“Look this over, please,” is the most common direction an editor will get. And the editor smiles, holding out her hand, readying her magic eight-ball to figure out exactly what is expected of her.
Proofreading is a term that derives from the classic print workflow wherein the printer provided clients with a “proof”—a test run of their work on the printing press. A keen-eyed person—either an employee of the printer or the client herself—would then read that proof, checking that all elements were in place, set according to design parameters, and that no errors were made in composing the plate of movable type. (Essentially the process of transcribing the manuscript onto the printing medium.)
“Proofreading” is done on a test run of the final product.
Copyediting came a stage before the work was sent to the printer. An editor reviewed the copy (words) to ensure there were no spelling or grammatical errors, that house style was followed, and that word choices and other elements were consistent internally.
The thing is, these terms are thrown around with abandon. Most people who are not part of a classically grounded publishing process (e.g., not working for a publisher) will look for a proofreader, period. They might be aware of other types of editors but have no deep understanding of what they do. Often, you won’t hear the words proofread or copyedit at all.
When one boss (or writer) says “look this over,” she means “make sure I haven’t made any embarrassing errors.” Another boss means “check the flow and sense of this.” The more common meaning is “please fix the grammar and spelling.” (Though the most common meaning is, “please hand this back to me and tell me how brilliant I am.”)
How to Read Minds
Determine where in the process this piece of writing is. If this has already been through months of committee review and several layers of approvals—or even through several rounds of copyediting—proofreading is in order. Anything more than changing egregious errors at this point severely impacts the cost and timeline. Cost comes not only from the cost of the editor’s time but also from the cost of the compositor or designer needed to implement those changes. And, of course, everything takes time; changes can impact the deadline. Changes that affect pagination—cause work to reflow—or require copyright permissions, are especially verboten at this stage.
If this is the first time an editor has looked at this work, ask about the deadline and how much more time they would like to work on this. Often the deadline is “one hour from now,” even though the work is 100,000 words; and the person handing you this manuscript may never want to look at those words again. Suggesting substantive changes to this person may set off a temper tantrum or full nervous breakdown. In this situation, the editor may have to enter triage editing mode, and correct only the most noticeable errors and inconsistencies, in favor of meeting the deadline and injecting peace and harmony in a fraught process.
How to Know for Sure
Hand over a checklist that details the precise checks and suggestions that can be made—no matter what the editing stage is called—and have the boss/writer select exactly what they would like done. To make your own checklist, you might start with a detailed list such as Professional Editorial Standards (put out by Editors Canada).
Of course, you may then have to have a discussion about how much time these checks will take and implement, and scale their expectations accordingly. More on that another time.
Look to these other posts when you need to figure out what can be done in the time available: