When you ask me to edit or proofread, what exactly do you mean?

14th January 2019 | Posted in Blogging, book, Editing, Marketing communications

Agreeing on what's meant by editing and proofreading is a bit of a battle sometimes


You know what you want. But do I?

“Editing” and its sibling “proofreading” are words that mean everything and nothing.

So it pays to make sure we agree.

Let’s take the examples of Jack and Susu (who are not really called Jack and Susu but they are real customers).

Jack is way out of my usual business client profile, but a joy to work with. Since he retired he’s started studying for new qualifications and taken an interest in reporting on community matters.  He writes great stuff, but as a stream of consciousness. He asked me to edit his work. After several projects he trusts me to take his words, organise them logically, and give them strength while making them lean. All this while still speaking in his voice. He truly appreciates how I help him.

On the other hand, Susu, who runs a small business, also asked for editing help for her blog. But it transpired she meant something quite different. Susu simply wanted her grammar and spelling corrected. She greeted my suggestions for better flow and messaging with curbed enthusiasm. Indeed I would say she was offended.

The lesson I’ve learned from these and many business clients is that when you ask me to edit or proofread, it’s really important to reach an understanding about exactly what that entails.

Once upon a time

Here’s a little history that might help explain why there’s confusion.

Way back when I started out in publishing, we had distinct roles for editors, sub-editors/copy-editors and proofreaders.

  • The editor commissioned the article or book.
  • The sub-editor or copy editor worked through the manuscript to edit for clarity, structure and language.
  • The proofreader checked the proofs created by the printers against the manuscript. (In those days printers re-keyed the whole text, so errors did happen).

Today we don’t need all those stages. So the meaning of copy-editing, sub-editing and proofreading have all become absorbed into each other.

Various meanings today

From my long experience of working with business clients, I’ve arrived at the numerous definitions. Here are just four.

  1. Could you edit this material that we have created?” Meaning: You would like me to look at the flow, sense, grammar and spelling, and application of house style. Answer. After agreeing that’s what you need, I will edit it, using tracked changes, so you can accept or reject every suggestion. And I always say “suggestion”. It is your copy after all.
  2. Could you proofread this material that we have created?” Meaning: Probably you want it checked for spelling and grammar. But if the document is obviously in need of a bit more help to make the messaging clearer, I’ll talk to you about it. Answer. Happy to do so.
  3. “Could you cast your eye over this if you have time?” Meaning: In many cases “You were involved in writing the copy. Now it’s in situ in a pdf could you possibly look at the layout and check for any further typos, without charging us more?” Answer. Of course. It’s in my interests to make sure it’s as close to perfect as it can be.
  4. Could you edit this for our blog?” Meaning: Tricky, this one. Doesn’t come up very often but it can mean “Can you plagiarise this from someone else’s work?” Answer. No. It does a disservice to your customers and the original writers. But we can always talk about creating your own unique content.

Simple answer every time

Let’s talk more about what you really need to make sure your copy is what your customers want to read.


Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

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