Are Copyeditors and Proofreaders Perfect?

As a writer, you might wonder if hiring a copyeditor or proofreader means that your work will be perfect after she has finished reviewing it and you have made all of her suggested changes. Unfortunately, the answer is no. I’ll explore a few of the reasons that copyeditors and proofreaders can’t promise to be perfect.

Different Focus

There’s a different focus at each stage of the writing and editing process. When you’re writing, you’re focused on writing the story, on getting your thoughts onto the page. You are not focused on getting every comma and semicolon right; you’re focused on the big picture, on the entire contents of the material.

Similarly, a developmental editor is focused on editing that big picture content to help with the flow of your work and is not focused on things like hyphen placement and individual word choice. She is focused on adding, deleting, or rearranging content to help with your message, or for a novel, to help with plot and character development.

A line editor gets more granular. She will pick up on word choice, consistency, and bad writing habits (like overusing words or phrases) but may occasionally miss a comma here and there. Similarly, if there’s a section of your science fiction story that needs to be moved to better accommodate your story, she may not catch it because that’s not her focus; that issue would have been caught in the developmental editing stage.

A copyeditor gets to the next level of granularity. She starts looking at the grammar, punctuation, and spelling of each sentence and may suggest some sentence-level rewrites. She also checks facts and consistency and ensures the accuracy of things like the table of contents and chapter numbers. She may occasionally miss a hyphen here and there because she’s looking at a slightly higher level.

A proofreader gets even more granular by focusing on the details of grammar and punctuation. Her focus is on the final polishing of the material, making sure every comma, semicolon, and hyphen are correctly placed, that subjects and verbs agree, that words are spelled consistently, and that formatting is consistent. She also will not catch big picture issues or perhaps even sentence-level issues. Again, that’s not her focus at this level of work.

When I’m copyediting, I do a first pass through the material looking for sentence structure issues. Of course, I mark any granular proofreading issues that I see rather than ignoring them, but that’s not my focus on the first pass. After I’ve completely made it through the material, I do a second pass looking at a more granular level for any lingering issues. On relatively clean work, this pass usually results in a heavier focus on grammar and punctuation. I’ll also re-visit anything that I didn’t feel completely comfortable with the first time around, even if I did make some changes; if it still bothers me the second time, then I know I need to work on it some more or send a query to the writer.

Perhaps at this point you’re thinking, “Why can’t I just hire one editor to do all of this at one time?” It’s difficult or impossible to do all of it at once. Have you ever tried to focus on two things at once, like driving and texting, for example? You don’t do either one well. I bet it takes you a lot longer to send that text than you would if it was your sole focus. And if you take your attention off of the road, you may slow down, veer off the road, or slam into the back of someone. Your editor should be able to focus on doing one job so that you get the best results.

You may be able to hire one editor to make several passes with a different focus each time. However, consider hiring different editors for developmental editing and copyediting because a fresh set of eyes is always helpful. While your developmental editor may be willing to make three or four passes and do it all, she will be intimately familiar with your material after the developmental edit and so will be subject to seeing what was intended to be on the page rather than what is actually there. A fresh set of eyes will help address that oversight.

We’re Human Too

Copyeditors and proofreaders are human. We make mistakes. Everyone’s eye occasionally skips over a word. I recently worked on a financial document that I proofread twice and sent back to the author for him to accept the changes. He sent it back for one last review, and I realized on this third pass that I had missed that he didn’t have the word “to” in the phrase “due to.” My mind knew that the word “to” should be there and apparently thought that it was. It wasn’t until this third pass when all of the other proofreading issues were addressed that I noticed this error.

We find more on each pass just as you probably find more things to rewrite every time you look at your material or your story. We’re not guaranteed to catch everything every time; it’s just human nature. However, our training and our natural ability to spot errors do help us catch most of the errors. Also, the cleaner it is when we receive it, the easier it is to identify the small things; when it’s messy, we have to focus on getting the big issues out of the way and may miss some small ones.

Sometimes Errors Aren’t Errors

Grammar and punctuation rules are sometimes open to interpretation. Whether you’re following a standard style guide, like Chicago Manual of Style, or a house style guide, or both, the rules are sometimes ambiguous or don’t fit a scenario exactly. Or, rules may conflict in a certain situation.

Two different copyeditors or proofreaders may read a sentence and think it needs to be punctuated in two different ways. Is one of them wrong? Probably not. They both can probably justify why they punctuated it the way that they did. It’s a matter of trying to best represent the author’s intention to the reader, and that’s somewhat subjective. Do you use hyphens or parentheses or commas for an interrupter phase in a sentence? That’s subjective depending on the emphasis you want to place.

When in doubt, if there’s any indication of preference from the author based on the remainder of the text or within the sentence itself, I go with the author’s preference, of course. But that preference is not always clear, and it’s not a big enough deal to query the author about it. In those situations, it’s definitely subjective.

In these circumstances, another person coming behind that copyeditor or proofreader may see that punctuation as an error because that’s not how she would do it. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it was just open to interpretation.

Copyeditors and proofreaders will do their best to make sure your work is completely free from error. But if a few mistakes are made, that’s life. If you find that your copyeditor or proofreader missed something, and it seems to be the same or similar problem repeatedly, definitely let her know so that she can obtain additional training or just make sure to focus on that issue in the future. Constructive, sensitive criticism is always welcome.

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