The Wordstitch blog

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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Nope, that’s not a typo. A lot of digital ink is expended by freelance copy-editors and proofreaders on how many hours a day they spend working. Sometimes, this ends up being couched in rather restrictive language: at one extreme, there are people who are so beaten down with all the work they’ve been offered that they never get a weekend off, and, at the other, there are those who declare it’s impossible to edit more than a few hours a day without losing concentration and making mistakes. (Of course, there are many discussions too that buck this dichotomous trend – Sophie Playle’s recent post ‘How Many Hours a Day Does an Editor Work?’ is one example.)

So, to avoid any possibility it might look like I’m trying to say what I think editorial freelancers ‘should’ do, I’ve deliberately titled this post ‘a day in a life’ – just one life, with one set of personal and business goals, one personality, and one set of health circumstances, all of which are unique to this particular editor and project manager’s life.

That being said, I enjoy reading about how other freelancers pattern their work and I think we can all learn from these kinds of discussions, so I hope you find this example day illuminating in some way!

One day

Monday, 7:00 am        I begin the day by finishing off the edit of a 60,000-word book for an academic who wants a language polish before he sends the manuscript to his publisher. The book is highly complex and philosophical so, once I’ve reached the end and done a few global checks for slips and things I might have missed, I set it to one side to percolate in my head for a couple of days before I send my queries to the author.

09:30 am         Edit done, I cuddle a coffee while checking through the emails that have come in over the weekend. I owe the Society for Editors and Proofreaders short contributions to a couple of blog posts so I draft those out.

10:00 am         One of my current long-term projects is the management of a multi-million-word encyclopedia containing well over a thousand entries. I’m also copy-editing part of it and I have a number of authors’ replies to my copy-editing queries saved and ready to implement in my master files. The idea at this point is to be as thorough as possible resolving issues with the authors so that the next stage (proofreading) will go nice and smoothly. I make sure all of the authors’ changes adhere to the project’s style sheet – a document of 64 pages (and counting) that I’ve created and am maintaining with the other copy-editors. I have a couple of follow-up queries for the authors so I finish up by emailing those out.

11:00 am         That’s enough for now. I pop into town (the picturesque city of Wells, Somerset) to pick up some bits and pieces and then return for some lunch. I do intermittent fasting so this is the first time I’ve eaten today. Aside from the health benefits, I find it gives me a nice clear head when I’m working in the mornings.

12:30 pm         Back at my desk, I make my way through some emails and action some reminders in my database (a management system I designed in Microsoft Access to track my schedules and accounts). I also exchange a couple of emails with two fellow editors with whom I run the Mid-Somerset local group of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. We have an upcoming meeting on Thursday and need to let our members know what the theme for discussion will be.

1:00 pm           A bit of Twitter, then I’m on to an ongoing proofreading and collation job on a contributed volume (i.e., a book where each chapter is written by a different author). I had some queries for the client on how they’d like me to approach certain aspects of the proofreading and had put the work to one side. However, I now have answers, so I can move forward with the project, which includes liaising with authors about their corrections and incorporating them with my own.

1:30 pm           Catching up with another collation job, this time for a project I’m also managing. It’s a book of over 100 chapters (again, with different authors for each chapter) that’s already been through the copy-editing stage and is now being proofread and indexed. I’ve engaged a professional proofreader and indexer and they’re currently doing their respective things, and meanwhile I’m receiving corrections from the authors ready to add them to the proofreader’s amendments later on. I put a lot of hard work into editing the book, and I’m happy to see this has paid off in a clean set of proofs that requires very few corrections.

2:10 pm           A short break for more coffee and some porridge, then a quick phone call with my assistant to clarify some details about a filing task he’s doing for me (on these big projects, there’s a lot of admin to handle!).

2:45 pm           A new job! This is a big new title in the health and fitness world and I’m excited to be starting it. I checked it over and did some holistic clean-ups of the manuscript a little while back when it first arrived, so now I remind myself of what I’ve already done, re-read my brief from the client, and get stuck in.

4:00 pm           In some ways, beginning a job is the hardest part. However, in this brief period of time, I’ve added styles and typesetting codes to the skeleton elements of the book, started to put together a style sheet, and begun to get a sense of what issues I’m going to need to look out for as I work through the edit. That done, it’s a beautiful spring day here on the edge of the Mendip Hills and it’s time to take the dog out and get myself some free vitamin D. Then I’ll probably come back and do an hour more on the new job this evening after I’ve (temporarily) assuaged my current obsession with the exploits of Captain Jean-Luc Picard & Co.

Editor walking dog in Mendip Hills

Walking the dog in the Mendip Hills


Days vary, and I’m perhaps a little unusual as I’m a project manager as well as a copy-editor and proofreader. I usually have between eight and fifteen projects in progress at any one time (wildly varying in size – from a few hundred words to a few million). Some days I focus intensively on editing one project; on others I do very little editing and flit between projects, managing issues and planning upcoming stages. Like other freelancers, I also have paperwork and marketing to do. So I get quite a bit of variety, which might partly be why I’m comfortable (at least for now) working fairly long days.

