FAQs: Using copy-editors and proofreaders

Many of these questions are addressed in the SfEP's Code of Practice.

Click any of the frequently asked questions below to see the corresponding answer.

Why do I, the author, need a copy-editor?

If you are an author, you may have been crafting your work for a long time. You know it better than anyone. The idea of some stranger altering so much as a comma may seem unthinkable.

However, your very closeness to and familiarity with your work may be blinding you to its flaws. You hold the whole text in your mind, and you have developed its ideas in sequence right through to its conclusion. You can't now put yourself in the reader's place by somehow 'unknowing' any of this. A copy-editor, though, will bring fresh eyes to your text, helping you to reveal your concepts in a logical order.

You may also be less than confident in spelling and in your use of grammar (and it's unwise to rely on spelling and grammar checkers). Perhaps you know what you want to say but find it hard to put it into words. A copy-editor will be sufficiently detached from the writing process to spot mistakes and inconsistencies that distract the reader.

Above all, he or she can add a professional finish to your work that will make it a cut above the rest.

Why do I, the publisher/company/organisation, need a copy-editor?

Many of the same arguments presented in the FAQ above still apply. It is also important that your customers feel they are getting value for money – publishing poorly edited copy (or copy that has not been edited at all) could reflect extremely badly on you and/or your company/organisation. And if the text is about something that could potentially harm someone – say, medical or DIY instructions – it would be extremely foolhardy to allow the copy to be released to the public without it first being checked by an editor.

Can I copy-edit my own work?

You may be able to deal with all the editorial functions outlined in What does a copy-editor do?. But you will lack the fresh eye that a copy-editor will bring to your work, and this could lead to mistakes creeping in. In fact, most copy-editors never agree to edit their own writing for just this reason.

Why do I need a proofreader?

It's a truism that no one should proofread their own work – no matter how many times you check it, there will invariably be an obvious error that you miss. You see what's on the page but your brain interprets what it wants or expects to read, not always what is actually there, and it takes a 'fresh eye' to break this pattern.

In addition, a professional proofreader will be familiar with the production process and will know which changes will be uneconomic. Adding or removing even a single word may, in some circumstances, have a 'knock-on' effect that drastically alters page layout, resulting in unacceptable costs and delay.

Where can I find a copy-editor or proofreader?

The best place to look is in the SfEP Directory of Editorial Services. You can search the Directory free online, looking for proofreaders or copy-editors with particular specialist subjects, skills, media and software, and in specific locations.

Inclusion in the Directory is restricted to SfEP Professional and Advanced Professional Members – that is, those who have demonstrated an acceptable level of skill and experience.

How long will it take to proofread or copy-edit my book?

It is not easy to give an average number of words per hour that can be used to estimate how long proofreading will take. However, a basic rule of thumb for a straightforward, mostly text, publication is to allow for a proofreading rate of about 10 pages per hour with about 300 words per page.

There are so many variables involved in copy-editing – the state of the manuscript/computer file, the author's ability to spell, use grammar, etc., the amount of fact-checking required, to name but a few – that it is very difficult to make a stab at the time it will take to edit without a detailed look at the manuscript. Thus such a 'guesstimate' should be used only as a guide.

Be prepared for your copy-editor or proofreader to come back to you with a revised estimate after they have read some of the copy and found it more problematic than originally envisaged.

How much does a copy-editor or proofreader cost?

Cost is a matter of negotiation between an individual freelance and a client. However, the SfEP suggests minimum hourly rates for various editorial services, and the National Union of Journalists' freelance fees guide lists similar rates, plus others for writing, design, translation, etc.

Although these rates are only suggestions and not enforceable, we would always encourage members and others working in the profession to accept lower rates only if they feel they are fair and reasonable for the job in hand, and never to accept unworkably low rates even to gain experience. You may be able to find experienced individuals who will do editorial work for less than the suggested rates, as there is some variation depending on subject area, and an individual may always choose to accept a lower rate to take on a job of particular interest to them. Less experienced individuals may also be willing to work for a somewhat reduced rate to gain valuable experience. However, a member of the SfEP will always expect to be paid a fair and reasonable rate to reflect their professionalism, and we would always support them in this regard and suggest to clients that a good job is worth paying for. Non-SfEP editorial professionals may accept lower rates, but may also turn in a less professional piece of work.

Many freelances prefer to negotiate a flat fee for an entire job. This has the advantage of allowing the client to budget for work more exactly, and it is also a method preferred by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). However, it can be difficult for a freelance editor or proofreader to give a realistic estimate of how long a job might take or how difficult it might be, especially if they have not had sight of the material before making the estimate. Therefore, it should be possible to renegotiate a fee up to a certain point in the work – say, when a third has been edited/proofread – by which time any potential difficulties should have been discovered.

