An American Editor

September 15, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

by Louise Harnby

Many professional editorial business owners offer multiple services. Some of us choose to offer only one. I’m an example of the latter. I’ve been in practice for seven years (though for fifteen years beforehand I worked in-house for publishers) and I’m a specialist proofreader. At the time of writing, I have no plans to change this arrangement.

Recently, I was party to an exchange between two fellow editorial freelancers, one of whom was talking about how, having completed her proofreading training, she was now thinking about “upgrading” her skills to include copy-editing. This jarred with me. I could imagine expanding my services to include a new skill, but would I consider the introduction of copy-editing as an upgrade? “Upgrade” implies that proofreading is a lower-level skill — that it’s easier to do.

Later, I had an interesting discussion with another colleague. His business is established and he currently offers a range of services (proofreading and copy-editing). The reason he contacted me was because he was considering shifting the focus of his service provision to proofreading, primarily because he enjoyed the work more. Did I think this was a good idea and could I offer any advice on what “some might see as a retrograde” step? Again, I was uncomfortable with the language being used.

I decided to think more closely about the questions raised:

  • Is being “just a proofreader” a second-fiddle editorial occupation that’s easier to do?
  • Is specializing a backward step?

Is Proofreading Easier Than Copy-editing?

Is proofreading easier than copy-editing and therefore a lesser skill? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this. First, it depends on what we mean by “easier.” Do we mean it’s easier to learn? Easier to do? Or easier to manage in terms of workflow?

  • If I could learn skill X but have not yet done so, X will seem harder.
  • If I have learned skill X, I might still find it harder than skill Y because I don’t have such a flair for it.
  • If I have learned skill X, and discover I have a flair for it, but I have five dogs and two-year-old sextuplets, I might find skill X technically easier but skill Y simpler to juggle with my canine/toddler demands.

I only have one dog and one child, but I still find proofreading “easier” than copy-editing for the following reasons:

  • I haven’t trained as a copy-editor and don’t have copy-editing experience, but I have trained and am experienced in working with page proofs.
  • I like short-haul work that takes one (or two at the most) weeks to complete — proofs come in, are marked up, and are returned. This fits in nicely with the non-professional demands of my life.
  • I am more than comfortable with leaving well enough alone even when I think a sentence could be improved by rewriting.
  • I like looking for the minutiae (the incorrect running head; the missing page number; the inconsistent chapter drop; the misplaced apostrophe; the recto word break).
  • I’m happier dealing directly with a professional project manager than with an author who needs a lot of hand-holding.
  • I prefer it when projects don’t overlap. Overlapping projects would be stressful for me and this might impact on my effectiveness.

I have colleagues who struggle with proofreading, however. Their souls are in copy-editing because:

  • They haven’t trained to work with page proofs but they have trained to be copy-editors.
  • They are stimulated by the long-haul nature of a project that allows them to sink their teeth into it and provide a deeper level of intervention that will make the author’s voice sing.
  • They find it difficult to resist the temptation to tinker with non-essential changes because they know that things could be better with just an intsy-wintsy, teeny-weeny bit more intervention!
  • They are excited by the bigger picture and less so by whether the chapter drops are consistently set. Boredom could impact on their effectiveness.
  • They miss having direct contact with an author, developing a working relationship with the writer and hand-holding them through part of the publishing process.
  • They like overlapping projects because this work pattern enables them to break off from one (while waiting for the next round of author responses to come in) and refresh their brains with something different.

I also have colleagues who enjoy copy-editing and proofreading. They have both the skills and personality types that enable them to carry out a range of editorial functions. They mix and match, swapping their editorial hats according to their clients’ requirements and their own workflows. And, of course, they have preferences. They choose to offer multiple services.

Nailing down what is hard or easy is impossible because it’s subjective. And yet, what’s easy for you might not be easy for me. That’s why the language of “upgrading” isn’t helpful. It treats editorial services as if each one is a stand-alone entity that has no relation to the human being carrying it out.

The Decision to Specialize

Is specializing in proofreading a backward step if you have multiple skills? It all depends on what your business goals/needs are. The key issues to consider include:

  • Personal preferences: Which editorial functions do you enjoy doing? Which projects and clients groups generate the highest amount of self-worth for you?
  • Financial requirements: Will specializing affect the sustainability of your business? Will there be fee adjustments to consider that could impact on your ability to pay the bills each month?
  • Market considerations: Have you planned how you will expand your client base in your chosen field of specialization?

If you have a healthy editorial business that offers, for example, copy-editing, proofreading, and indexing, but you want to specialize in proofreading because you enjoy it more, you can earn what you need/want to earn, and you can access enough clients to provide you with the work you need, then it’s a forward step based on sound business planning and personal preference. Then, again, if you find this kind of work frustrating and can’t find enough of it to run your business in a way that is healthy, then it’s a retrograde step.

