Reality check

The first thing I do before I start to draft any sort of feedback is to make sure my instincts are on solid ground.

  • Self-filter. Are the issues you’ve identified really errors as opposed to preferences or choices? Are they truly as widespread or as devastating as you feel they are? Can you find support for your opinions in appropriate style guides? Can you consult trusted colleagues (being careful to remove all potentially identifying details) to see whether they agree with you?
  • Check you have the correct version of the files. Occasionally it happens that the wrong version of a manuscript is used by accident.

Self-filter: Avoid casting aspersions that turn out to be ill-founded. This risks damaging others’ reputation and even your own.

Send feedback: why?

Once I’ve satisfied the above two criteria and any others relevant to the project, I find it helps to remind myself why I’m sending feedback. I almost certainly wouldn’t mention all of these ‘whys’ explicitly in my communications, but I find that keeping them in mind can help me to maintain a constructive mindset.

Firstly, there are two practical reasons to send feedback:

  • You need to justify extra costs and time to your client. If the scope of the project has increased, it’s likely you’ll need extra time and/or money in order to do the extra work. You will need to provide a clear explanation of why as a starting point for the negotiation.
  • Your client may want input on how the issues are fixed (or even whether they are fixed). As mentioned above, one option is to fix the issues yourself without telling your client. But, if you do that, you only have your perspective to go on. Your client will understand the whole project and its parameters better than you do. And, even if your client replies that they want you to go ahead and fix things for them as you see fit, it’s wise to have their authorisation to do so, to avoid challenges to your work later on.

Secondly, there are at least three (you might think of more) general reasons that might also be relevant to your project:

  • Keeping quiet does a disservice to the client. For whatever reason, your client may be completely unaware of the issues you’ve found. This may be a symptom of ongoing quality implications that could impact your client’s brand and reputation.
  • Keeping quiet does a disservice to the author. The author may have spent years working on their book and publication may be a huge event for them. And, even if that’s not the case, most authors want their book to be in the best shape possible. By coming forward with your feedback promptly, you give the project the best possible chance of any remedial action being taken (if your client decides it is necessary) within the limits of the schedule and budget.
  • Keeping quiet does a disservice to the previous editor (if, that is, your client finds that any specific editor was responsible). It’s possible that this editor will lose out big time in the short term as a result of your feedback. But ask yourself: wouldn’t you want to know – for the sake of the longevity of your business – if there were major issues with your service to your clients? If we don’t know about the gaps in our practice, we can’t fix them.

Be constructive: Why are you sending feedback? If it’s primarily to have a bit of a moan, you might not be in the best mindset to send the most productive, professional feedback.

Send feedback: how?

Once you’re clear in your head about why you’re sending feedback, the next step is to write it. Following are some tips you may find useful.

  • Be prompt, not hasty. Avoid firing off a sketchy email before you have a full understanding of the project. Emailing in haste may mean you either fail to give a full picture of the issues or (much worse) inadvertently paint too severe a picture of what you’ve found.
  • Remember that you don’t have the full context. There may be circumstances that mean the issues are not as problematic as you think. It may also be that no specific person is (wholly) to blame for the issues you’re seeing. Perhaps a lot of work was done on the manuscript after it left the previous editor’s hands. Perhaps there is a sensitive personnel issue that needs to be taken into account. Only your client knows these details.
  • Be precise, not expansive. If there are widespread issues, say so, but where possible give precise, factual examples rather than offering expansive commentaries or interpretation. This means using language such as ‘On pages 4, 17 and 68 I found…’ rather than ‘The copy-editor has not…’ or ‘This is the worst example of xyz I have ever seen.’
  • Empower, don’t attack. Empower your client with the information they need, but keep all accusatory and emotive language out of your communications.
  • Don’t apologise either. Similarly, it’s not your job to apologise for the issues you’ve found. Avoid peppering your email with phrases such as ‘I can see why, but…’ and ‘I’m not certain, but…’ unless you really can see why or are not certain.
  • Offer solutions, not problems. Wherever possible, take a structured approach in presenting your feedback and offer solutions rather than just dumping an unholy mess in your client’s inbox. Try to ensure that your client remembers you as part of the solution rather than a piece of the problem.

Don’t judge: You are the expert witness, not the judge. Focus on the issues, not the person you imagine to be responsible.


Sending this kind of difficult feedback to your client when it seems possible that an unknown-to-you previous editor will get the blame can feel really unpleasant. However, it is important to do so, for the sake of the project and to discharge your professional responsibilities to your client.