There’s a saying among a community of fitness vloggers on YouTube that I rather like: ‘You do you, and I’ll do me.’ So, to return to the point at the start of this post, while it’s great to listen to others’ experiences and learn from them where there are benefits in it for you, most importantly find a way of working that suits your circumstances and life goals. Focus on doing your freelance life in a way that suits you.

Posted in Editing, Freelancing, Project management | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Whether it’s done accidentally, unthinkingly or with malice aforethought, plagiarism is a perennial problem in publishing. Sometimes it might result from an author’s genuine ignorance of the rules and conventions surrounding the reproduction of others’ work; sometimes it might be a shortcut (for example, if an author is commissioned to write in a language other than their own and struggles to formulate their own words); and sometimes it is simply the deliberate theft of another author’s words.

Whatever the case, it is deemed ethically unacceptable and may lead to major legal and reputational damage for the plagiariser and the publisher.

Definition of plagiarism

Plagiarism is the reproduction without credit or permission of material (text or images) previously published elsewhere in such a way that the material appears to be one’s own. It applies to material of any length, even a few words, and it encompasses ideas as well as actual words.

Crucially, this definition includes ‘self-plagiarism’, or the reproduction of one’s own material.

It’s commonly said that it’s unlikely any two authors will write the same seven words in exactly the same order. So, if a sequence of seven words written by your author appears in another publication, it’s a strong clue that you might have a case of plagiarism on your hands.

How to avoid plagiarism

The basic rule is that, if an author wants to use text that has previously been published (even in a more informal format such as a blog post), it must be put within quote marks and credit must be given to the original author. Credit usually takes the form of a citation and reference (in a book or article) or perhaps a hyperlink to the original material (in online content).

Additionally, it is not acceptable to re-use text but change a few words here and there to make it different from the original.

If you want to cite or refer to your own material, it’s standard practice (particularly in academic writing) to quote yourself just as you would any other author. Alternatively, if you want to avoid doing that, rewrite the material afresh.

Another point to consider is that, even when text has been correctly placed in quote marks and credited to its original author, it may still be necessary to seek permission from the copyright holder. This is a separate issue. Gillian Davies’ book Copyright Law for Writers, Editors and Publishers (A & C Black, 2011) is a useful guide to the issues surrounding copyright (and has some helpful content on plagiarism too).

Is it the editor’s responsibility to find plagiarism?

In short, no.

Unless specifically contracted otherwise and provided with appropriate tools to do so, a copy-editor cannot generally be expected to identify plagiarism. It is often invisible and, short of laboriously running an entire book through a plagiarism checker (which could take many hours as they usually have word limits), it can be impossible to pick it out.

However, there are certain clues editors can look for to help them identify plagiarism. When they spot it, they should report it to their client immediately (or discuss it with the author, if the author is also the client).

How to spot plagiarism

All of the issues below can be and almost always are innocuous authorial errors that have nothing to do with plagiarism. However, particularly prominent or repeated issues, or several of these issues in combination, might mean it’s worth popping a sentence or two into Google and seeing what results come up.

From the prosaic to the sublime (or vice versa)

A sure clue is when an author’s writing style suddenly changes mid-way through an article. This might be a switch in tone (such as informal to formal), or it might be a jump from rather messy English to a more polished style. There are all sorts of possibilities, and they can be subtle. However, they can be spotted if the editor is paying attention. My post on authorial voice might give you some ideas on what to look out for.

Ambiguous nationality

Different languages and regions of the world have different spelling and punctuation conventions. If your author starts out by writing consistently in UK-style English and suddenly switches to US style (for example), it might be a sign part of the text has been copied from elsewhere.

Contrary referencing

If an author isn’t too hot on the subtleties of constructing reference lists, a paper will often quite naturally contain a variety of referencing styles. However, consistent inconsistencies – where, rather than a hodgepodge of styles, there are discrete groups of references each with their own perfectly implemented style – may be a sign to take a closer look.

Disjunctions in content

Paragraphs that appear to have been stuck together with little continuity of argument might contain content that’s been ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere.

Erratic styles

In addition to editing the actual text, editors are often asked to standardise the styles in a piece of work (a ‘style’ in MS Word is a set of characteristics, such as font, size and colour, that is applied to text). Sometimes, the process of applying styles reveals that what initially appeared to be all one underlying style of text actually contains multiple styles. This may be a sign that text has been copy-pasted from another digital source (bringing with it the original source’s style).

Plagiarism checkers and tools

If I suspect something dodgy is going on in a document, I always start by simply pasting a sentence or two into Google. I put quotes around the text so that Google looks for that exact string of words.

Alternatively, when I need to check a longer body of text all at once, a tool I’ve found useful is Quetext. Quetext is free to use and claims to compare text with ‘the entire internet and other databases’. It will check up to 10,000 characters at once and then displays instances of possible plagiarism. However, there is a whole host of other tools that can be used, all with slightly different focuses and designs. (And, in case you were wondering, I am not in any way affiliated with Quetext.)

If I suspect plagiarism, I tend to use one or both of these methods to perform quick-and-dirty checks. If I find anything, I then send the material back to my client for them to investigate further, or, if the author is my client, I tactfully broach the subject with them.

A word of caution

One final – and vital – point is that editors and proofreaders should always be extremely careful raising issues surrounding plagiarism. Especially in academia, it is taken very seriously, and it can affect authors’ whole careers. Even when you have a case of plagiarism so obvious the author may as well have tied a red bow around it, raise the issue with great care. The author may be genuinely ignorant that what they have done is not acceptable (I have identified several instances of plagiarism where this was the case).

I start by picking the most appropriate person to contact (not the author, unless the author is also the client) and asking them to verify my suspicions. Never fire off a round robin to the whole project team (and the author). Doing so may only lead to unnecessary embarrassment for the author (or you, if your suspicions turn out to be incorrect – for example, if the ‘plagiarism’ is an authorised reproduction but your contact forgot to let you know about it).


I’ve seen my fair share of problems arising from both unwitting and more malicious plagiarism: projects delayed, time wasted, authors upset, even entire chapters pulled. Ideally all authors would know about and avoid such issues right from the beginning of their writing process. However, failing this unlikely eventuality, eagle-eyed editors can save their clients and authors much hassle and heartache by learning the signs of plagiarism and reporting it whenever they find it.


What other methods have you found to help you spot plagiarism? Do you have any horror stories to share, or any ‘whoop!’ moments where you saved a client from disaster? Let us know in the comments!

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Monetising feedback and embracing fragilityNot long ago, I met up with three old university friends who are all employed by (or have been employed by) large public-sector organisations. Their work environments (the support and demands of a corporate structure; the necessity of wearing shoes with rigid soles) couldn’t be more different from mine (the freedom to improve or damage my business unchecked by rules set by others; an office six metres from my bed). Yet I always learn things from our work-related chats, whether in the form of direct tips to apply to my business or reflections that give me an altered viewpoint on how I exist as a small business owner. I’d like to share two of those reflections with you.

Next to money, feedback is the most valuable commodity we get from our clients

Whether through direct reporting, receipt of career mentoring, performance evaluations or 360-degree reviews, my employed friends receive a vast amount more feedback on their work than I do as a self-employed person. And that makes me a bit jealous because, for me as a small business owner, feedback on the service I provide is a vital determinant of how well I am able to respond to what my clients want. Receiving feedback – and reacting to it well – is therefore crucial to the success of my business.

Realising how precious a commodity feedback is can help us to react positively when we receive it – whether it’s good or bad. When you’ve done everything right and the client is falling over themselves to say so, taking a bit of time to bask in your own brilliance is perfectly justified (after all, when you’re self-employed, nobody is going to do it for you). But, once you’ve basked to an appropriate degree, reflect on why the project went well. Did you have a particularly good working relationship with the author or client and, if so, how can you work on fostering such relationships with your other contacts? Did you use a new process or piece of software and, if so, how can you use it to benefit your other clients? Did you come up with a brilliant solution to a problem and, if so, how can you use it in other projects or avoid the difficulty ever happening again?

Likewise, we all sometimes get the sinking feeling that comes from learning that a client is less than thrilled with our work. Whether they are actually complaining or just unenthusiastically satisfied, this is a cue to think about what you could do differently. How can you eliminate the possibility of repeating any mistakes or misunderstandings? Or, if everything went smoothly but your client gives the impression of being distinctly underwhelmed, what can you do to wow them in future and thus make them more likely to return to you?

Many, many publishers and clients won’t bother giving feedback and will simply move on to someone else if they’re unhappy with your work. If you’re lucky enough to have someone take the time to tell you why they’re unhappy with your service, embrace that feedback with open arms and squeeze every last bit of value out of it. It’s a cliché but, when your livelihood is at stake, such feedback truly is a gift.

For the self-employed, fragility can be inspiring

Don’t get me wrong: workers’ rights and employment laws are excellent and necessary things. However, when I chose to become self-employed, I left all of those protections behind me. As a consequence, I probably view my situation as a worker rather differently from how an employed person views theirs. Essentially, my position in relation to each of my clients is much more fragile.

A major difference is that a client can ‘sack’ me at a moment’s notice (as long as we’re not in the middle of a specific contracted project). Heck, I can be sacked without my clients even telling me I’ve been sacked. All they have to do is not give me more work. This might not even be because I’ve done something wrong – the client might have undergone internal restructuring that means my services are no longer required, or they might simply have found someone else who’s a stunningly good match for their needs. They have absolutely zero legal responsibility to tell me if this happens, or even to remember I exist.

On the face of it, this can be terrifying, and of course it’s why most self-employed people have more than one client (in case one of them suddenly sails off into the sunset). But I would so much rather live and work in this way, as it makes me utterly accountable for how I run my business. Because I can be sacked at a moment’s notice, I can never be complacent. It’s my responsibility to make sure my business works well but (on the upside) it’s my responsibility to make sure my business runs well (yes, I did mean to repeat myself there). Nobody is going to pick up the slack, and personally I find that invigorating and inspiring.

