Last updated 18 May 2023
In the editorial world, it’s generally thought that the person who copyedited 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 copyeditor tends to lose the ‘edge’ that comes with seeing a text anew.
As a project manager who oversees projects with multiple stages of editing and proofreading, I can confirm that having separate people is usually the best strategy.
However, there are various valid reasons that an editor might find themselves proofreading text they’ve already copyedited. 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 copyediting and proofreading.
So, if you find yourself in this situation, what should you keep in mind? Following are some suggestions on how to avoid the disadvantages and where you can find advantages.
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 copyedited 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 copyediting, 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 copyedited (e.g. 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 copyediting the text – but not too much
Whereas it’s sensible to keep in mind your thought processes from copyediting 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 copyediting (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 copyediting. 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 copyeditor.
6 Don’t trust your style sheet too much
If you created a style sheet during copyediting, 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 copyeditor (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 copyediting that have skewed the text.
9 Check your ego
During proofreading, you will find (and should expect to find) errors that you missed in copyediting. 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 copyediting 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 copyedited, you can also take advantage of the following positive possibilities.
10 Knowledge of your client
Copyediting 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. Copyediting 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 copyediting. (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, copyeditors 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 copyediting practice in the future.
Don’t be too disheartened by the occasional slip. Trust me: I have shepherded many millions of words through the editorial process and never once has a copyeditor got absolutely everything right. And that’s fine and expected. A robust editorial system should expect sub-100% accuracy because its overseers know that people are human and recognise that what they lack in machine-like perfection they more than make up for in human nuance and dexterity (I’ve written more about this in a post on AI in editing).
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 copyedited 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.
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.