The point is that specializing (whether in proofreading or any other editorial function) in itself isn’t about moving forward or backward. Rather, it’s the foundations on which the decision is made that will determine the direction. If you want to do something, can do something, enjoy doing something, and that something is economically viable for your business, then do it.

Minding Our Language!

It’s worrying to think that some people working within this industry still talk about proofreading in terms of a hierarchy of ability because that’s not an appropriate way to approach the matter and is of little use to our clients. Seventeen publishers hire my specialist proofreading services on a regular basis and they do so because they can count on me to proofread — not copy-edit, index, translate, or do the hokey-cokey — according to their house brief. It’s not about upgrades or downgrades, or backward steps or forward steps; it’s about understanding what our clients’ problems are and being able to offer solutions.

Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a retrograde step as long as the business framework around the decision is sound. Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a downgrade from being a copy-editor — it’s simply a different function at a different stage of the editorial process. We need to take care that our language reflects these facts, otherwise new entrants to the field could be led towards making business decisions about what to learn and what to offer that are based on misunderstanding.

If you want to be “just a proofreader,” be one. Conversely, you could make the same decision with regard to another editorial function. Or you can mix it up. You’re a business owner and it’s your choice. You can change your mind, too. You might decide to move away from providing a more diverse service portfolio, because that decision works best for you now, but then in a year’s time reintroduce some of the services you withdrew from. That’s the beauty of being your own boss — regardless of what your colleagues are doing, you can determine the focus of your own business without having to negotiate with the human resources department!

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

17 Comments »

  1. Methinks that the idea of being “just” a proofreader stems from the fact that, in general, proofreading is a less-expensive service than the various editing functions. The same mentality can be applied to being “just” an editor, because in some contexts, writers — the “talent” — are paid more. Certainly, those of us on the production side of publishing will never have the same potential as an author to hit a home run and be flooded with extra income and even become a star.

    The “just” hierarchy exists in most other areas of business and society, i.e., whoever makes less is considered lesser by snobs and people who don’t know better. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the skill involved in a particular area of work. I see a lot of hostility and misunderstanding between trades in general and white collar vs. blue collar vs. brown collar trades in specific, where people do not understand what the other does and resent the wage they earn doing it. Doesn’t matter if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

    Every occupation has value, which is arbitrarily determined by culture and economy, along with rarity. Who’s up and down shifts over time, anyway, making the distinctions fuzzier and the prejudices sillier. Few people believe they’re being paid what their worth, regardless of occupation. Pay is all about what the market will bear, and where in the pecking order the buyer of a service believes the provider belongs.

    That said, certain skills are easier for more people to learn, thereby making more people available to provide them, thereby creating a competitive pay scenario, thereby — often but not always — driving the wage value down.

    Louise makes the excellent point that what matters is choosing your best skill(s), choosing the best business model, then applying best efforts to make it all work as a profitable livelihood.

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    Comment by Carolyn — September 15, 2014 @ 5:50 am | Reply

  2. […] The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader” by Louise Harnby Many professional editorial business owners offer multiple services. Some of us choose to offer only one. I’m an example of…  […]

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    Pingback by The Proofreader’s Corner: The Editorial S... — September 15, 2014 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  3. I think in the past, when typesetters set into type the paper copy provided by the copy editor, the job of the proofreader carried less responsibility. You were supposed to compare the edited copy with the typeset copy to make sure all the changes had been made, the head levels had been set as marked, etc. Of course, there were also other chores, like word breaks and missing page numbers that the CE couldn’t check.

    In today’s world, the job is different as there’s usually no hard copy, so the proofreading is almost like a second copy edit, except the proofreader doesn’t make style decisions or change for clarity or grammatical errors except in extreme cases. The good proofreader will also find the few places where the CE failed to apply the chosen style.

    I think proofreading is more difficult, because one has to work with someone else’s style, which might not be what one is comfortable with, as well as finding important things the CE missed and checking for the various mechanical errors.

    Maybe it’s time to equalize the pay scales.

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    Comment by Gretchen — September 15, 2014 @ 7:50 am | Reply

  4. Excellent points, Louise. I think the problem stems partly from the fact that the term ‘proofreading’ tends to be used as a catch-all expression, especially by the non-native clients that I work with directly. The finer distinction between proofreading and copy-editing, and indeed light editing and heavy/substantive editing, may be lost on some – at least until their document is returned to them riddled with track changes. That said, I agree that those who are ‘just’ proofreaders are often undervalued because their work comes at the end of this writing, editing, copy-editing, proofreading ‘creative’ continuum, and is seen as more mechanical as a result. Also, as in EFL teaching, there’s often the assumption that being a native speaker automatically equips you with the necessary skill-set to do the job. This is plainly untrue no matter how much of a flair one might have for the work. Personally, I think that proofreading not only calls for a forensic eye for detail but also for a fair degree of pessimism, which copy-editors may not see as their particular stock-in-trade. I set out fully expecting – nay, hoping to find mistakes and typos in page proofs, and am never happier than when I do because I’m able to eliminate them at a vital stage in the workflow, ensure a flawless end-product for the writer/publisher, and save them from embarrassment. It’s hard to put a price on a skill like this and I commend you for specializing in it, as well as all the valuable information you share with us in your blog.

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    Comment by Lynn — September 15, 2014 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  5. @Lynn: re “I set out fully expecting – nay, hoping to find mistakes and typos in page proofs …” — I couldn’t agree more! One of the trickiest things is when the copy-ed and setter have done such a great job that there’s almost nothing to find. That always gets me worrying: Am I having a bad day? Did I miss something? Have I been distracted? I worked on a set of proofs like that some time back, edited by one of my SfEP colleagues, and I became almost desperate to find something, anything that she’d missed! She’s one of those people who does both editing and proofreading, and she’s very good at her job. I know that when I work on proofs that have been edited by her, my job will be easier technically, in that there will be less to mark up, but I also know that I’ll be more anxious!

    @Gretchen: Interesting, as I’m often commissioned by publishers to proofread on hard copy, though, as you say, I’m rarely asked to proofread against copy. I don’t find the issue of working with someone else’s style more difficult. But that’s me. And, again, this is the kind of thing that demonstrates how different personality types will find some aspects of the editorial process “easier” or “harder” to do.

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    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — September 15, 2014 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  6. I enjoyed your article, Louise. As you are a published author on the subject, thank you for your comments on the business aspects of editing services.

    I suggest this page for your readers who wish to see a good definitions of all editorial skills: http://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions.html

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    Comment by Ken Weinberg — September 15, 2014 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  7. Identifying what one wants to do and then treating that skill or service with respect is hugely important to a successful editorial business. A big problem nowadays is that so many publishers or clients are new to the game and don’t know the difference between editing (at any level) and proofreading. Clients think proofreading is “easier” and less expensive than editing, but know they need both, and try to get editing at what they perceive as proofreading rates.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 15, 2014 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

  8. Great article to clear up the differences of a copyeditor and a proofreader. I’m a copyeditor that currently does developmental copyediting as the coauthor of two books. I always thought proofreading was a step above the copyeditor and would scrutinize the work and make it perfect! I’d still like to think that way. I know firsthand that copyediting is difficult dealing with the personalities of writers. Sometimes I think proofreading would better suit my left-brained dominance.

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    Comment by C. E. Robinson — September 15, 2014 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

  9. Good for you for correcting flare vs. flair! We are all always still learning.

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    Comment by oghma2006 — September 15, 2014 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

    • Not really a case of learning in this situation as I do know the distinction between flair and flare; rather, it’s the issue all writers face — we’re so busy writing that attention to the detail can slip. Which is precisely why people need editors and proofreaders! Being good at spelling doesn’t make you good at self-editing — two entirely different things!

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      Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — September 16, 2014 @ 4:49 am | Reply

  10. I’m a copy editor who could never be a proofreader – I’ve had some training and it just didn’t click with me. Copy editing, though, is my natural home. I consider proofreading to be a highly technical discipline and most certainly not an inferior skill to copy editing (or any other editorial aspect). I am ‘just a copy editor’ – and proud of it.

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    Comment by Sue Littleford — September 16, 2014 @ 1:39 pm | Reply

  11. A great article! An interesting and really valuable point I hadn’t previously considered. Nice work, Louise! (Now following your blog.)

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    Comment by bethini — September 21, 2014 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

  12. […] An American Editor returns with a blog entry on how proofreading is sometimes viewed as a lesser skill than copy editing. Is this true, or is it all a matter of experience and specific projects? (An American Editor) […]

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    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: September’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — September 24, 2014 @ 10:02 am | Reply

  13. It’s a mistake to consider proofreaders as “only” proofreaders. We have all seen how condescension is most often an attitude that reflects poorly on those who use it: it is an assumption of superiority used by people who feel it necessary because they lack in true self-worth.

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    Comment by George Grey Cowie — September 29, 2014 @ 4:16 am | Reply

  14. […] reposted one of proofreader Louise Harnby’s great posts on a very interesting topic: specialist proofreading. Proofreading is all Louise does, and she has some interesting ideas on the scope and importance of […]

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    Pingback by So Many Jobs! — October 2, 2014 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  15. […] “The Editorial Specialist—On being ‘just a proofreader’” by Louise Harnby for An American Editor […]

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    Pingback by Writer’s Roundup: Weekend homework | Don't write for free, write for freelance — October 11, 2014 @ 5:32 pm | Reply


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