The feedback–fragility connection

I’ve used the word ‘commodity’ in this post deliberately, as I firmly believe that feedback is a monetisable quantity for a small business. Whether you’re taking steps to ensure you sustain activities your clients have praised or are working on eliminating practices that weren’t so helpful, how you respond to feedback will have a direct effect on your future earnings and your client retention – and, thus, allow you to embrace and enjoy the fragility of your business rather than fearing it.


Wishing you an invigorating and enriching 2017!

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Getting work, Professional development, Proofreading | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute to three other blogs this year. This is a roundup of those posts and also serves to introduce my rewritten and redesigned website, now at a new home at I’d love to know what you think of the new design – please comment and let me know!

Macros and wildcards: essentials or added extras?

Back in April, I wrote a post for the Indian Copyeditors Forum introducing macros and wildcards. I suggested some reasons to give them a go and some ways to start getting acquainted with them. Here’s an extract:

On certain editing forums, few topics are more likely to inspire passionate debate than the use of macros and wildcards. For many years they have gradually been seeping into our editing practices, and they are now essentials for some editors while for others they remain irrelevant complications – perhaps even distractions from the ‘true’ business of editing: engaging with a text.

You can read the whole post on the Indian Copyeditors Forum here.

Editorial project management: what, who, how?

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about editorial project management, take a look at my post on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) blog in June. Based on my experience managing projects totalling over 5 million words per year, I look at what editorial project managers do, who undertakes the various project management tasks and how to get started as a project manager.

Becoming a PM requires a lot of experience and knowledge, and excellent organisational skills. While publishers who hire PMs will almost certainly have their own comprehensive workflow documents for you to follow, it’s still important to have sufficiently broad experience and training to enable you to properly plan a project and manage issues as they arise; as the above list of tasks implies, project management is a lot more than following a checklist.

Read the whole post on the SfEP blog here.

Wise owls

Earlier in September, the SfEP posted the first hoots (or screeches?) from its ‘wise owls’ . This is a series that offers advice from a panel of SfEP Advanced and Advanced Professional members. The first topic was ‘one piece of getting started advice’ and you can read my snippet here alongside words of wisdom from three other owls: Liz Jones, Sue Littleford and John Espirian.

Our second post, in November, gave some topical musings on how to take time off at Christmas. You can find invaluable words of wisdom from eight wise owls here.

Most recently, we offered our thoughts on what editors with plenty of experience and qualifications can do to further develop their skills. Get inspired by clicking here.

Keep checking the SfEP blog for more posts in the new year!

New design

I hadn’t changed my website’s design since I launched it in 2012. A freshen-up seemed to be in order! So I now have a new logo, a new site design, new text across the whole website and a new home: Just for fun, here are before and after screenshots. I hope you like it!


Before updating my website


After updating my website

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I spent the weekend just gone in Birmingham at the 2016 Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) conference – my fourth. There were over 30 hours of excellent CPD and networking opportunities, and I’ve emerged re-invigorated and with plenty of new ideas for my business and personal development, if a little brain-weary:

This year I was also asked to be a speed mentor, and I spent a stimulating hour chatting to three other SfEP members about their professional goals and helping them with sticking points and hurdles. And it was fabulous to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and put faces to names and Twitter handles.


I always enjoy how the SfEP conference blends opportunities for reflection – on what it is to be an editor and on editorial practice – with more direct and specific chunks of learning.

Susan Greenberg – a rare academic who both is an editor and studies editing herself – opened the conference with an exploration of visibility, artistry, and power in editing. She also gave us such gems as the observation (quoted from freelance book editor Constance Hale) that editing consists of telling people they need to do ‘a shitload more work’ and trying to make them excited about it. So true.

There were many specific tips on offer at the session on legal editing. In this workshop, Lorraine Slipper gave a thorough introduction to the esoteric world of legal writing practices and citations. Despite the fact I have zero aspirations to be a legal editor, this session was well worth my time, as I often come across snippets of legal citations in my social sciences and history projects. I always prefer to be over-prepared to deal with things that are outside my core working practices, especially when I’m managing other editors who may need guidance on areas that are unfamiliar to them.

Rich Cutler’s session on graphic design and typesetting was also very useful. Having explained how graphic design is primarily a matter of communication, with ‘making it pretty’ following much later in the process, Rich moved on to typesetting, giving us some tips on how copy-editors and proofreaders can keep the role of the typesetter in mind. Ensuring your coding and styling are neat and tidy is a core thing to think about – and echoes much of my post earlier this year on how to help (and hinder) your typesetter. Rich also exhorted us to be realistic: if we (as copy-editors) can’t work out how to style an author’s crazy-complex table, why and how should the typesetter?

I particularly enjoyed John Pettigrew’s talk on the ‘tools of change’. His message was apocalyptic yet pragmatically hopeful, talking about there being an extinction event once a generation in which new practices and tech emerge and during which editors must change to survive. In an environment in which new consumption patterns (self-publishing, open access, and library closures) will affect how editing is funded, we need to focus on communicating our core skills while adapting them for new technological realities. This message was echoed in the panel on educational publishing chaired by Out of House, which encouraged freelancers to make sure their clients know about all of the skills they can offer.