How you give the feedback makes a big difference ethically and can also be vital to your own reputation. Depending on the details of your project, the three principles explained here – self-filter, be constructive and don’t judge – are likely to be a sound starting point.


Note: This post brings together some suggestions from approaches I’ve found useful from my (thankfully rare) experience both writing this kind of email (as a copy-editor or proofreader) and receiving it (as a project manager). However, few topics of business communication are as sensitive as this, so always be governed by the specifics of your project and your relationship with your client.

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Freelancing, Paperwork, Project management, Proofreading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I recently received a thought-provoking comment from a fellow freelance editorial professional who has been working alongside me on a project I’ve been managing. The projects I manage are typically very large (hundreds of thousands or even millions of words), and there are inevitably hiccups that arise and have to be resolved. So I found it interesting when the other editor commented that I am more understanding than some other project managers about these kinds of hiccups.

My first reaction, I’ll admit, was an irrational sense of worry: Am I a soft touch? Am I checking editors’ work thoroughly enough? Am I setting high enough standards?

It’s always good to self-evaluate when such questions arise, and there will always be things I can learn about my management of other editors’ work. However, a short bout of reflection and a thorough check of the text re-confirmed that I set high standards and ensure they are met. I was confident that there were no issues lurking.

But this got me wondering: in what ways might editorial project managers expect too much of the suppliers they work with – or even of themselves? Those suppliers might be copy-editors, proofreaders, indexers, typesetters, or anybody else involved in the production of a text-based product.

Here are some ideas.

Expecting to sit back and watch the magic happen

As a project manager, I have to be an active part of the process. Before I send files out to a supplier (usually a freelancer), it’s my responsibility to check them over, familiarise myself with any issues, solve the ones I can, and make a structured plan for how the rest will be handled. I also need to provide a thorough brief. Then, while the supplier is doing their work, I have to be on hand to answer questions, liaise with the authorial team where necessary, and confer across the project team. My role is to provide direction, certainly, but it is also to facilitate and complement the work of the supplier.

The best results are realised when the roles and stages of a project are carefully joined up and everyone is doing their appropriate bit.

Expecting miracles

When work is returned, it has to be assessed in the context of the project as a whole. If the project has been tricky in some way (e.g. a very tight deadline, manuscripts in a particularly poor state, or authors who were unable or unwilling to thoroughly answer queries) then it’s unrealistic to expect perfection. (In fact, while many editors aim for perfection, it’s unrealistic to expect it in any circumstances; Adrienne Montgomerie reports standard error rates in publishing of between 5 and 20%.)

The fact that I often partially copy-edit the projects I manage gives me some helpful perspective here, as I’m generally checking my own work alongside that of other editors. Inevitably, I will find sporadic imperfections in my work – I’d be inhuman if I managed to edit, say, 500,000 words with zero errors. So I have a good understanding (and in fact expectation) that I will occasionally find errors in others’ work too.

I’m also aware that, if my expectations don’t reference reality and if I don’t make plans to deal with shortfalls, then it’s likely I’ll be setting the project up for gaps and failures further down the line. This increases the risk that the final product will be of a sub-optimal quality.

Pie-in-the-sky expectations introduce risk into a project. Project managers should be reducing risk, not introducing it.

Expecting to know everything

It’s tempting as a project manager to feel the need to be seen as the oracle of all things. However, personally, I prefer to try to be the facilitator of all things. First and foremost, it’s my job to facilitate my client’s goals for their project, and that also involves facilitating the ability of suppliers to contribute to that project. This frequently involves asking questions and putting suppliers in the driving seat. It means trusting experts to know what is appropriate in a given situation and how quickly it can be done.

This is also relevant when it’s discovered that a supplier may have made a serious mistake or omission. I might not have all of the facts, so asking questions before jumping up and down on errors is vital.

Effectively managing a project involves asking as many questions as you answer.


For me, the big theme here is risk: risk that the project will not be delivered on time, risk that its quality will not be up to scratch, risk that a key detail will be missed, risk that a key stakeholder will be unhappy with a process or outcome, and so on and so on. Asking questions, setting realistic expectations, and taking an active part by anticipating and managing a project’s issues are key ways to mitigate the risks that will inevitably arise in text-based projects of all sizes.

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If you’re like me, you keep meticulous records of all of your projects, including hours worked, hourly rates, speed of work and so on. It’s easy to quickly rack up a lot of data, but data is no good if it’s not put to practical use. I do various ongoing and yearly analyses of my data, and one of those analyses involves creating a bubble chart to give me a snapshot of my clients’ value to me, both monetarily (the volume of work and how much I get paid for it) and in terms of how much I like working with each client. This gives me a visually intuitive way of seeing the cold, hard facts of the value of my clients to my business.

