My Job.

This was posted on Facebook, and I thought I might as well put it here, since I often complain about bad proofreading/editing in books and since non-editors tend not to know these distinctions:

Different communities of editors use different terms for similar concepts. I’m in Canada — and Canadian editors tend to use the terminology in Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, which spell out what is included in each type of editing:

1. Structural Editing (also called substantive editing, developmental editing, and content editing): reworking the content of a document to get rid of repetitions and gaps, put the ideas into a logical progression, make sure the narrative flows smoothly, and so on. It’s the big-picture stuff.
2. Stylistic editing tries to make the document a better read. For example, a stylistic editor reworks educational materials so that the reading level match the students’ reading ability, or edits humor to make it funnier.
3. Copy editing fixes problems with spelling, grammar and consistency of language use. (Line editing is a vague term that can mean many things, but usually means stylistic editing and copy editing combined.)
4. Proofreading is checking the formatted document. The proofreader carefully reviews the work of the formatter and also checks the editing that has been done on the document. Proofreading is not editing — it is checking the work of editors.

Greg Ioannou, Freelance editor since 1977. Honorary life member of Editors’ Ass’n of Canada

I started out as a proofreader in the early ’80s and was eventually promoted to copyeditor (though I resisted the promotion for a bit, because I wasn’t sure I wanted the added responsibility — I’m fundamentally lazy and unambitious); as a freelancer, I guess I would call what I do line editing according to the above classification, except that I would never say that because nobody would know what it meant, so I always say “copyediting.” I take care of all the basic copyediting stuff (spelling, grammar, following the appropriate style manual), but I also point out problems in logic, errors in fact, misquotes, and the like. And if you noticed the inconsistency above (Greg writes “copy editing,” I write “copyediting”), yep, that’s one of those things (like the serial comma, or “Oxford comma”) that can go either way; I like it closed up. Also, if you noticed that — and if you don’t care greatly about money — you may have a future in editing!


  1. SFReader says

    I am confused about definition of “copy editing” here.

    I had an impression that “fixing problems with spelling and grammar” is something which is done by spell check function in Word.

  2. Hahahaha!

    Uh, if you’re not joking, you’ve clearly never tried to rely on the spell check function in Word. Trust me, it catches some errors but also a lot of things that aren’t errors, and it misses a lot of things that are (for instance, misspellings that happen to be words in their own right, which is a lot of them). It’s going to be a good long while before software can replace human editing; certainly not in my lifetime.

  3. SFReader says

    {scared} I must have sent a ton of low quality documents to all kinds of people then…

  4. That’s why those people hire editors! Don’t worry, nobody expects authors to turn in perfect documents. (If they did, we editors would be out of a job…)

  5. I also started out proofreading highly specialized journals (incl. Pacific Science, Oceanic Linguistics) after taking a test that revealed a sharp eye for detail. (My daughter inherited that sharp eye and used to catch typos in the many youth lit books she read.) In the earliest days (late 1970s) we double-proofed Pac Sci, with one person reading the copyedited mss (including every pencil edit) aloud and the other checking to make sure everything had been typeset properly, but that soon became too costly, so one proofer would familiar with the content would proofread, checking anything questionable against the copyedited mss pages. When I first “graduated” to copyediting, I had to mark actual typespecs (typeface, weight, size, and special characters, not just stylecodes) for Oceanic Linguistics, which was typeset (retyped, not just composed) in Hong Kong by workers who knew little English but were generally quite accurate.

    Nowadays I catch a lot of errors in Kindle books that suggest many publishers scan and OCR the printed pages to generate the Kindle edition, rather than working from the same digital version that generated print.

  6. with one person reading the copyedited mss (including every pencil edit) aloud and the other checking to make sure everything had been typeset properly

    That’s how we still did it in the early ’80s; I miss those days, using “com” and “point” and “bang” for the punctuation and trading places when one got tired of reading. It was companionable. But of course they discovered one-man proofreading was cheaper…

  7. And, of course, zero-person proofreading is the cheapest of all.

    Apparently, OCRing and scanning is cheaper than digital format conversion.

  8. Narmitaj says

    @ Joel: “so one proofer would familiar with the content would proofread”

    Heh heh! Occupational buzzard, if that’s the mo’ juice. Of course, proofing what you’ve written yourself is often a bit tricky. I can write and re-read stuff a number of times and then spot howling errors only after pressing send or print or whatever.

  9. @narmitaj: Nice catch. Yes, authors are their own worst proofreaders, focusing on the content more than the form, and usually content they’re already too familiar with.

  10. The various standards bodies that I write for make a point of publishing early drafts to help avoid this “oops, sent too soon” problem. There is generally a series of “committee drafts” on which anyone may comment. When the content is assumed to be complete, a “last call” draft is announced more widely. At this point, error reports are still accepted, but requests for substantive changes are usually not. Then there is a “final draft”, and even after that there may be a limited period for post-final corrections. In the IETF RFC process this is called “48 hours”, but often lasts for weeks, especially when there are multiple authors.

  11. I was mostly struck by how clunky is Ioannou’s writing. I appreciate it’s only a blog post, but it could do with some Stylistic editing.

    Presumably ‘Editors Canada’ is some professional organisation and their ‘Professional Editorial Standards’ is some sort of rulebook. Parsing that pile-up of five capitalised words distracted me from whatever he’s trying to say. A good example for splitting it up with explicit ‘of’. (And do we need Canada to appear three times in that sentence?)

    The syntax/voice of each numbered point is inconsistent. Why the colon in point 1. only? Why switch between point 1.’s input effort vs point 2.’s “tries to” vs point 3.’s output result vs point 4.’s vague “checking”? (Does that “checking” have any effect on the final document?)

    Is it the case that those who can (write), do; and those who can’t copyedit? Then Hat is a shining exception.

  12. *shuffles feet, doffs cap*

  13. MS Word underlining can now distinguish not-a-word from rare-word-maybe-misspelt-common-word, which brings it one tree branch closer to the moon.

  14. As someone who deals with a lot of texts written by Arabic speakers, it will be a great and glorious day when MS Word can tell when you really mean to write “bitch” instead of “pitch,” or “massage” instead of “message.” In the meantime, thank heavens for copy editors of all stripes.

  15. The product I worked on two lifetimes ago at Ginger Software specializes in the existing-word error type you mentioned in your comment, and does a very good job. Try the demo on their site.

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