When you come across the word ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’, what picture comes into your mind?
Some kind of fanatical word nerd, maybe, waving a red pen around, getting their glasses steamed up at the sight of every misplaced apostrophe or split infinitive? If so, I hope you’ll think again.
We’re a misunderstood bunch. And I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way, just a mildly bemused one. Let’s tackle some of the top misconceptions about who we are, what we do and why we do it.
Myth 1: We write stuff
In the publishing world, people generally know that our work comes after the writing stage. In other walks of life, though, the distinction isn’t so well known. People often confuse us with copywriters, for example, perhaps partly because we’re sometimes known as copy-editors.
Let’s clear this up, then. Editors and proofreaders work with stuff that has already been written. Some do also offer writing services, such as copywriting or technical writing – but these are separate services, needing different skills and expertise. Please don’t assume we can do that kind of work unless we say so.
Myth 2: We only work for publishers
It’s true that we’re traditionally linked to the publishing business, and this is largely where our working practices and standards were formulated. But we also do a great deal of work for other types of customer: businesses (other than the publishing type), public sector organisations, self-publishing authors, researchers and so on.
There are respected editing and proofreading veterans out there who’ve never done a minute’s work for a publisher – there’s so much else that we can help with apart from books and academic journals. If something consists of written words and needs to be up to a good standard, we can lend a hand.
Myth 3: We just fix the odd typo here and there
If only it were that simple. Well, come to think of it, that could get boring. Proofreading is essentially about correcting errors and inconsistencies, but even this goes well beyond looking for typing errors. There are also flaws in spelling, grammar, punctuation, referencing, editorial style, formatting and layout to be spotted and ironed out.
When we’re editing (or copy-editing) rather than proofreading, we go further. The exact scope varies from one job to the next, according to what’s needed – but it usually includes improving the clarity, readability and flow of the writing, making sure it’s suited to its purpose and the people who will read it, and checking for factual consistency.
Myth 4: We're pedants/sticklers
Who would pay for that? This is a job – we’re providing a professional service. Nobody ever says, ‘We’re looking for someone to be pedantic about a 10,000-word report – how much would you charge for this?’
We don’t alter text just for the sake of following rules. We do it to improve people’s writing – to make it more effective, more powerful, more professional.
In a way, some of us are actually anti-pedantic. We encourage people to ignore zombie rules, and to see the English language as a fluid, ever-evolving thing that’s really based more on conventions than on cast-iron rules.
On a similar note, our work is occasionally described as ‘a bit OCD’. Please don’t do this. As well as misrepresenting what we’re about, it trivialises a real illness that scars people’s lives. I’ll leave the rest to my colleague Denise Cowle.
Myth 5: We get annoyed by errors
If this were true, we’d be living pretty miserable lives. We might come across literally hundreds of the things in a single day, and can’t really afford to get worked up about them.
I reckon most of us have become immune to those fits of anger that some people suffer when they see a spelling or grammatical mistake. We even stay fairly calm at the sight of a ‘should of’, or a ‘your’ that should be a ‘you’re’. It’s all in a day’s work, many times over.
Myth 6: We’re the grammar police
A few years ago, I got into a bit of hot water on an editors’ page on Facebook. It had been flooded with posts that were basically saying ‘Ooh, look at this spelling mistake I’ve found – isn’t it terrible?’, drowning out the more interesting and helpful ones. I posted my objection to this – not worded as nicely as it could have been, but far from being insulting or abusive – and all hell broke loose (well, at least by editor standards).
I was surprised by the vehemence of those who criticised my comments. Then again, if I remember correctly, the post attracted 85 ‘likes’. I reckon most of the people who reacted to it were on my side. And I wonder how many of the peevers – and their defenders – were actual editors or proofreaders, rather than petty pedants who just saw that page as a good platform for indulging in their error-shaming habit.
I feel confident in saying that very few professional editors and proofreaders do this kind of thing. We spot errors because it’s part of our job – it isn’t a hobby.
And the next time you hear about some zealot purging Wikipedia of an expression they disapprove of, or removing spurious apostrophes from signs, please don’t think of us.
Myth 7: We love reading/literature
This is true of some editors, especially those who specialise in fiction. And I’m sure this gives them some useful insight, helping them to advise their authors and enhance their manuscripts. Many of us don’t work with that kind of material, though.
It’s confession time. I’ve never read anything by Charles Dickens. Or Jane Austen. The only Shakespeare play I’ve read is the one we had to read at school. I could go on, but you probably get the idea.
Now, I do enjoy reading. But it isn’t the biggest thing in my life, and I rarely read fiction or anything that could really be described as ‘literary’. And this isn’t a problem, work-wise, because that isn’t the kind of writing that I edit. I work on things like business reports, marketing content and non-fiction books. Horses for courses and all that.
Myth 8: You don’t need us any more
Who needs an editor or proofreader when there are spell checkers (or, er, Editor, as the one in Microsoft Word is now unhelpfully called), Grammarly and other automated alternatives?
It’s true that various software tools can help with improving text. Many of us use some of them ourselves, to make our work more reliable and efficient. Artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities. But I still believe that it takes a human mind to assess writing effectively, and to make the right changes where needed – so that it’ll work well for the humans who’ll read it in the end, and for those who want them to read it. We’re not done yet.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.