What makes a professional copy-editor or proofreader?

Last updated 15 November 2022

‘Professionalism’ is one of those rare things: a buzzword with longevity and real value for both the professional and the client who benefits from that professionalism.

But what exactly does it mean to be a professional copy-editor or proofreader? As a project manager, I have worked with the very best to the very worst on the scale of professionalism. I have been rendered eternally grateful by editors’ quietly assured meticulousness and I have been repelled by blatant lying and gung-ho slapdashery.

But how to ensure you’re on the right end of this scale? ‘Professionalism’ can feel like a nebulous, never-fully-attainable thing – or like something that only happens to other people. Following are ten simple, practical steps to help you cut through to the essence of what it means to be a professional copy-editor or proofreader.

Attitude is everything

1. Read, read, read!

It doesn’t much matter what. Just get on your blogroll, a high-quality forum or Twitter, or dig out an editorial magazine or newsletter such as the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP)’s Editing Matters. Most days you’ll stumble on a perspective, skill or technique you hadn’t considered before.

2. Be findable

In this post I explained why, where possible, I will only hire copy-editors and proofreaders I can read about online. These days, it’s no longer a question of whether you should have an online presence; there’s now no reason not to. If I can’t find a copy-editor or proofreader online (whether in a high-quality directory, on the freelancer’s own website or on a social-media platform), they immediately seem less professional.

3. Be ethical

Find out whether your organisation has a code of standards, read it and adhere to it. Be aware of the debates surrounding editing student essays. Don’t blab about your clients’ work, even if you haven’t been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Be careful about what you say on Facebook and Twitter. Conform to any other ethical standards relevant to your field.

4. Join up with other professionals

Joining a professional organisation (Louise Harnby has a comprehensive list) and progressing up the ranks will (a) show that you’ve attained a certain level of experience and (b) indicate that you value your image as a professional (which is almost as important). In addition, don’t ask me for the statistics or the causality (are copy-editors made professional by belonging to organisations or are more professionally minded copy-editors more likely to join organisations? – probably a bit of both), but my gut instinct from seven years of project management is that editors who have benefitted from the culture and learning opportunities offered by professional organisations are more likely to excel and to make my job easier.

5. You’ll never know it all

I don’t care how long you’ve been in the industry; your skills can always be updated and expanded, and you can always benefit from talking to other professionals, whether copy-editors, proofreaders, designers, typesetters, indexers, freelancers, in-house, whatever. Attend at least one workshop, course or conference per year, and consider meeting up with other freelancers at local groups. Reading blogs can form part of your CPD too. And, if your budget is restricted, think outside the box and consider co-mentoring (if you do, please write and tell me about your experiences!).

6. Be rewarded

Wherever possible, charge a rate that matches your level of experience. Many great bloggers have written many things on what rates copy-editors and proofreaders (ideally) should charge. But the main points as regards professionalism are to be aware of these debates and to continually assess your range of rates, taking into account your (growing) expertise, your field and the economic climate.

7. Borrow your client’s hat

Thinking from the client’s point of view might seem difficult but it’s actually quite straightforward. It has two main facets: first, structuring your communications (everything from emails to style sheets) in ways that enable the reader to quickly and intuitively access the information they need and, second, always keeping the broader production schedule (and your potential to maintain it or screw it up) in mind.

8. Ask, ask, ask…

No sensible project manager would prefer you to muddle through rather than request clarification on a genuinely ambiguous point. It is the client’s job to provide you with an adequate brief and to be on hand to answer queries about issues they didn’t spot in their review of the manuscript; it is not your job to be psychic (and attempting to be so can lead to big messes that benefit nobody). Professional copy-editors and proofreaders should make judgement calls, not assumptions.

9. … but be kind to your client

Phrase your questions, and all your communications, as succinctly and as clearly as you can. Use numbered lists and bullet points; provide examples from the manuscript; give your client X vs. Y options wherever possible. A professional copy-editor doesn’t just hurl a problem at a client in the form of several long paragraphs of waffle; she uses her expertise and her in-depth understanding of the manuscript to pinpoint the essence of the problem and offer intelligent alternatives as solutions.