Here’s what I put into my chart:

  1. client name
  2. overall income for each client
  3. average hourly rate for each client
  4. a subjective rating of how much I enjoy working with the client.

The last of these categories is totally personal to me, and it should be. It takes into account factors such as how interesting I find the subject matter, how well the client’s deadlines and requirements fit in with my way of working, and generally how satisfying I find the working relationship to be. Everybody’s idea of the perfect client working relationship will be different.


A picture is most certainly worth a thousand words, so here’s an example using hypothetical data for a hypothetical business: Fabulous Editing Co. (click the image to enlarge it).

Bubble chart snapshot example

Here’s how the chart works:

  • The areas of the bubbles represent the relative incomes Fabulous Editing Co. receives from each client.
  • The bubbles’ centre points on the Y axis show the average hourly rate Fabulous Editing Co. gets from each client.
  • The bubbles’ centre points on the X axis show the subjective rating of how much Fabulous Editing Co. enjoys working with each client.

It’s possible to derive several conclusions from this bubble chart. However, it’s important to note that the conclusions drawn from any bubble chart will to a large extent depend on the unique circumstances of the business to which it belongs. Factors such as how well established the business is, specific goals (e.g. if the business is trying to break into a particular market) and required effective hourly rate will affect the conclusions drawn from the data.

With that in mind, here are some conclusions that could be drawn from the example above:

  • Client F is arguably Fabulous Editing Co.’s best client. The hourly rate is solid in comparison with the other rates Fabulous Editing Co. receives, and the total income is clearly high. Fabulous Editing Co. also gave Client F a rating of 3 for enjoyment, which means this client is providing a high volume of work that is pretty enjoyable.
  • Client D is clearly Fabulous Editing Co.’s least valuable client. The work is not enjoyable, and both the hourly rate and the volume of work are very low. Fabulous Editing Co. may decide to stop working with Client D on the basis of this analysis, unless there are other factors to take into account that are not reflected in the bubble chart.
  • Client A has positives and negatives. The hourly rate is lower than Fabulous Editing Co.’s average and the enjoyment rating is not great. However, Fabulous Editing Co. may feel these factors are balanced out by the volume of the work.
  • Clients C and I are not high performers economically, but they get high enjoyment ratings. Whether Fabulous Editing Co. continues to work with these clients will depend on the company’s priorities.
  • Client E is a tricky one. The hourly rate is very high and the total income is not negligible, but the enjoyment rating is very low. Again, whether Fabulous Editing Co. continues to work with Client E will depend on Fabulous Editing Co.’s priorities.
  • Clients B, G and H pay well per hour and are enjoyable to work with. Fabulous Editing Co. may want to see whether it can increase the volume of work it does for these clients.

Creating bubble charts for successive years and viewing them next to each other can help to give an idea of how your business is changing over time. Hopefully, over the years, the bubbles will all gradually migrate towards the top right of your chart, indicating that both your hourly rate and your client ratings are improving.

Try it for yourself

This post isn’t intended to be a technical how-to on bubble charts, as there are already many such articles online. I create my bubble charts in Excel (e.g. see here for a straightforward introduction) and it’s also possible to create them in Google Sheets (though I haven’t tried that myself).

Give it a go and see what happens! You may find this kind of analysis brings a helpful new level of clarity to how you conceptualise your clients’ value to your business, enabling you to set smarter goals for the future.

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I recently read a helpful post (with handy infographic) on how to close a project over at the A Girl’s Guide to Project Management blog, run by Elizabeth Harrin. Although I get a lot out of reading project management blogs, the tips don’t always straightforwardly translate into the kind of work I do, which usually involves delivering an encyclopedia or book project for publication rather than conducting the sort of change-management process more typically associated with project management outside publishing.

However, the more I looked at Harrin’s seven steps, the more I thought of ways they fit in with closing editorial projects. Let’s take each of the steps in turn.

1 and 2 Handover to users (training and support)

Although I don’t have to train anybody in what to do next with my project deliverables (my publisher clients are, unsurprisingly, very familiar with how to print and digitally publish a book!), I do have to give some context for the files I’m handing over. Final versions of all of the project’s basic documentation (such as style sheets, art logs and lists of authors’ contact details) need to be provided. And there might be things the client needs to know concerning oddities in the files that shouldn’t be overridden at later stages. General project context may also be helpful in terms of the publisher managing their relationship with the author(s) going forward. Finally, I’ll generally have been working closely with an editorial board and/or a team of authors, and they need to know what happens next and who to contact going forward.

3 Finalise procurements (close out budgets and contracts)

All costs need to be tallied and checked, with the client updated as necessary. I also make sure all invoices have been properly raised and dealt with so that I can be sure all of the freelancers I’ve contracted can close their part of the project satisfactorily.

4 Evaluate project

My clients generally don’t require a formal project evaluation, but nevertheless I consider some sort of retrospective to be a vital part of finishing a project, both for the sake of my ongoing relationships with my clients and for the sake of my business.

  • Relationships with clients: I always aim to work with my clients as a true partner, so I’m always open to sharing views on what worked well and where improvements might be made in the future. Similarly, I always welcome and act upon feedback from my clients; as I’ve written elsewhere, I work on the basis that there’s a direct relationship between how I respond to feedback and the financial health of my business.
  • Improvements to my business: one of the benefits of running a small business is that you have the ability to continually make and remake your procedures without having to get approval from anybody else (as long as you’re meeting your clients’ requirements, of course). The end of a project is a great time to identify whether I can see ways to refine or overhaul my documentation, communications, quality control procedures or efficiency.

5 Write closure document (gain formal approval for project close)

Formal approval to close a project is quite straightforward: handover of the files for publication is deemed to be the end of my role in the project. However, before I hand the files back, I always look over project communications and to-do lists to ensure that none of my client’s requirements have slipped my mind. As far as I’m concerned, if my client has to ask where to find certain information or check whether I’ve completed a task, I haven’t done my job properly. I want to make it as easy as possible for my client to check what I’ve done and send it on to the next stage of the process.

6 Celebrate (thank the team and celebrate achievements)

On the same basis that I value feedback myself (see point 4 above), I always try to find time to give feedback to freelancers I’ve worked with. In addition, as a project manager, I’ll often ask for feedback from them too, on the basis that the better I understand what they need from me, the better they will be able to deliver what I need from them. As to celebrating, the rush of handing back a large project is always a great feeling. I’ll certainly be celebrating next month when I complete my biggest project to date: a 12-volume encyclopedia that’s lasted over two years.

7 Archive project (file all project information and create archive)

For me, archiving serves two purposes: (1) ensuring I will have everything to hand should queries on the project arise in the future and (2) helping me to conduct regular analyses of the financial and general health of my business. However much I think I should be able to remember the minutiae of a given project 12 months from now, I know that I won’t. Subsequent projects will have made the details of this one fade, so I need to make sure I have the key project facts easily accessible.


Adding that last missing comma is not the end of a project. The way you close an editorial project has a huge bearing on how clients remember you (and thus your prospects of future work) and how you manage your business’s development. These seven steps are a great little checklist to keep on hand to make sure all of the details of a project – in terms of deliverables, stakeholders and evaluation – are wrapped up thoroughly and to everybody’s satisfaction.

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The basics of proofreading are easy, right? You read through the text and mark errors to be corrected. Simple. But of course, as any competent proofreader at any level of experience knows, that’s not the whole story. A proofreader has to carry out numerous tasks to do with technical aspects, style and sense – not just spot where a crucial name is misspelled. As a result, a great deal of finesse is needed to pull off a truly professional proofreading job.

During nearly 12 years in publishing, both in-house and freelance, I’ve seen and done a lot of proofreading. As well as proofreading for other project managers, I manage upwards of 5 million words per year as a project manager of academic encyclopedias and books. Most of those words have to be proofread, so I spend a lot of my time briefing proofreaders, answering their questions, and checking and collating their corrections.

That’s a lot of little squiggly marginal markings – and a lot of potential for confusion, omissions, and other difficulties to arise.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common pitfalls I’ve encountered (both in the work of other proofreaders and from things I’ve learned in my own proofreading) and how to avoid them. I’ll focus here on the macro (the broader, overarching issues) rather than the micro (details of style and how to deal with specific types of error) because the micro will tend to vary from project to project whereas the macro concerns ideas that can be borne in mind in any proofreading job.

(Note: in this post, I particularly have in mind the traditional publishing workflow, where the text has already been copy-edited and has subsequently been laid out on the page for a final check by the proofreader. However, these points will certainly apply to varying degrees in other workflows too. In all cases, your client’s brief should be your guiding light.)

1 Omitting the basics

Once a book reaches proofreading stage, the priorities shift a little. It’s extremely important that, if the table of contents states that Chapter 4 begins on page 78, Chapter 4 does actually begin on page 78. In contrast, it’s slightly less important to identify that ‘Ottoman empire’ is capitalised thus 49 times across the book but twice as ‘Ottoman Empire’.

