My ‘learning curve’ – tips I’ve found helpful in my work

Making the step from work in local government communications (with only part of my role to proofread and edit documents) to freelancing and working with several different publishers and style guides was a real eye-opener, and I have learnt a lot in the last few years. When I first started, I remember thinking that proofreading was going to be very simple and that I’d automatically be a ‘natural’ at editing, with all authors happy to accept my changes without question.

Like all jobs, however, you don’t just go in and find you’re 100% perfect all of the time; there’s a learning curve in any role, and you pick up tips to add to your ‘toolbox’ as you go along. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt and traps I’ve learnt not to fall into:


  • Checking endnotes thoroughly is vital. Authors may have left references like ‘p.xx’ as a placeholder, and if you don’t pick up on these, someone else may not (luckily, in my case, they did!). I also find a lot of instances of titles where the serial comma has been left out despite it being a US book/paper, and where a web address containing part of the article’s title is misspelt but the article title are not. 
  • Endnotes are tedious, no matter what you do. This is relieved if you proofread each chapter’s notes immediately after finishing said chapter. Not only does it break them up, but you’re much more likely to spot errors if you’re in the mindset of that particular chapter/section. Unlike food, these aren’t the ‘best bit’ to be saved until the end.
  • There’s no real point in numbering queries. If you realise you want to insert an extra query between two others, it just causes confusion if they’re numbered. Much better to make a bulleted list, with page and line numbers and a short extract of text copy-pasted to illustrate what your comment/question refers to.
  • Keep the publisher updated and don’t be afraid to ask. I have been guilty in the past of ‘ploughing on’ through a book to the end and blindly using the publisher’s style guide no matter what. Sometimes style guides are not rigid – many publishers will be happy if the manuscript is internally consistent, whereas others will not. If in doubt, check at the beginning! Also, if you’ve annotated, say, 10-20 pages and found more than 3 errors per page, send the person you’re working for a quick email to alert them and be prepared to attach a copy of the annotated manuscript so far – sometimes they will need to negotiate more money for typesetting and other additional work on the book before it can be printed!


  • Introduce yourself. You want a good working relationship with your author/translator. It doesn’t cost much time to send a quick email with your contact details and anything else pertinent before you’ve properly started work on the book. I’ve copy-pasted below an example of an email I sent to the author of the last book I copy-edited:

I thought I’d get in touch now and send a sample of my work on the first few pages so you can see whether you’re happy with the sort of things I’ve been doing so far. As discussed with the publisher, I’m aiming for ‘Mid Atlantic’ in style (UK spelling and punctuation; keeping US terms that are understandable to UK readers). Please let me know if there’s anything I’ve changed that you think US readers will struggle to understand. I attach the document in MS Word showing markup and comments.

When I know that you’re happy with the way things are proceeding, I can continue work on the book. I’d be really grateful if you could get back in touch as soon as possible and let me know if there’s anything you are unhappy with/if you’re happy for me to carry on as I’ve done so far.

I’ve used ‘Track Changes’ so you can clearly see where I’ve made amendments.

The sample I’ve sent you shows all the changes, down to the smallest amendments to spelling/punctuation. To reduce the amount of extra work your end, are you happy for me to make some or all of the following minor changes without tracking? (Please indicate any you wish to review and I’ll keep these in so you can see where the changes are.):

– change to UK spelling; change to UK punctuation; deletion of repeated words; change colons/semicolons/commas where wrong punctuation used.

Obviously I’d query anything more substantial.

If you’re happy with the work I’ve done so far, and wish me to continue in the same vein, please let me know. Would it be easiest for you if I send the edited manuscript through a chapter at a time, or would you prefer me to edit it all and then send the completed work to you to go through in one go? I’d like to make sure we’re both proceeding in the same direction from the beginning…

  • Diplomacy is key. Working directly with an author can be daunting: you’re dealing with their ‘baby’, and they have spent a lot of time deciding on the exact words to write. No-one likes to be told something is wrong, even if you as the copy-editor are supposed to be the expert on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing! I tend to be super-polite (honed over years of working with local politicians) in my comments and never make anything other than superficial changes to a manuscript without explaining my reasoning in a brief comment.
  • MS Word compatibility with others’ software. I ran into problems last year when it turned out that the .docx version I’d done a sample edit on wasn’t compatible with InDesign being run on the Mac. Some of my changes were shown, while others were not, and the person who’d given me the job was understandably upset that I’d apparently ignored basic formatting rules! As a rule of thumb, it’s always a good idea if working in Word to check the ‘Maintain compatibility with previous versions of Word’ box and keep everyone happy.
  • Use the Review tab in Word. Initially it didn’t occur to me to check what my document would look like if all my changes were accepted; now I find it really helpful to untick all the boxes in the ‘Show Markup’ menu to see how the document would appear if I accepted all my changes. This makes it much, much easier to read through.
  • Using ‘Track Changes’. Showing all deletions within the text can be very helpful, but it can also interrupt the ‘flow’ of the text when editing on-screen. Setting the editing tool to show deletions only within the margins makes it easier to spot errors you may have accidentally introduced.
  • It’s not always helpful to track changes! If you’re making non-contentious style changes (such as deleting double spacing after full stops), turn it off, unless you want to waste a lot of time later!

And that’s my lot for now. If any more occur to me, I’ll post them in future entries.

I’m now looking at the time and realise I have a dinner to cook before school finishes, so I’ll sign off for now. ‘Til next week…


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