Are you looking for an editor or proofreader, but unsure how to pick the right one? Here are some hints to help you out.
(Updated in October 2020)
What do you need them to do?
Copy-editing or proofreading?
Copy-editing and proofreading are two separate stages in the process of preparing a book for publication. They have different remits, and are usually done by different people.
Outside the publishing world, though, many people get these terms mixed up with each other (and with others, such as ‘copywriting’).
If your work is very well written and needs nothing more than an error check, proofreading will be enough. If it might need improvements in the style and flow of the writing, or a more ‘professional’ tone, it should be copy-edited instead. You might want a service somewhere between the two, which could be thought of as ‘proof-editing’ or ‘light copy-editing’. Many editors and proofreaders are flexible about this.
To avoid misunderstandings, it’s important to find someone who can provide the level of help you need, and to state this clearly when asking for a quote.
Substantive or developmental editing
Rather than focusing on spelling, grammar and readability at a sentence level (though they might do that as well), a substantive or developmental editor looks at the bigger picture. They’ll usually start working with you early in the project, helping to shape your work’s overall ideas, structure and coherence, often both before and during the writing stage. They might do some major rewriting, or just make recommendations for how you could do this.
This is a tricky term, which means very different things to different people. I won’t even try to define it here. If you ask someone about doing some line editing, I suggest you explain what you mean by it.
Not many editors use this term, but I think it’s useful. As I see it, it means editing business material (reports, proposals, promotional content etc.) for clarity, coherence and impact, with a strong focus on how it will influence the target readers. It’s much like copy-editing, but with the emphasis on business priorities, rather than simply producing something that’s grammatically correct and nice to read.
Other related services
These are not forms of editing or proofreading, but are sometimes confused with them – so I’ll mention them here for the sake of clarity.
Picking your provider
Are they real?
For your peace of mind, it’s important to find an editor or proofreader who’s clearly genuine – not someone hiding behind a pseudonym and a logo. Look for an actual person’s name, a photo and some clue as to where they’re based. A convincing presence on social media – particularly on LinkedIn, which (unlike Twitter) more-or-less forces people to be open about who, what and where they are – will help to prove their ‘realness’.
What you need to know
Much, if not all, of the following information might be available on each provider’s website, social media profiles, online directory entries and so on. If any of it is missing, don’t be afraid to ask.
Training Editing and proofreading are acquired skills, and good-quality training is crucial. Although many UK organisations offer courses, those provided by the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) are widely considered to be the most valuable.
Skills Do they have the particular editorial skills that you need: copy-editing, proofreading, using Word with Track Changes, marking up PDFs?
Background and knowledge Most editors and proofreaders have also had other jobs. The skills and knowledge that they’ve gained from that work, from their education, and from other activities and interests, might well help them to do a good job for you. A familiarity with facts, names, concepts and terminology in your subject area will help them to spot errors and inconsistencies, and to clarify unclear wording.
Experience What kinds of editorial work have they done? How much? How relevant is it to your needs? What types of client have they worked for? Look at portfolios, testimonials and reviews.
Professionalism Read some of the content on the provider’s website, or anywhere else where they describe themselves and what they do. Do they give the impression of being well organised and businesslike? A bit of informality and humour does no harm, but it’s important to choose someone who approaches their work seriously enough to do it properly and on time, and to interact with you professionally.
Affiliations The CIEP is the UK’s main professional body dedicated to promoting high standards in editorial work. Its members have valuable access to training, help, advice and networking opportunities, and are bound by its code of practice, Ensuring Editorial Excellence. Other countries have similar organisations – you can find a list here (thanks to Louise Harnby).
Some editors and proofreaders advertise their hourly rates on their websites and elsewhere, while others choose not to. One problem with advertising rates up front is that a potential customer might have no idea how long the work would take.
An alternative is to show rates per thousand words or per page. This has its own drawback, though: it doesn’t allow for the inevitable variations between jobs. A lot depends on the complexity and quality of the writing, as well as its length.
The best way to get a realistic quote is to give the provider:
You might ask a number of editors and proofreaders whether they can help you and how much they would charge. It’s tempting to go for the lowest quote, but make sure you’re confident that you’re choosing someone who will do the job properly. And if you decide not to use someone’s services after they’ve responded positively, please let them know (this is good courtesy, but it’s easy to forget to do it).
Good luck with the search!
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.