The value of intangible copyediting and proofreading skills

The more you work as a copyeditor or proofreader, the more you come to understand that the job is about far more than spotting errors in spelling and grammar. For me as an editorial project manager, there are certain copyediting and proofreading skills that I’ve come to value in the freelancers I work with but that are hard to pin down.

They have little to do with the technical skills of editing or proofreading, but they can make an enormous difference to the quality of the final product and to working relationships. They are also skills that, in my own editing work, I have found my clients and authors especially value.

Following are some of the more ephemeral editing and proofreading skills and why I think they are important. It isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list. Note that I’ll use ’editor’ throughout to encompass the many and varied roles of copyeditors and proofreaders.

Knowing when not to make changes

This is a biggie. It’s covered in any reputable editing qualification but is worth stressing because it can be so tricky to get right. Some of it comes from general editorial experience. Some of it comes from experience with a particular genre or from getting to know a specific client’s priorities. Much of it comes from remembering that your personal grammatical and stylistic preferences count for diddly squat and that the only important things are the client’s and the audience’s needs.

Knowing when you should make changes

This is a little-mentioned flipside of the above point. It is easy to be intimidated by valid edicts such as ‘leave well enough alone’ and ‘do no harm’ into leaving necessary changes unmade.

But judging what is ’necessary’ can be really tricky. Again, there is no substitute for experience here, but it doesn’t always have to be editorial experience. If you have a background in a particular field and you just know that something you’re reading isn’t right or appropriate for the readership, then this is your chance to shine.

You will also naturally come to rely on your experience with particular clients. I sometimes have conversations with my clients where we talk about text ’feeling’ like their style or not – but it can be difficult to pin down why that feeling is or is not present (this will apply more in creative contexts than, say, scientific writing).

I also like to get a sense of whether my clients prefer me to wisely make trouble or not. These are clients who are so focused on quality that they want no stone left unturned during the editing, even if the resulting queries risk inconveniencing themselves or the author.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the editorial world and my other clients do. If my gut feeling tells me that a client will want a certain change to be made, at the very least I raise a query to ask them to make a final decision.

Offering solutions

This is not a new idea but, again, it’s an important one. It’s about offering the client solutions rather than just pointing a finger at a problem, metaphorically folding your arms and waiting for someone else to do something about it.

When I offer solutions, where possible I prefer to include a recommendation about which one I think is most appropriate based on my experience. However, as a project manager, I appreciate it even when freelancers send me suggestions without recommending any particular one. Even if none of the solutions are exactly right, they can give me ideas about alternative ways to proceed.

An eye for oddness

As editors, we all have a natural threshold for when something in a text feels odd enough to raise a query. But sometimes it is difficult to decide whether something really is odd or not (for example, it might just be a quirk of the author’s field or genre).

A great way to hone your sense of the ‘odd’ is to hang out with groups of other editors (e.g. Facebook groups or the forums of members’ organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading). I’ve learned so much from these sources over the years. They are a great way to see the kinds of issues other editors are unsure about and get varied opinions on whether and how to react.

It’s worth noting that it’s vital for project managers and clients to set the tone when it comes to queries about oddities. In another post I’ve written about psychological safety and how important it is for editors to feel their queries are welcomed and valued.

Seeing the big picture

This applies in two ways. The first is within the manuscript – for example, seeing how changes might have knock-on effects that cause complications later on. The second is outside the manuscript – for example, understanding the client’s or project manager’s overall priorities for the project and any scheduling issues.

In both cases, the key thing is to take action to mitigate the effects of any problems you raise. I’ve written separately here (for authors, developmental or structural editors, and project managers) and here (for copyeditors, typesetters or designers, proofreaders, and indexers) about the importance of understanding how your work might affect others in an editorial process.

Knowing when to explain

As I found when I started a LinkedIn discussion on this topic, opinions on when to explain editorial changes vary massively. The secret to explaining enough, but not too much, is to get to know your client and tailor your approach to them.

The llama from the film The Emperor's New Groove making a quizzical expression, with the text '70% of editing is staring at your work for hours while making this face'.

The above meme is accurate more times than I’d care to admit, and it applies to project management too. For me as a project manager, when an editor gets the right balance – when they anticipate exactly when I would make that face at one of their changes and pre-empt it with an explanation – it makes the process run so much more smoothly for both parties. From my point of view, I can trundle right on with my task (e.g. proof collation) without having to stop and write an email. And, from the editor’s point of view, they don’t get jerked back into a project they long ago left behind and have to waste time reminding themselves of why they made a specific change and explaining it to me.

I tend to like editors to explain non-obvious changes, but many clients will prefer not to be bothered with this kind of thing unless a change is exceptionally unintuitive. Again, get to know your client.

Judging the author’s or client’s ‘bandwidth’

Some authors and clients are hands-on, have loads of time to dedicate to their project and care about every tiny detail. Others want an excellent outcome but don’t have the capacity or expertise to engage with the details of how that outcome is reached. Most fall on a spectrum somewhere in the middle. Any of these possibilities is fine, as long as the editor has sufficient resources to do what’s expected of them and everybody understands their remit and responsibilities.

However, it’s not always obvious at the start of a project where the author or client sits on this spectrum. Some careful, nuanced questioning and clue-reading may be necessary to gain the lie of the land and plan the editorial work accordingly. Setting out with a one-size-fits-all idea of what the author or client ’must’ do can leave pitfalls uncovered.

The intangible skills of copyediting and proofreading are, I believe, the ones that clients most value, even if they don’t exactly realise what the editor is doing or why it’s making their life easier. An experienced editor is one who has mastered the intangible skills of copyediting and proofreading – that is, one who will make changes and raise queries proportionately, with sensitivity to the context, and with an understanding of how their work will affect the many processes and people around them.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.


  1. Sue Littleford on September 28, 2022 at 2:19 pm

    I love this piece, Hazel! I’ve recently concluded some bumpy negotiations with a client who had clearly dropped the ball when deciding that the ms could go forward into production, but didn’t know how to recover the situation – their decisions and solutions have been unorthodox, to put it mildly. But I’ve explained the consequences, and now have a revised scope of work that *will* fit their budget, so on we go. When I’ve had testimonials from publishers or packagers, it’s far more often around the intangibles that you talk about, than the quality of my editing per se.

    • Hazel Bird on September 28, 2022 at 4:48 pm

      Thanks, Sue! On top of the skill of providing solutions, you’ve made me think that having the confidence to raise issues clearly and constructively could be an intangible skill in its own right. It’s so easy, especially when we’re lacking experience, to shy away from boldly tackling issues with clients in a way that’s respectful but straightforward. Congrats on working things through with your client!

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