At the after-dinner speech, expert in the differences between UK and US English Lynne Murphy introduced us to the concept of Americolexicophobia and to such exoticisms as the notion that in America one can have a sandwich on a bagel. And celebrity linguist and SfEP Honorary President David Crystal closed the conference with a tour of Internet English and its ramifications for what we consider a ‘text’.


The overall impression I am left with after the SfEP conference is one of optimism. Every freelance editor and proofreader I spoke with was in a positive position, whether flooded with work, productively blending editorial work with other paid and unpaid ventures, or enjoying their training. Fees and client expectations are perennial peeves (and indeed sometimes real problems), but I am excited about the ventures underway in the SfEP to enhance our profile and credibility as professional editors – and thereby our negotiating power.

As for me, I have a to-do list spanning the prosaic (streamlining my work environment) and the more ambitious (reviewing how best I invest my time for growth and development, and looking into non-editorial qualifications to complement my editorial work). More than anything, though, I’m happy to be part of this community of interesting, fun, and intelligent people – people who understand the excitement to be had from discovering cute-faced paperclips in one’s conference goody bag.

Thank you to the SfEP conference team for such an enjoyable and productive weekend.

Posted in Editing, Getting work, Paperwork, Professional development, Project management, Proofreading, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

TypesettingCopy-editors and proofreaders rarely get any direct contact with or feedback from typesetters. As such, we can never quite be sure whether our markup and working practices are helpful and sufficient or whether we’re causing confusion and wasted time. Developments in technology – for example, the use of styles in Word and the use of Acrobat’s built-in markup tools – have led to further options and possibilities, with the result that there is no single ‘right’ way of marking up text.

As a project manager, I am lucky to be in the middle of this process, so I have an insight into what works (i.e., what causes a project to progress smoothly) and what doesn’t (i.e., what causes errors, delays and even additional costs).

I’m delighted, too, to be able to welcome the voices of the major India-based typesetters Aptara and SPi to this post. These typesetters handle hundreds of titles per week for many of the world’s major publishers, so they work with mark-up from huge numbers of copy-editors and proofreaders. Anitha from SPi and Shalini from Aptara have been kind enough to share their thoughts on what copy-editors and proofreaders can do to be helpful (and troublesome).

Following, then, are some suggestions based on their thoughts and on my own experiences.

Note that these observations particularly relate to the traditional print publishing workflow in which a book is copy-edited, then typeset, then proofread and then corrected (from the proofreader’s markup) by the typesetter. However, the principles here may be relevant to any work in which text is sent to a typesetter or designer to be laid out on a page or converted into an electronic product. Keep in mind, too, that clients’ needs may change in the future, for example in the direction of more structured/semantic tagging.

Note also that you should always follow your client’s instructions. Most publishers work with many typesetters and have created preferences that work across all setters, so always follow any publisher-specific instructions you have been given.

1 Be consistent

Any codes used and markup supplied should be entirely consistent. Use Word styles logically and with no messy duplicates. Or, if you’re using hard codes (e.g., <a> for an A head), strenuously avoid typos, duplicates and other confusing things. Styles and codes act as the typesetter’s map of a book. From them the typesetter generates the XML and any other coding necessary to create the various electronic formats for which the text may be destined. The copy-editing codes are the foundation of this work.
Similarly, think about other ways in which you can be consistent. If you’re using highlights or colours in Word to mark certain elements, check the colours are exactly consistent (if necessary, look at the RBG values). Two colours that look near-identical to the human eye will be treated as entirely separate categories by software.

2 Follow the design (if supplied)

During copy-editing, if you have been given a design template (i.e., a PDF of some sample text showing how the book will be laid out) or design instructions, follow them as closely as possible. Think about how each segment of text will actually translate into a designed element in the book. And make sure you differentiate clearly between elements, using enough codes or styles for the typesetter to intuitively understand what’s what. Otherwise, the typesetter will have to waste time working out how to shoehorn a manuscript into a design template that it doesn’t fit.

3 Let the typesetter know of any special instructions

Sometimes there may be elements that don’t quite fit the design or where you need the typesetter to do something particular to ensure the content is laid out appropriately. Send the typesetter a list of these instances – don’t wait for it to be discovered on the proofs that special treatment was needed. For example, I recently had a book where displayed quotes in Welsh were immediately followed by displayed translations. The styles provided by the publisher had no facility to show that a small gap was needed between these paragraphs, so I added a <sp> code and explained to the typesetter that it signified a half-line space. There were a lot of these, and adding the extra space at proof stage would have caused text to be reflowed over page boundaries, causing extra work and possibilities for error.

When determining how to handle such exceptions, always involve your client if the content requires an entirely new design element or you’re not sure how an issue should be dealt with.

4 Let the typesetter know of any special sorts

Always highlight non-standard characters in the text, and consider providing a separate list too (in which each character is explained), as typesetters can still find such lists helpful despite modern technology’s ability to handle these characters.

5 If you have a choice, don’t necessarily default to using copy-editing codes

Both Aptara and SPi said they preferred Word styles to hard coding, as styles benefit the composition process as a whole. They can also benefit the copy-editor, as they result in a cleaner manuscript and are quicker to implement. But always follow the instructions you have been given. Hard codes have a visibility and permanence that can be beneficial. And be careful to follow any guidance supplied by your client for the use of mathematical and other special content.

