Proofediting: is it ever a good idea?

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‘Proofediting’? Huh?

‘Proofediting’? That’s not in the dictionary. Sounds like a mashup of proofreading and editing! Surely not?!

Proofediting is indeed doing both things – copyediting and proofreading – in one hit. It’s basically trying to fix the text all in one go. So it’s cheaper than hiring both a copyeditor and a proofreader.

I’m sorry this exists. It’s not always the worst thing that could happen to a piece of text (it’s better than not having any kind of edit at all). But it’s rarely the best, either.

As I will say to anyone who will listen, the more pairs of eyes are on a piece of text, the better. Familiarity with text is a death knell to spotting blunders, blips and typos. As I also never tire of saying, a fresh pair of eyes is the biggest tool in my toolbox.

Describe proofediting for me

Proofediting is like trying to replumb a house whilst the electrician is finishing off their wiring and the wallpaper hanger is trying to get on with their work before the plasterer has been.

You really can’t do it all at once.

Skilled editors or proofreaders, obliged to take on proofediting (or even voluntarily taking it on – there’s no accounting for taste) will, of course, impose some kind of order and sequence into the work. They won’t try to do everything all at once.

But when you’ve carried out all the processes, and been all the trades in a job, you get exhausted and stop seeing what’s in front of your nose.

So don’t be surprised if you, as a client, or as the recipient of proofediting, find that you’re saying ‘Oh dear, you missed a bit’ rather too often.

Where does proofediting fit into the edisphere?

So where does it fit? Does it fit at all? If you pop over to this post or this infographic in my resources page on the five kinds of editing, proofediting is conspicuous by its absence. That’s because I’m not a fan. Nor should you be, but I’ll concede there are occasions when you can get away with it.

Proofediting can work reasonably well in short pieces of writing. It’s hard to put a figure on what I mean by ‘short’, but I’m going to suggest a line in the sand at 2,000 words.

Even at that length, if there’s a lot to change, not having the second fresh pair of eyes that a proofreader would bring is dangerous. If the text is drowning in changes, you need a different someone to come along and read the new version on its own merits – you want a tabula rasa. You want someone fresh, someone without preconceptions about what they should be seeing in front of them as they read.

Proofediting for articles

Can you do it for something as long as a scholarly article? I’d not advise it. If you’re publishing an article via the traditional model, then the publisher will probably get your article copyedited, but you may well be expected to do the proofreading yourself.

We have to hope that it’s been sufficiently long since you last saw it that you do come to it reasonably fresh, and are not just remembering what you wrote, and seeing only that.

Proofediting for books

Can you do it for something as long as a book? I’d definitely advise against it, yet even traditional publishers are now expecting authors to be the only proofreader for their books.

The author can never be a tabula rasa, though. Authors will be remembering what they wrote, not reading what has ended up on the page, goofs and all, including typesetting mishaps and the copyeditor’s misunderstanding resulting in the removal or addition of a meaning-changing comma.

Heck, some publishers expect the author to do their own indexing – a skill most authors do not have. (An index is not simply a concordance.)

Buying the wrong service, cutting corners

Some writers force proofediting on proofreaders. ‘Oh, it just needs a proofread’, they say, and a proofreader takes it on, then realises that the text isn’t yet ready for proofreading. Depending on how the conversation with the author goes, sure, it’s possible the author will take it back and get the piece copyedited first.

However, money is tight for most, and it is very tempting to try to get two separate services done at the same time for the fee of only one.

Copyediting is generally more expensive than proofreading (because the copyeditor is dealing with the raw text, and the proofreader with the corrected, edited, typeset text), so it’s really tempting to try to persuade a proofreader to have a go at the editing, for their proofreading fee.

A great many proofreaders are also copyeditors. They have the skills to do the edit. But proofediting drives a truck through the process.

A great many copyeditors are also proofreaders (not me, though). They have the skills to do the proofread. But proofediting still drives a truck through the process.

And that process has sound reasons for being the way it is.

Say it with me: you need someone seeing what’s on the page now, not remembering from last time what ought to be there. Tabula rasa. A fresh pair of eyes.

So have your text proofedited at your peril, if you care about quality.

Copyeditors don’t like doing a proofedit because they know they are too close to the text to do a decent job.

Proofreaders don’t like doing a proofedit because they know they’re being asked to do too much of the job.

How about hiring the same person to do the copyedit and then the proofread, though?

Maybe rather than try to get both stages, copyediting and proofreading, done in one fell swoop (and the swoop would indeed be fell), could you just hire the same person to do the copyedit and then, later on, after typesetting, have them do the proofread? It’s a comfort, using someone you already know and have come to trust, rather than finding yet another person – an unknown quantity – to work on your text.

I’m sounding like a broken record, but I’d not advise it.

Where’s the fresh pair of eyes?

Where’s the unfamiliarity with what has gone before?

Nowhere.

Yet, there are doubtless quite a few competent publishing professionals who will make a pretty good fist of it. Good luck finding one, amongst all the publishing professionals who only do one or the other. Many can indeed do both, but not to the same piece of text, either serially or concurrently – or at least, not well.

Proofediting may involve less money, but if you want more for your text than ‘it’s a bit better than it was, anyway’, remember that copyediting and proofreader are two distinct skills for a reason.

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