I wrote this article for New Zealand Author, the official publication of the New Zealand Society of Authors. It was published last week.

You have drafted and redrafted. You may have had some or all of your manuscript assessed. Finally, with relief and incredulity, you have typed The End and poured yourself a glass of champagne (or collapsed in a jibbering heap on the floor, whichever feels most fitting).

Hopefully, I am preaching to an already converted readership, so I’ll say it only once: Whether you are planning to self-publish, or are bravely sending your manuscript off to a traditional publisher, now is the time to engage a proofreader/copy editor. Rather than bang on about why—there are countless internet articles answering that question—I am going to share some thoughts on what makes a good proofreader/copy editor, and how you can find one.

A quick note on definitions:

Proofreading involves ensuring that writing is free of errors—in punctuation, spelling, layout, consistency and formatting—and grammatically correct. The goal is accuracy. Copy editing involves a thorough proofread, as well as making adjustments to improve the document. The goal with copy editing is two-fold: accuracy and improvement.

What makes a good proofreader/copy editor?

Let’s take some basic attributes as read: proper qualifications, skill, accuracy, professionalism, competitive pricing. But what sets the really good ones apart?

A really good proofreader/copy editor will:

  1. Have life experience. They will be a well-rounded person who can bring discernment, maturity and sensitivity to the page. Sensing when to lean heavily and when to tread lightly requires more than just a diploma and a red pen.
  2. Treat your manuscript with respect. Your work deserves to be approached professionally, whether it is a 100-page memoir that you wrote mostly for your own satisfaction, or a 600-page novel painstakingly crafted after years of research.
  3. Do only what is asked of them. If you ask for your work to be proofread only, that is what they will do, and they will put this agreement in writing before they begin. That said, do listen if your proofreader (sensitively) suggests that your manuscript may benefit from more than just a proofread.
  4. Correct and/or improve your work without rewriting it in their own style. A good proofreader moves out of her own way when she starts work, bringing her skills and objectivity to the page, not herself.
  5. Make all corrections and suggestions with tact and sensitivity, recognising that a writer surrendering his or her work for critique can feel fragile and exposed.
  6. Be upfront if they feel they don’t have the necessary expertise to deal with your manuscript. Most proofreaders can confidently proof nearly any document, but if your book is packed full of technical jargon you may want to look for someone familiar with your subject matter.
  7. Not take it personally if you decide not to incorporate some of their copy editing suggestions into your work. Ultimately, it is your manuscript. That said, a good copy editor will have useful gifts to offer. Accept them as often as you can.
  8. Maintain strict confidentiality at all times.

How do I find one?

Word of mouth is always best. Ask fellow writers you trust about their experiences. Google and other internet search engines have their place, but use discernment. There are many proofreaders out there, some good, some not so good. Make contact with a few, and observe how and when they get back to you, and how they answer your questions. Talk to them on the phone or in person if possible. If they offer a free trial, take them up on it. Ask them if you can talk to one or two of their past clients. A proofreader confident in their ability should be happy to do this (as long as the past clients are agreeable. See No. 8 above).

Don’t be afraid to ask them about their qualifications and experience, and ask to see their portfolio. Many proofreaders will have worked on a variety of projects published in the public domain—brochures, flyers, media releases, websites etc., and will have examples they can show you.

For many of us, writing a book will be one of the most significant undertakings of our lives. The right proofreader/copy editor will handle your words with care, helping to ensure that the end result is clear, correct and compelling.


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