6 Check nothing is missing

If a copy-editor doesn’t notice and account for any missing material, it can cause havoc throughout the rest of the production process. Space will need to be found for missing elements, and the text will have to be reflowed accordingly (and the index may need to be meticulously updated). Then somebody will need to run extra checks to ensure running headers and contents page numbers have been correctly updated, and that there have been no knock-on effects on the text surrounding the missing element. All of this is particularly burdensome on the typesetter.

7 When proofreading on screen, ask which mark-up method is preferred

This is a controversial one. Proofreaders now have the option of using either stamps that replicate traditional proofreading marks or Acrobat’s built-in annotation tools. They can even blend the two approaches. Both Aptara and SPi strongly expressed a preference for the exclusive use of the built-in Acrobat tools, and this is a preference I tend to echo. While both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, stamps can make the processes of collation and of making corrections cumbersome and confusing. In contrast, when the full range of Acrobat’s tools is used, most corrections can be made using a single Acrobat annotation (as opposed to two or three stamps per correction), and, for more complex changes, short explanations are often more human-friendly than stamps.

However, as with everything else, your client’s preference should be your rule of law. Different workflows will be appropriate to different contexts.

In summary

As with all editorial work, consistency is key. Be consistent, follow the design, and communicate clearly about any exceptions or deviations, and the typesetter will be able to perform their magic just fine.

As Anitha from SPi says, ‘Copy-editors are the very first in a typesetting workflow to make changes to the content. If this process happens perfectly, it is most likely that the remaining processes will happen without any major problems.’


Do you do typesetting work? If so, what are some examples of good and bad practice that you’ve come across? Or, if you’re a copy-editor or proofreader, what feedback have you had on what works well and not so well?


Grateful thanks to Anitha (SPi) and Shalini (Aptara) for sharing their valuable insights. Thank you also to Wiley Blackwell for helpful suggestions on the post.

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Paperwork, Project management, Proofreading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Combo BoxesI am a huge advocate of comprehensive and well-organised style sheets. When copy-editing and proofreading, they help me to clearly summarise the style decisions I’ve made and communicate them to my client. And, in my project management work, they are indispensable tools for corralling copy-editors on multi-editor projects and for keeping styles consistent throughout copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, collating and indexing. I’ve previously written about how editors should never fail to provide a proper style sheet (see point 4).

I’ve recently been experimenting with a new technique in my own style sheets: the use of the combo box (also known as a dropdown list). These allow inputting of a set of pre-defined options, one of which is later chosen by clicking on the list and selecting an item.


So how can combo boxes be used in style sheets? Well, I find that the process of compiling a style sheet can be quite time consuming. Yes, I can create a template with the main categories listed (e.g., headings capitalisation, number range elision, treatment of ellipses), but I still have to manually type out what style I have elected to follow for each category. It’s fiddly and dull.

Enter the combo box.

With combo boxes, your style sheet template can have all the possible options for each style category. For example, for headings, I might want any of the following:

  1. sentence case
  2. title case (cap. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs)
  3. APA title case (cap. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs + all other words of 4+ letters)

Each of these can be plugged in as an option in your ‘headings style’ combo box.

This method has many advantages, including:

  1. efficiency: two clicks and your chosen style is recorded
  2. accuracy: no possibility of typos or of hurried typing leading to lack of clarity
  3. comprehensiveness: setting up a template that covers all possibilities means you can’t forget to record a style decision – each style category will eyeball you until you input an option


(Note that these instructions are for Word 2016 on a PC, but the methodology for previous versions of Word and for Macs will be similar.)

1. Check that the Developer tab is visible in Word. If it’s not, go to File > Options > Customize Ribbon and tick the Developer option.


2. In your document, place the cursor where you want the combo box to appear. Then, on the Developer tab, find the Controls group and click the Combo Box Content Control tool.


3. You should get a rather ugly box appear in the document, looking something like this.


4. Ensure the combo box control is selected (it should be by default immediately after you add it) and click the Properties tool, back up on the Developer tab.


5. There are various options that advanced users might want to consider (e.g., applying a certain style to the entered text). However, the only essential portion of this box is the bottom section, which is where you can add, modify, delete, rename and reorder your combo box’s options. Here is what the Properties box looks like after I enter the above three options for the capitalisation of headings.


6. Repeat as necessary to create combo boxes for all the options you need for your line(s) of work.

7. Now here’s the clever bit. Sending your client a style sheet with all the options still available might be risky: somebody could accidentally change one of your selections. But macro guru Paul Beverley has sourced a simple macro that removes the combo boxes, leaving behind the selected text and thus creating a final snapshot of your style sheet that you can send to your client. Here is the macro in its entirety:

Sub ComboBoxAccept()
For Each cc In ActiveDocument.ContentControls
    cc.LockContentControl = False
End Sub

(If you need guidance on how to install this macro, read Paul’s excellent – and free – book, available here.)

8. And that’s it. From these basics, complex combinations of combo boxes can be compiled to create chains of clickable, customised categories. (See what I did there?) For example:



Go forth and create combo boxes! And please comment with any creative uses you dream up.

Posted in Editing, Paperwork, Popular posts, Professional development, Project management, Proofreading, Tools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Respect and the inner robot in editingI recently edited an academic book on Nazi Germany and, as is standard copy-editing practice, checked the spelling and diacritics of all proper nouns and non-English words: the Polish ‘el’ in Che?mno; the triple-consonant ‘sch’ in Mischlinge; the umlaut in Röhm. I’ve found that, with experience, copy-editing functions like this have become almost automatic. A ‘bzzzt’ noise in my brain flags that I’ve just read something I need to check, and I’m consulting the client’s house style guide, Alt-tabbing to my style sheet or copy-pasting into an appropriate dictionary or Google almost before I realise.

But in some books, like the one mentioned above, this mechanical approach jars with the content. My editor brain is tripping happily through the text prissily pouncing on errors while my human brain is fixated on the horror or the sadness (or in other cases the hilarity) of what the author is describing.

This calculating approach can seem cold, inadequate, insensitive. As editors we might even feel we’re being disrespectful by subjecting a poignant exposition to such objective grammatical and stylistic scrutiny. It might seem to be missing the point.

But, in fact, entirely the opposite is the case. It is as respectful to ensure a text with emotional import is accurate as it is disrespectful to assume that its inherent gravitas will somehow ward off or neutralise any faux pas. In the aforementioned book on Nazi Germany, I came across ‘Auschwitz’ spelled as ‘Aushwitz’ (not by the author – by a fellow professional); a methodical approach – regardless of content – is what enables such errors to be caught. And I would argue that errors such as this should really never be missed. It would almost be like failing to notice ‘8/11’. Certain words have an iconic, hallowed status. They make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, for both emotional and practical reasons (even setting aside the possible distraction of its emotional import, clearly ‘Auschwitz’ is easy to misspell). These ‘never-to-be-misspelled’ words will of course vary according to the culture in which the editor works.

Copy-editing and proofreading require detachment and objectivity. But, by incorporating this approach into our editing, we show the respect that allows the emotional, cultural and other import of the words to shine out clear, or sit on the page with quiet solemnity, or whatever is intended. This process shows respect for the content and respect for the reader, by helping the two to come together with no grammatical obstructions or distracting typos.

One of the wonderful things about editing is that, with experience, you can do the robot thing and the human thing at the same time. At first, when you’re learning, most of your brain power is taken up with remembering the rules and working through your mental checklists. As you gain in experience, you still do these things, but they become less all-consuming, allowing you to catch the errors while reacting to the text like a normal reader – and this is good for the author and reader too, as it can only result in the editor responding more sensitively to the text.

Good editing unites respect for the ‘rules’ with respect for content. I have sat editing a Key Stage 2 history textbook with tears dripping off my chin. I have had substantial psychological epiphanies from seemingly dry literature textbooks. And I have snorted with amusement at an author’s particularly dexterous rendering of the Suarez biting incidents. But none of these reactions should distract from delivering a solid, accurate edit. By keeping our inner robot and our inner human in balance, we can ensure that, on the one hand, emotive content is spelled correctly and that, on the other, grammatical and typographical considerations never stifle what would otherwise grab us emotionally.

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Authorial voice - the bogeyman?‘Don’t intrude on the author’s voice’ is one of the first things every new proofreader or copy-editor is told. This is both a very helpful and an utterly useless piece of advice. It is helpful because it is absolutely true, but it is useless because it rarely seems to be defined just what on earth authorial voice is.

Is it just one of those conveniently nebulous concepts that can be thrown down as a trump card to back up a quavering argument? Or can it be pinned down as a real ‘thing’, distinct from all the other aspects of written language that editors have to worry about?

Let’s ponder.

Things authorial voice probably isn’t

1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also below). The conventions according to which other human beings understand punctuation marks and sentence syntax must be adhered to if your author wishes to be understood (though less so in fiction than non-fiction). For example, omitting commas after very long introductory clauses is probably going to make readers struggle. And injudiciously muddling the order of adjectives and nouns is likely going to make them abandon the endeavour entirely. For an author to have a voice at all, their text must be intelligible.

2. Inexperience. What may be a deliberate usage choice by an experienced author may be an unconscious tic by an inexperienced one. Instead of wringing your hands over a recurring issue, ask questions. Many inexperienced authors (and often experienced ones) will be grateful to have such oddities made more reader friendly.

3. Ambiguity – unless intended. Sometimes ambiguity, contradiction or inconsistency can be a deliberate authorial choice in a novel or in a non-fiction argument. But usually they are undesired. When fixing them, try to do so in a way that is compatible with how the author has written elsewhere. Editors should be sensitive to picking up the tone and vocabulary of the manuscript so that any suggested fixes are harmonious. (Or, if it’s a particularly tricky passage that requires a major rewrite, if you can, ask the author how they want to rewrite it. No-one’s better at mimicking how the author writes than the author!)

4. Generally poor or offensive writing. Preserving an author’s voice requires that the author’s voice is worth preserving. Rambling, offensive or otherwise off-putting writing may need considerable work before it is even possible to conduct a level of edit in which preserving the author’s voice is a concern.

