Today’s post is the final in my series on editing. I’ve talked about content editing, copy editing, and now we’ll look at proofreading. If you have a manuscript that you believe needs to be proofread before sending out, and you hire someone to proof it, you need to know upfront exactly what kind of service you will receive.

I learned early on when I started doing freelance editing and proofing that most people do not know the difference among the various types of editing. An author would hire me to do a proofread, so that’s what I would do, but then he would be unhappy because I didn’t catch his errors in sentence structure or paragraph organization. I quickly learned to ask a lot of questions to find out precisely what kind of editing a client wants and expects. As a writer, you need to do the same. Be very clear when you’re hiring an editor so that you both know exactly what the expectations are upfront.

If you ask for a proofread, this is what you’ll get: Your manuscript will be checked for typos, misspelled words, missing words, incorrect word usage, incorrect punctuation, inconsistencies in formatting (different-sized headings or subheads, for example), incorrect indentation of paragraphs or sections of the manuscript, correct formatting of notes and references (at the proofing stage, facts are typically not checked again, unless specifically requested), correct pagination, capitalization errors, correct use of italics and other effects.

If you need more than this checked on your manuscript, you will then need to ask for a copy edit, or perhaps even a content edit. At a typical publishing house, a manuscript normally will get proofread three times by three separate people–this is in addition to the layers of content editing and copy editing that it receives. If you are working with an independent proofreader, you should expect to have your manuscript read through twice in order to catch all the errors. It is nearly impossible to get everything on a single read.

Because of the varying degrees of work necessary for the different types of editing, the price you will be charged will also vary from proofing to copy editing to content editing, increasing in cost from proofing to content editing. I hesitate to add prices here because the market fluctuates, as in any industry, and the prices I quote will quickly be outdated.

My best advice is to contact at least three editors, ask for the same type of editing, and find out what each charges. They should all be within the same basic range. If one is extremely low or high, don’t rule that person out, but find out why. Maybe her experience level is very different from the others.

In addition to price, you’ll want to know how long the editor has worked in the editing field, what types of editing can she do, what are her strengths and weaknesses (some may only do nonfiction, for example), if she’s always worked as a freelancer or if she’s also worked in-house at a publishing company (this is simply helpful to know because an editor who has worked for a publisher may have more in-depth knowledge of the whole process, which can be helpful), how she will indicate changes on your manuscript (using Track Changes in Word, highlighting them, changing font color, etc.), and what the turnaround time will be.

I would also ask for at least one reference. Sometimes writers like to ask to see examples of previous edits the editor has done. I have to admit, I have never saved my editing work! Some editors might, but I know there are many like me who don’t, so this request may not get you too far. Instead, what is more helpful, is to ask if the editor could do a sample edit on your manuscript. I often offer this to customers, especially if they are unsure of the process and don’t really know what to expect from my editing. I will usually edit one or two pages, focusing on the type of editing they are asking for.

If you ask for this sample edit from three editors, you’ll get a very good idea of what to expect from each and which one you’ll probably want to work with. Before hiring an editor, be very clear on your deadline. If you need to get your manuscript to a publisher or agent by a certain date, be sure to add some margin into your time frame for your finished edit. It’s likely that you and your editor will go back and forth on changes, especially at the content and copy edit level, and that may take time.

I tried to cover all of the basics and then some about the editing process in these four posts, but if you have any additional specific questions, please post a comment, and I’ll do my best to answer for you.

Because over 50% of my business involves some sort of editing, I often get emails out of the blue asking for editing help. These inquiries typically look something like this:

“Hello, I have a manuscript I’ve just completed, and I need someone to look it over before I send it to a publisher. How much do you charge for editing?”

In response, I have to answer…

“It depends on what kind of editing you need.”

The reply back is normally…

“Well, I don’t know. I just need it to look good.”


It’s very difficult for me to offer a quote with this information. There are many kinds of editing, each having a specific goal, and usually, a different price tag. In Part 1 of this Editing Series, I will present an overview of 3 major types of editing. To be technically correct, these 3 types are broken into even smaller subsections, but I’ve found from a practical standpoint of actually doing the work involved with each of these 3 types, I always include the corresponding subsections in my editing as well.

From broadest to most specific, these 3 areas of editing are:

1. Substantive Editing (I sometimes refer to this as Content Editing when speaking to clients because it better describes the type of editing it is.):

This is the first phase of editing, typically done after the final version of the rough draft is completed. In this phase, an editor will focus on overall organization, presentation, and clarity of the manuscript. This will look very different for fiction vs. nonfiction works. I’ll talk more about the specific elements of each in my next post, but as an overview, some things an editor will look for in this phase include: the flow and transition of paragraphs and thought, consistencies in characters’ dialects, character development, point of view shifts, organization of chapters, use of techniques such as flashbacks, and other such big-picture ideas.

2. Copyediting or Line Editing (Some people call this Manuscript Editing, but to me that’s a pretty vague term and makes this process even more confusing!):

This editing phase will occur after the author has reworked his manuscript based on the editor’s changes and suggestions from the substantive edit. At this point, the manuscript is in its final form from the author’s standpoint. In this phase, the editor will scrutinize the manuscript line by line, searching for things such as: style consistency (including adherence to a house style if necessary), use of redundancies or repetitive words, accuracy of reference notes and tables, proper punctuation, sentence structure, proper grammar, and spelling. The main goal with a copyedit is clarity. It is the editor’s job to make the manuscript as clear and readable as possible, without usurping the author’s voice and style.