10. You are not infallible

If you make a mistake, admit it. You don’t need to indulge in self-flagellation-by-email; if your client wasn’t put off by the mistake, they will be by any overly emotional remorse. Do, however, sincerely say that you’re sorry for the mistake and offer to help fix it. If you can’t see a way you can help, tell the client you’re on hand if they need you. If your mistake was serious, you might still lose the client. But you’ll have done your best to salvage your reputation. Finally, once things have blown over, take a good, hard look at your working procedures to make sure you never make the same mistake again. Add a new item to your job-sheet or checklist, or investigate what software and technological tricks are out there to help you achieve a higher level of accuracy.

That last point encapsulates a lot of what professionalism is about. On the one hand, it’s about overt things like how we communicate with our clients and the quality of the work we do. But, on the other, much of our professionalism goes on silently in the background: it’s a holistic, outward-looking attitude that can nevertheless be broken down into concrete actions, as I have attempted here.

Having a professional outlook benefits the copy-editor or proofreader because she is more likely to gain the high opinion of clients and therefore repeat work. And the benefits for the client of hiring an editor with a professional outlook are obvious: reliability, accuracy and a thorough understanding of the industry.

Do you agree with my list of what makes a professional copy-editor or proofreader? What would you add or take away?

Image credit: © Marekuliasz | Dreamstime.com – Attitude Is Everything Photo

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, 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. Katherine Pickett on 19 August 2014 at 12:55

    Great post! I’ve been on both sides, as a project editor and a freelance copyeditor, and I’ve always been grateful for the perspective it has given me about how to communicate. It can be hard to ask questions at times — I hate to bother editors needlessly — but it’s worse to “muddle through,” as you say, and introduce problems. I would sum this up with “Mind your reputation.” As a professional, it’s the most important thing you have. (I will be sharing this post.)

    • Hazel Harris on 19 August 2014 at 13:09

      Thanks for sharing, Katherine! Great to know that, as a fellow PM, you see things the same way. And yes, I agree: the perspective gained from having been on both sides is so valuable. One of my aims in this and my other posts is to show that in my experience (most!) PMs are approachable and willing to work WITH editors and proofreaders rather than wanting to simply delegate the project and forget all about it until deadline day.

  2. David Antrobus on 19 August 2014 at 22:15

    It’s perhaps more by serendipity than by design, but I honestly believe I’ve imported from my former career (youth counseling and youth advocacy) one essential tool: communication. The ability to truly listen, empathize, describe without judgment and, eventually, encapsulate the discussion. On the surface they appear to be such different careers, each calling for such different skill sets, but I’ve found that not to be the case. What I learned about communicating between individuals in high-pressure, stressful environments has translated perfectly in terms of alleviating an author’s anxiety or explaining an aspect of the editing process that might ordinarily be delicate or even threatening.

    Glad I stumbled on this excellent post. I realize I’m only addressing one small part of it, but it gelled with something I’ve been considering recently, and maybe I should take up the baton and write a blog post on this myself.

    • Hazel Harris on 20 August 2014 at 06:40

      This is fascinating, David. What might be called the psychological aspects of working with authors are so important and, I think, little understood. I suspect many of us (having no counselling training) do this part of the job well by instinct, without really understanding the mechanics of what we’re doing. I for one would love to read a post from your perspective (I’ve just added your blog to my Feedly).

      • David Antrobus on 20 August 2014 at 14:58

        It’s definitely worth pointing out as one more arrow in our quiver, isn’t it? And yes, even without training, I imagine many editors do it instinctively and, if there were any way of measuring this, I’d bet their client loyalty is especially high.

        Thanks for following! I don’t update my blog anywhere near often enough, but tend to communicate more through my Facebook page. (I also have a writing blog filled with my dark little stories!) I love your blog, by the way. A really pleasing design and excellent content. I couldn’t find a way to follow, though, other than RSS or email subscription.

        I think if I wrote such a post, I might even pitch it to The Editors’ Weekly (the EAC blog).

        Thanks again for your great post and thoughtful replies. 🙂

        • Hazel Harris on 20 August 2014 at 18:43

          Thanks for your kind words 🙂 I always share new posts on my Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ pages, and I’m on Twitter (you can find my pages by clicking on the floating buttons in the top left of all my website pages).

          I really hope to see that post of yours one day!

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  4. Iola on 2 September 2014 at 22:57

    This post leads me to suspect that being professional is mostly about behaviour. Yes, there’s a body of knowledge behind that, but if a would-be editor/proofreader follows these guidelines, they will develop that technical competence over time.

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