Things authorial voice might be

1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also above). However much you might like certain grammar rules, as a professional editor you have to accept that others might not be so precious about them. Few grammar ‘rules’ beyond the basics are defensible if an author prefers a consistent and intelligible alternative that is suitable for the intended readership and function of the text and that does not contravene any brief you have been given.

2. Personality (or tone). An author’s text will often reflect his or her individuality. Signs of that individuality may range from colloquialism, informality, jokes or emotion on the one hand to meticulous use of displayed lists, frequent parenthetical asides or a general sense of gravitas on the other. If none of these aspects are contrary to the intended function and readership of the text, they’re probably fine. And bear in mind that your author’s personality may be a key selling point for a text. You may do serious financial damage to a project if you remove an author’s personality from their work.

3. Impersonality. Sometimes it is inappropriate to allow authors’ voices to be evident, and in such cases the ‘voice’ of the text will be impersonal (not necessarily inhuman – just not specific to any particular human author). Certain non-fiction genres (such as textbooks and reports) are usually presented as if ex nihilo: the author is just a conduit for the facts and is rarely important in his or her own right.

4. Evolution of language. Depending on the genre, it may be appropriate for the author to push the boundaries of accepted ‘correct’ language.

5. Convention. Certain genres and fields of study have particular conventions. We might think of these as their distinctive ‘voice’. These can pertain to vocabulary, syntax, spelling and any number of other things. Some of these conventions can seem odd to outsiders, but they must be respected lest you risk making the author seem ignorant to his or her peers. Editors who sometimes work in areas in which they are not specialists (of which I am one) must be sensitive to signs of these esoteric formulations.

6. A bogeyman. The above ideas notwithstanding, it is difficult to define exactly what authorial voice is. Is it really a ‘thing’ for which we must stand up in defence? There will always be the occasional editor who tramples over a manuscript in a pair of concrete wellingtons, ripping up everything that doesn’t take his or her fancy. But is this not just general bad editing? I find it hard to conceive of a good editing job that somehow ruins the author’s voice. Such an edit would automatically be bad, because the editor would have been imposing his or her preferences rather than judiciously employing rules and experience to make the text fit for purpose.

Perhaps it follows, then, that a good edit will automatically preserve authorial voice. If so, this is good news for new editors, who may experience the paralysis that comes of being afraid of the bogeyman – of being afraid of stepping over some elusive line that only the cognoscenti know. Perhaps preserving authorial voice is just about having a good basic grasp of editing technique and of the text’s genre. Perhaps it’s about being aware that there are multiple approaches to most editing questions and that you may not yet know all of those approaches. Perhaps it’s just being a good editor.

The dangers of fearing the bogeyman

It might seem from some the above that I’m arguing for editors to leave texts largely untouched, on the basis that almost anything is excusable if done with sensitivity to the context and readership. But I’m actually arguing for the opposite: I’m arguing for new (and established) editors having confidence in their training and instincts and giving themselves the psychological freedom to use their good judgement to remove infelicities and suggest improvements where they are warranted.

Why? Because, far from finding that editors routinely meddle with authors’ work to a degree that causes upset, I more often find editors under-editing – leaving basic errors and unclear passages untouched because they are not confident enough to intervene.

Kowtowing to the bogeyman of authorial voice without attempting to clearly conceptualise what is acceptably unconventional and what is unacceptably confusing can lead to an editor leaving a manuscript in poor shape. (A fiery or opinionated author can be particularly intimidating in this regard. A process of negotiation in which the editor is firm on the grammatical essentials – giving clear explanations of why they are essential – but allows the author some less harmful whims is usually the best approach in such cases, but the client should almost always be consulted in the case of a conflict.)

Concluding thoughts

The concept of preserving authorial voice is useful as long as one recognises that it is just that: a concept and not a ‘thing’. It will automatically be preserved if an editor follows his or her (reputable) training and engages the author in dialogue about suggested changes. It is not a bogeyman that should be allowed to paralyse you out of properly engaging with the text you’re editing.

If in doubt…

Try following this train of thought:

1. Situation: the way this bit of text is written displeases me or makes me uncomfortable in some way.

2. Question to self: is it contrary to a truly basic rule of grammar or syntax; inconsistent; difficult to follow; misleading or ambiguous for the intended readership; unsuitable or inappropriate for the genre or intended purpose; or contrary to the brief I have been given?

  1. Possibility 1 – no, I just personally don’t really like it: leave it alone.
  2. Possibility 2 – I’m not sure: see what a few authorities (books or websites) have to say on the subject, or ask your client, the author or your editorial colleagues for their input or advice.
  3. Possibility 3 – yes: change it in the least intrusive way possible, querying the author if the change is substantial enough that he or she may have an opinion on how it should be fixed. Always either explain your rationale (if appropriate) or be ready and able to explain it if queried.


Do you agree? Is authorial voice a ‘thing’? Or is it at best a convenient shorthand for a nebulous concept and at worst a potentially paralysing invention? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Posted in Editing, Proofreading, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments