Nobody’s Perfect, or In Praise of the Proofreader

For today’s blog post, I’m here to sing the praises of the freelancer, and of copy-editors and proofreaders in particular.

Here at Piccadilly Press, in our London offices, we are a small, select and happy band, but we couldn’t do everything we do without leaning on our experienced team of freelance editorial staff. When our authors deliver the first draft of their manuscript, and the book is born, it needs to go through lots of different editorial stages before it’s finally all grown up and ready to be sent into the world. Because each editor here can work on multiple drafts of each story, shaping and honing them with the author, it’s easy to become immune to the finer points of grammar and sentence structure, or whether or not the use of capital letters or particular spellings are consistent. That’s where the fresh pair of eyes of a freelancer can be crucial in saving our blushes.

“In the end, what makes a book valuable is not the paper it’s printed on, but the thousands of hours of work by dozens of people who are dedicated to creating the best possible reading experience for you.”

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars

At the back of a lot of books you might find an acknowledgements page, name-checking those who’ve helped the writer in one way or another. It’s quite rare to see the names of copy-editors and proofreaders mentioned, though, and there’s a really good reason for that. It’s because the best copy-editors and proofreaders are invisible. They work through the pages like ninjas under cover of darkness, leaving no trace of their presence. It’s like a very cool superpower. As a copy-editor or proofreader, your aim is to be all about the story not the glory.

Here are a couple of jokes to illustrate the difference between what each different sort of editor is looking out for:


Q: How many editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Only one, but first they have to rewire the entire building.

Q: How many line editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: You’ve already screwed in too many light bulbs. Repetition!

Q: How many copy-editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: The last time this question was asked, it involved line editors. Is the difference intentional? Should one or the other instance be changed? It seems inconsistent.

Q: How many proofreaders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Proofreaders aren’t supposed to change light bulbs. They should just query them.

[with thanks to]


The first editor on a book here in the office works with the author on plot and structure, gives notes on characterisation and pace, and looks at the narrative as a whole. Is it an entertaining story that zips along with characters to care about? Is the ending satisfying – will readers look forward to the next one in the series? Is it age-appropriate for the children we’re aiming to reach, does it hit the mark?

Next, a line editor will go through the book line by line (as you may have guessed!), looking at the quality and structure of the writing at a detailed level. Is this paragraph as polished as it could be? Are the descriptions adding to the atmosphere or has this image been overused? Could this thought be expressed more elegantly?

And once the author has worked through their book again looking at those suggestions, a copy-editor will get to work. Has the Piccadilly house style been applied (three-point spaced ellipses, please, single quote marks for speech and follow the Oxford English Dictionary for spelling decisions)? Consistency is the copy-editor’s king, and as well as the nitty-gritty of grammar and punctuation, a copy-editor will also apply some rules for the typesetter to follow so the book’s laid out clearly.

When the typeset page proofs arrive, it’s time for the proofreader to check that no typos or misspellings have crept through, that there are no layout issues – for example, short lines at the top or bottom of pages (‘widows and orphans’) or pages that are not of equal depth – and in the case of illustrated books, that the pictures match the description in the text. Proofreaders are the last line of defence against inaccuracies prozac drug.

After all’s that done, there are the revised page proofs to check and double-check before the book finally goes off to print. The Editorial Version of Murphy’s Law then states that when the printed copy arrives, you’re bound to find a typo on the first page you look at! Nobody’s perfect, after all.

In another post I’ll share some thoughts on what makes a great freelance copy-editor or proofreader, but in the meantime, please let us know in the comments or on Twitter your funniest typos or errors in books.

[Ed: I’ll start you off: I typed my username for the blog as ‘Deb the Ed’, but it looks like I’ll be known as ‘debt heed’ from now on! If this blog was a book, one of our proofreaders would have pointed it out to me!]


Published 28 Jan 2015