3. Proofreading (Technically, this is not really editing, but it is part of the editing process–or should be–for every manuscript.):

Proofreading is the final stage of the editing process and is often done more than once. At publishing houses, manuscripts are normally proofread three times, each time by a different person. Proofreading normally takes place immediately before and then after a manuscript has been formatted for publication. Proofing is the nitty-gritty phase of editing, where editors (some editors don’t do proofreading but will pass the manuscript onto those who specialize in proofing) focus on all the details of the manuscript. Some of these details include: typos, misspellings, punctuation, errors in reference notes, proper pagination, errors in headings/footers, and overall formatting and visual issues.

In my next post, I’ll begin looking at each of these areas in more detail and include tips for self-editing at each stage as well as suggestions on how to find professional help when you need it.

If you’re a writer looking for an additional source of revenue, you may want to consider proofreading or editing. This is not to say that just because you can write you can edit (or vice-versa), but if you find you have a knack for it–and enjoy it–it can be a great way to bring in some extra money while your writing business is gaining momentum, and it can provide an excellent source of industry connections.

There are essentially three categories of editing, all of which are quite different from one another. Typically if you get hired for a project by a publisher, you would be expected to do only one of these three. If you are working for an independent author or a small business, then you may do all three. The three categories are as follows:

1. Content editing–In content editing you are looking at the big picture: For nonfiction this would include overall flow and organization of materials, paragraph structure and construction (do all paragraphs stick to one thought or theme or are they scattered?), passive vs. active voice, style, clarity, etc. For fiction you’d also be checking for use and consistency of dialogue, story arc, conflict, resolution, story pacing, and character development.

Your job as a content editor is to make sure that the writing reads well overall, makes sense, and has a logical flow. Content editors will re-arrange paragraphs, cut scenes that don’t work, and add text to give the writing clarity.

2. Copy editing or line editing–While the copy editor will make note of any of the above content editing issues, the focus here is more on sentence structure, proper grammar, precise wording, and fact checking. By the time the copy editor gets the manuscript from the publisher, the “big picture” stuff should be ironed out. It’s the copy editor’s job to go through the manuscript line by line (hence the job title) and work on individual sentences and wording. Also, if there are quotes used or other references in the text, the copy editor will check those for accuracy.

3. Proofreading–This is the final stage of the editing process, and most publishers have 2-3 proofers that will read a manuscript before it heads to print. At this point, you will be looking for spelling mistakes, words used incorrectly, punctuation errors, typos, consistency with heading/subheading styles, and, at the final proof, formatting issues. If you are a detail-oriented person, proofreading can be fun. If you’re not, it’s a nightmare!

If you think you may be good at one or all of the above and want to try your hand at it, one good way to break in is to contact publishing houses and ask if they use contract or freelance proofreaders and/or editors.  In all cases, they will give you a test, which involves editing a sample manuscript according to their house style guides and other resources they use (AP style manual or Chicago Manual of Style, for instance). It’s more common for publishers to hire freelancers for proofing and copy editing than for content editing, which they will typically do in-house.

Once you get in with one publisher and prove yourself, it’s easier to walk through other doors. Often you can “work your way up” as well, starting out as a proofreader then moving to a copy editor and then a content editor. Even though the skills are unique for each, and one isn’t “better” than another, there seems to be an unwritten rule that proofreaders are the bottom rung of the ladder!

Although classes do exist for editing–usually at community colleges or through writing workshops–the best way to learn is simply by practicing. You can also learn a lot by paying close attention to what edits have been made to manuscripts that you’ve sent to publishers. I always like to compare my original work with the post-edited finished product to see what the editors changed. Not only does that help be become a better writer, but I learn about the editing process as well.

There are also many online forums and networking groups strictly for editors. These can be an excellent place to ask questions about the industry, get editing tips, and find out where the jobs are.

Don’t discount editing if you think you might be good at it. I’ve landed many writing jobs as a result of the in-house editors getting to know me first through my editing/proofing skills.

We all know that computer spell-checkers can’t catch all of our spelling errors due to words that are spelled correctly but used in the wrong form, or words that should have been written as a compound word but were instead written as two correctly spelled words, etc.

But, have you noticed that even you don’t always catch your spelling errors–even after reading through your document two or three times? One reason for this is because your eye tends to rearrange the order of letters in words to see them correctly. When you just read through a sentence at normal speed, your eye will adjust letters and words, and therefore, you often won’t catch your own mistakes.

In fact, studies have determined that the only letters that are truly important when we read are the first and last ones, if they are forming a word that’s familiar to us. The letters in the middle don’t matter!

One way around this is to start at the end of your document and read it backwards. This forces you to look at every single word on its own instead of allowing it to form a sentence. And, it causes you to actually “see” the letters and not just skim through them so your mind will fill in the blanks. Not only will you catch spelling errors this way, but you’ll also pick up on grammar mistakes that you may otherwise not see.

Another use for backwards reading is for counting words. I often write my draft with pen and paper but still need to do a periodic word count. By starting at the end, I’m less likely to lose my count as I don’t “read” the words while I’m counting but rather only “see” them.

Another tip for catching mistakes is to read your work aloud. Your mouth moves slower than your brain (well, for some of us), and just the action of having to speak your words will slow you down long enough to find errors or to hear words and sentences that don’t sound right.

So, next time you have to proof your work, read backwards. Then read aloud. Just don’t try to do both at the same time!