How to help (and hinder) your typesetter

Last updated 15 November 2022


Copy-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.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel works with non-fiction clients around the world to help them deliver some of their most prestigious publications in areas such as charity and peace work, digital and technology, and business and leadership. An editor since 2007, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.


  1. Alta Bridges on 16 June 2016 at 08:36

    Excellent post, Hazel!

    On proofreading, I have one publisher who prefers traditional markup but then scan the pages in to send to the typesetter. For this publisher, I use the stamps and send them the marked pages — saving them the scanning. But most other of the publishers for whom I work now prefer the Acrobat tools and, yes, it is so much easier for the typesetter (or revises proofchecker) to just click from box to box in the comments list and find the correction immediately — providing the proofreader has used it correctly (and not used stamps and other lines/marks to confuse the matter, i.e., adding loads of comment boxes for each mark!). Although, Wiley has an excellent set of notes to follow.

    • Hazel Bird on 16 June 2016 at 08:57

      Thank you, Alta! Interesting to hear about the variety of approaches you use — it’s certainly important to find out what system will most help our clients. And I completely agree with you on the difficulties of working with multi-stamp/comment corrections.

  2. Margaret Hunter on 18 June 2016 at 09:22

    Great article, thanks. I usually use Acrobat’s built-in tools too. However, if you do use stamps, a good practice is to group the marks for each correction so that they appear as one comment in the list. Ctrl+select the marks, right-click, Group (Windows).

    • Hazel Bird on 18 June 2016 at 09:51

      Great tip; thanks, Margaret!

  3. Stephen TIano on 8 August 2016 at 19:29

    Not bad, tho’ I must admit, as a book designer/layout artist/typesetter, I never want to see files with any styles applied in Word. Please. Too much opportunity for coding to foul the files on import. Best to leave it to me to put together and apply my own stylesheets within InDy or Quark. And please no special typefaces–just a simple machine-resident Times Roman or Helvetica will do fine.

    • Margaret Hunter on 9 August 2016 at 13:25

      We each have our preferred methods but I disagree with Stephen. As long as Word styles are used properly, I’ve had no problem importing them into InDesign. Moreover, it’s the copy-editor’s job to decide heading levels, special formatting such as boxes or quotes etc, not the typesetter’s. If you’re not using styles you’ll need another tagging/markup system for the typesetter to implement. But yes to clean, properly set up files.

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