All freelances should be paid promptly, in full (unless part payments have previously been agreed) and in accordance with the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, amended and supplemented in 2002. Check out the Better Payment Practice Campaign website for more information.

What should I look for in a copy-editor or proofreader?

  • Training – ideally by the SfEP or the Publishing Training Centre, although other courses are available.
  • Experience – preferably in your subject area.
  • Specialist knowledge – desirable if your text is aimed at professionals.
  • Communication skills – as well as an eye for detail, editing and proofreading require tact and sensitivity, especially when raising queries.
  • Good knowledge of English – not only ability in spelling and grammar but also an awareness of the evolving nature of the language.
  • Good judgementCopy-editors: the ability to assess when to be flexible in applying house style and the rules of grammar. Proofreaders: the ability to assess when to make changes without incurring excessive costs/delays. Pedantry is an occupational hazard but should be tempered with common sense.
  • Restraint – in not rewriting in one's own style, to 'let the author's voice come through'.
  • Ability to keep to deadlines – major queries should be raised and answered without delay; minor queries should be handled as convenient to both parties but in sufficient time for the copy-editor/proofreader to return the job by the agreed date.

How should I brief a copy-editor?

You may discuss the work initially with the copy-editor by phone or in person. If so, follow up by email or letter right away with what you've agreed. When you send the job to the editor, include the following information:

  • Enclosures – What exactly have you sent the editor in addition to the manuscript or disks – photographs, illustrations, graphs, author's comments? Include a list of these things. Have all computer files been virus checked?
  • List of outstanding material – If there is anything still to come, list it – and tell the copy-editor when to expect it.
  • Tasks to be performed – Give guidance about the depth of editing. What is required: minimal intervention, restructuring and/or rewriting, or something in between? (More information about levels of editing can be found in section 5 of the SfEP Code of Practice.) Is the editor required to prepare preliminary pages, running headings, cover copy? Should electronic styles, codes or tags be used?
  • Important features – What is the target audience? Is the book in a series? Is there a house style or design specification? (If there is, enclose it.) Are there any exceptions to the house style? Is the work to be published in electronic form?
  • Presentation and listing of illustrations – Are labels on line drawings to be edited? Should photographs be scaled or cropped? If any images are copyright, has permission for reproduction been obtained? Are any acknowledgements needed? Is the copy-editor required to compile a list of artwork? Who is to write any captions?
  • Relevant background – Are there any specific requests – e.g. from expert readers? Has anything been agreed with the author or publisher that the copy-editor should be aware of? With whom should the copy-editor liaise over queries? Be sure to give all contact details.
  • Agreed fee, expenses, dates – What has been agreed for payment – an hourly rate? a page rate? a flat fee? If an estimate was requested beforehand, ask the copy-editor, once they have seen the material, to confirm or revise it. Which expenses will be reimbursed – e.g. postage, photocopying, telephone, travel, printer consumables? When is the edited material to be returned? Ask the copy-editor to contact you immediately if any unforeseen problems come to light that might affect the schedule/budget.
  • Administrative requirements – Should the copy-editor produce handover notes for the artist, designer and/or typesetter? You should insure against loss or damage to the contents of anything sent to the copy-editor, such as original artwork (and that includes insuring items in transit). How long should the copy-editor keep copies of electronic files and correspondence after publication?

How should I brief a proofreader?

You may discuss the work initially with the proofreader by phone or in person. If so, follow up by email or letter right away with what you've agreed. When you send the job to the proofreader, include the following information:

  • List of enclosures and outstanding material – (and date when this is expected to arrive).
  • Tasks to be performed – Are the proofs to be read against copy/previous proofs or 'blind'? Differentiate editorial and typesetter's errors? Collate proofreader's and author's proofs?
  • Important features – What is the target audience? Is the book in a series? Is there a house style/design specification? (If so, be sure to enclose it.) Are there any exceptions to the house style? Is the work to be published in electronic form?
  • Illustrations – Are labels on line drawings to be proofread? If any illustrations are copyright, has permission for reproduction been obtained? Do any acknowledgements need to be added (copyright owners sometimes require specific wording)?
  • Relevant background – Are there any specific requests – e.g. from the author? Has anything been agreed with the client of which the proofreader should be aware? With whom should the proofreader liaise over queries? Be sure to give all contact details.
  • Agreed dates, fee, expenses – When are the proofs to be returned? What is the agreed fee (hourly rate with estimated hours/page rate/flat fee)? Which expenses will be reimbursed (e.g. postage, photocopying, telephone, travel, printer consumables)? Ask the proofreader to confirm that they are happy with any estimates once they have seen the job and to contact you immediately if they find unforeseen problems that might affect the schedule/budget.
  • Administrative requirements – You should insure against loss or damage to the contents (and that includes insuring items in transit). How long should the proofreader keep copies of electronic files and correspondence after publication?