If you're tasked with proofreading designed page proofs, annotating for change is not always the best course of action. We're into the realm of when to mark up, when to query and when to leave things be.
A Facebook discussion about the role of the proofreader working on copy-edited proofs got me thinking about the issue of leaving well enough alone.
This was something that was addressed by my proofreading training course (via The Publishing Training Centre), and it’s a tricky nut to crack, one that on occasion still stumps me, even though I have years of practice under my belt.
To clarify, this article is framed within the context of the proofreader who is working with page proofs, because this is the case where the artistry of sensitive and sensible proofreading practice really comes into play.
What are page proofs?
The mainstream publisher will usually require the proofreader to work on page proofs:
“Page proofs are so called because they are laid out as exactly as they will appear in the final printed book. If all has gone well, what the proofreader is looking at will be almost what the reader sees if they were to walk into a bookshop, pull this title off the shelf and browse through the pages. The layout process has been taken care of by a professional typesetter who designs the text in a way that is pleasing to the eye and in accordance with a publisher’s brief” (Not all proofreading is the same: Part I – Working with page proofs).
In this case, the proofreader does not amend the text directly. She annotates the page proofs.
Why is proofreading an art?
Proofreading entails finding solutions to any final problems that have escaped the author’s, copy-editor’s, and typesetter’s attention. These professionals are only human, and it’s unusual not to find at least a few problems in a set of page proofs, despite the fact that the manuscript has been reviewed multiple times. In fact, precisely because there are so many rounds of review, the opportunity for errors to be introduced is higher.
The artistry comes in because it’s not enough to be able to spot those final pesky typos, misplaced apostrophes, incorrect running heads, missing captions, poorly aligned table figures, and so on. The good proofreader needs to know when to leave well enough alone.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) says: “… Part of the job is light editing within tight limits, but professional proofreaders do not re-edit the material. They intervene only with good reason [my emphasis]” (CIEP, n.d. FAQs: Proofreading). Here’s a brief summary of why proofreaders need to take care with the extent of their mark-up:
A cautionary tale and a lesson learned
Have I ever over-marked? Have I intervened when I should have left well enough alone? Alas, yes. And I wasn't an inexperienced proofreader when it happened. I’ve elected to share my tale of shame in the hope that any over-enthusiastic proofreaders reading this will be able to learn from the mistake I made!
A few years ago I proofread an academic book for a regular publisher client. The book was copy-edited by an editor with whom I’d worked on several occasions. She always does a super job. And, really, that should have been the only alarm bell I needed. The page proofs arrived and I noticed that the book was littered with whiches – rather than thats – being used for restrictive relative clauses.
I changed them all. In pen. After all, I reasoned, even though in British English this usage is acceptable (though not always preferred), my publisher client is a stickler and the book’s market is international. Satisfied that I’d done a very fine job indeed I posted back the proofs to the copy-editor, who went on to collate my changes with the author’s.
A week later I received a very polite email from a frustrated copy-editor. She informed me that though she, too, would have preferred to change every appropriate “which” to “that,” the author was particularly sensitive to having his copy amended and she’d had to settle for a lighter edit. She’d notified the in-house project manager and the decision had been agreed. “In future, if any extensive changes need to be made, would you be kind enough to check first? I'm going to have to stet a lot of your mark-up.”
On an embarrassment scale of one to ten, I rated at least fifteen. My face was redder than my proofreading pen. I’d wasted my time and I’d wasted hers. And if I’d simply checked with her (or the in-house project manager) before I’d let my pen run wild, the problem could have been avoided. I still work for that publisher and I still proofread books for that copy-editor. But I learned my lesson.
A note: A colleague who reviewed this article argued persuasively that the embarrassment shouldn't have been mine alone – in this situation I wasn't given a comprehensive style sheet detailing the decisions made.
Either the copy-editor or the publisher could have supplied one – certainly many professional editors consider this to be not only good business practice but proper business practice. At the very least, someone could have emailed me with a brief heads-up.
Nevertheless, since the proofreader cannot guarantee that they’ll receive such a style sheet, and busy editors and publishers are only human and sometimes forget things, my point about querying stands.
It’s always, always better to clarify than to assume.
Amend, query or move on?
Editing is an art. But proofreading is, too. Sometimes we need to stop and think before we amend; sometimes we need to put down the pen and either query or move on. Knowing when to leave well enough alone can be a tricky call to make.
We’re not here to re-edit. What we do sits in the context of a chain of decisions that have already been made by other professionals – decisions about budget, schedule, style, brief and design. Failing to acknowledge this fact can lead to time wastage at best, and harm at worst.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
4/6/2014 09:36:51 am
Brava! And thanks so much for mentioning the problem of publishers who don't pass along editors' style sheets. You might be surprised how many times sharing the style sheet doesn't occur to a project manager!