It is vitally important for the reader’s impression of a published work that the ‘nuts and bolts’ are correct, and as the proofreader you may be the primary (and sometimes only) person to be checking that this is the case. This means methodically checking that all of the basics (page numbers, exact wording of titles, exact spellings of author names, presentation of running headers, and treatment of any other repeated content and design elements) are correct and consistent wherever they appear.

2 Focusing too much on certain types of error…

We all have our little bugbears: things that jump screaming out of the screen at us, begging to be corrected. One of mine is the missing parenthetical comma after the first ‘that’ in constructions such as ‘It’s a common fact that if a comma is missing after “that” in this sentence, many people won’t think it’s wrong.’ But, if you find yourself zealously correcting the same issue over and over again, consider querying it with your client. Maybe it’s been done intentionally, or maybe it will just be too much trouble to fix it at this stage and your client would rather it were left alone.

3 … to the exclusion of other errors

Sometimes I’ll find a proofreader has eliminated all instances of a particular error with ninja-like precision but missed other glaring errors in their vicinity. Worse, sometimes the missed errors are far more serious than the ones that were fixed. Beware of becoming blinkered by your own personal vexations or being distracted by recurring issues. If possible, do multiple passes through the proofs so that a distracting persistent niggle is removed in one fell swoop, freeing up your brain to focus on the more sporadic oddities.

4 Prioritising design over content or vice versa

Unless briefed to do otherwise, you should be checking both design/layout and content/language equally. If you have an eye for design, make sure you’re not getting distracted from reading each word carefully. Conversely, if you tend to get bogged down in seas of text, remind yourself to sit back and look at the design too. In both cases, multiple passes can be very effective, enabling you to only think about one aspect at once.

5 Introducing an error

Typos and other slips happen to all of us on occasion (we’re only human), but it never feels any less melt-into-a-puddle-of-mortification awful when we realise our mistake. There’s no fail-safe solution, but allowing enough time for a job so you’re not rushing, having a clear and methodical workflow, and quickly re-reading text you’ve marked for correction (if the budget allows) should help you to catch your own lapses.

6 Blind panic in the face of tables

Rather often, I find that proofreaders’ skills seem to desert them in the face of tables. Either they miss blatant layout issues or they just don’t seem to have checked the table properly, leaving errors in statistics, style, or consistency uncorrected. Tables need to be proofread just like all other aspects of the text. Sometimes they take a little unpicking to fully understand, but that’s part of your job as the proofreader.

7 Missing something on the brief

I wrote a bit about this back in 2015 in my post The seven deadly sins of freelance editors. Everyone misses something on a brief occasionally (some of my combined briefs and style sheets for encyclopedias stretch to over 20,000 words, which is a lot to take in!). But it’s a key part of proofreading to develop your own system for thoroughly absorbing and implementing a brief and style sheet, no matter the size and no matter how unfamiliar the content is to you.

8 Not leaving ‘good enough’ alone

One of the first things I learned when I began my training with the Publishing Training Centre way back as a fledgling proofreader was to ‘leave good enough alone’. This is a phrase that’s bandied around in the proofreading and editing community a lot. It applies at copy-editing stage too, but particularly at proofreading stage, where making corrections is more costly and time consuming and carries an increased chance of errors being introduced. What is ‘good enough’ will vary between publications and publishers. However, broadly it refers to only making changes if there is a strong justification (grounded in professional proofreading standards, which are different from copy-editing standards) to do so. This is a skill that can only really be learned through experience – both general proofreading experience and experience with specific clients’ practices and preferences – but it is crucial for a professional proofreader to get a feel for what it means and how to put it into practice.

9 Marking corrections in a way that makes life difficult for the client

Check in advance how your client wants you to mark corrections (PDF stamps? Adobe Reader’s tools? A hybrid system? Or even on paper?). As I found out talking to two major typesetters, designers and typesetters can have strong preferences on which system is used, and each project manager will have their preferences based on their proof-collation method too.

Once you know the system your client wants you to use, be clear and consistent, especially if you’re using a PDF reader’s tools (which have no generally agreed standard) rather than PDF stamps (which tend to mimic long-established proofreading systems, such as the BSI Marks for Copy Preparation and Proof Correction). Consider supplying a glossary or explanation of your mark-up practices.


Professional proofreading combines sound knowledge with a great deal of flexibility – what’s right for one set of proofs will not be right for all. Getting it ‘right’ can seem overwhelming, particularly early on in your career as a proofreader. However, with a methodical approach, the true complexities of a project will naturally rise to the surface, allowing you to deal with them appropriately.

What other pitfalls have you experienced in your career? How have you learned to handle them? Let me know in the comments.

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