There are two common responses when I tell people I’m a freelance proofreader and copy-editor: ‘Oh, I’d be good at that; I always notice spelling mistakes’ or ‘Can’t you just run spellcheck?’ While the latter is the most eye-roll inducing, both are based on a misconception of what a proofreader or editor does all day.
Spelling is undoubtedly an essential skill for an editorial professional and the most familiar part of our job to many people. Automated spellcheck software has its uses here: I’m sure I’ve been saved from many an embarrassing error by those squiggly red lines in Word. Humans are fallible, and at the end of a long day when tired eyes can skip over repeated words or misspellings, spellcheck comes into its own. However, it can overlook errors, such as the ubiquitous missing l in the word public. Spellcheck couldn’t save my local swimming pool from promoting its ‘pubic sessions’ to bemused customers. Homophones (words pronounced in the same way but with different meanings) confuse the software too. Did you mean reign or rein? Brake or break? Affect or effect?
These kinds of mistakes are a proofreader’s bread and butter. But there’s so much more to editing and proofreading than spelling. Can you start a sentence with ‘but’, for example? Should you write numbers in figures or words? Where do those pesky commas go? The truth is there often isn’t a black and white answer. Many of the ‘rules’ we were taught at school have fallen out of favour. Some of them were never rules in the first place but points of style or even just the personal preference of your English teacher. Editors know the rules, but we know when to break them too.
Another editing job is to check consistency. In non-fiction, that may be ensuring names are spelt the same way throughout a document or checking that chapter titles match the table of contents. In fiction, that could be noticing that a character’s eye colour has changed from blue to green halfway through a novel. None of these things would be picked up by spellcheck, but they would be by a sharp-eyed editor.
Then there’s the suitability of the language used for the audience. You wouldn’t necessarily write in the same way for a CEO and an apprentice, for example. Will the reader have to pause or re-read to understand what is being said? Could the meaning be misinterpreted? A good editor will act as the reader’s advocate, determining whether the writing is pitched at the right level.
We also keep our eyes peeled for sensitivity issues such as stereotyping or problematic language. For example, can a gender-neutral term be used instead of ‘man-made’? If you’re writing for or about disabled people, are you using acceptable terminology? Editors may not have all the answers, but we know when to look something up, raise an informed query with the author or ask our peers for support.
There are, of course, many useful software programmes at an editor’s disposal. Word shortcuts and macros, PerfectIt and TextExpander are just some of the time-saving tools that many editors swear by. We even use automated spellcheck, perhaps running it at the start and end of a job to make sure nothing gets overlooked. But it’s what editors do in between that really counts.