4/6/2014 09:41:57 am
I plan to look at this very point in my June column for Rich "An American Editor" Adin, Kathy! Editors and proofreaders are advised to give their busy PMs a little nudge.
4/6/2014 07:57:13 pm
Outstanding post, Louise! How many of us can honestly say we haven't done something similar -- tweaked and adjusted when we really should have asked first? I'm with you and Katharine on this -- gotta have that style sheet!
5/6/2014 01:34:28 am
A great article, Louise. I've recently had feedback from a publisher starting with "We wouldn't normally change... ". I was feeling quite disheartened but it's nice to know I'm in good company! It didn't occur to me to ask for a style sheet but next time I definitely will.
5/6/2014 03:41:01 am
Interesting article, Louise. Which/that - This is one of those issues that really jumps out at me if I see or hear 'which' being used instead of 'that'. So I always edit it (though, granted, I do this as a copy-editor rather than a proofreader).
5/6/2014 03:30:38 pm
My problem as a proofreader is when people above me in the hierarchy (I work at a medcomm agency) insist that I "missed" mistakes when those mistakes were in my mind unnecessary changes at such a late stage. And each client has his/her own grammar peculiarities. It's as if I need to mind read three other people when I am proofreading.
6/6/2014 03:33:33 am
I think Kathy’s comment above is pertinent to your situation, Martha. If you work with the same client on a regular basis, it would be worth asking each person to provide you with a comprehensive project-based style sheet that clearly states their grammar preferences, the level of intervention they’re expecting from you at this late stage, and so on. As you point out, what one person considers to be a “miss” will be different from what another thinks. It’s the client’s responsibility to provide this clarity for you and if they are not doing so it’s worth asking for it. It will show them that you are a professional who is proactively attempting to streamline the process in a way that provides them with the proofreading solutions they want. And as you say, you’re not telepathic. If they have a set of preferences, they need to clarify these beforehand, in writing, so that you can do the very best job for them. Good luck!
15/5/2015 04:47:49 pm
It's always a pleasure to read your well-written posts, Louise. I found this one through Katharine's KOK Edit site. I'm grateful for vets like you two who take the trouble to pass on your valuable knowledge. Thanks!
18/5/2015 10:15:47 am
Thank you very much indeed, Robert!
9/11/2018 09:59:09 am
Really useful article Louise. I'm a newbie and this has put a few things into prospective. Thank you
9/12/2019 12:02:04 pm
Thank you, Allison!
9/12/2019 12:02:23 pm
14/12/2020 07:03:23 am
I read through some of your article. I am presently taking a Proofreading course. I understand that the Proofreader does not make actual changes to a document but only makes the marks pointing out the punctuation and such as a suggestion and it is ultimately up to the writer to make those changes. But, in what I read from this piece, I get the feeling the Proofreader is not even supposed to note any mistakes in the document either??? If so, what is the point of involving a Proofreader? I ask since someone said the Proofreader needs to mind her own business??
14/12/2020 09:47:04 am
Hi, Sharon. I didn't say a proofreader isn't supposed to note any mistakes in the document. Rather, I said that the proofreader needs to decide whether to mark up for a change, or just query, or leave alone. So if an apostrophe is misplaced, we would mark up the proofs. If a character's date of birth changes, the proofreader needs to query. But if a character's dialogue seems a bit stilted, or an author's used a lot of adverbs that feel overly clunky, that's not the proofreader's remit; they need to mind their own business and move on. It's a balance. Some indie authors ask for a proofread, but what they need is a more substantive line edit first, so it's imperative that a proofreader ensures that they and the author are using the term 'proofread' in the same way. See the Editor Resources section on my website, and go to the topic on Types of Editing for more information about the different levels of editing. https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/editor-resources.html
15/12/2020 09:52:59 am
Hi Louise. Thanks for responding. Yes. I see. It can be confusing and I agree proofreading has very specific tasks and does not involve any kind of rewriting. If someone came to me with that much work that needed to be done, I would have told them so and directed them to a copyeditor most likely.
30/9/2022 06:15:43 pm
Thank you, Louise, I really appreciate you sharing your insight on this---I often feel guilty when I let poor wording slide by without marking it up.
Susan Barringer Wells
28/1/2023 05:39:48 am
2 questions: 1. Do you know of any one person who can research, write and edit a book for someone, adding that person's comments and editing those as well, and be able to catch every error in comma use and spelling without proofreading help from anyone else?
28/1/2023 09:47:54 pm
Hi, Susan. Thanks for your questions.
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