Who needs an editor? You.


I work as an editor and have felt a little overwhelmed by the number of language errors and typos I’ve spotted in books and on signs lately. There’s no need to be afraid of editors. Most of us are gentle, friendly souls who just want to help others communicate more effectively. Someone once described editors as ‘invisible menders’, and while not all editors are comfortable to remain in the shadows, the term describes my role quite well.

So, why do I have a bee in my bonnet?

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book from cover to cover without spotting any mistakes. Sometimes I notice inconsistencies (e.g. a word or character name written in two different ways, or with and without a hyphen), sometimes there are typos or transposed characters, or weird mixtures of past, present, future and conditional tenses.

Sometimes there are inconsistencies in the story or narrative. For example, my partner recently bought a book about the construction of a major rail line, and the text darted back and forth between saying it hadn’t been completed yet and saying it had. There had been multiple editions of the book, and it seems nobody checked whether material brought forward from previous editions was still grammatically correct. In another example, I read a book where the author appeared to have done a global ‘find and replace’ process where certain letter combinations occurred, resulting in absolute nonsense. Clearly no human eyes had read through the book between writing and publication.

I specialise in academic editing and most (though not all) of my clients come from non-English speaking backgrounds. There are specific rules about what professional editors may and may not do when editing theses; the Australian national guidelines are here and most universities impose similar rules. Essentially, I see my role as helping the candidate remove distractions (typos, inconsistencies, missing or repeated words, and strange punctuation) so their research shines through. In other (non-thesis) editing work I can be a bit more vigorous, perhaps rewriting or reorganising clumsily expressed passages. In any case, though, the author’s voice will still be there, just expressed more clearly or with fewer distractions.

Types of editing

– Substantive editing – concentrates on the content, structure, language and style of a document

– Copyediting – removes mistakes, inconsistencies, ambiguities and possible embarrassments from a document (most of my work tends to fall into this category)

– Proofreading – final checking and correction procedures before a document is signed off for publication.

Things a copyeditor might look out for

– Layout

– Punctuation

– Grammar and Syntax

– Forms of words (e.g. with or without spaces or hyphens)

– Capitalisation

– Spelling (in accordance with agreed version of English, or publication’s style requirements)

– Typos.

These types of errors are my bread and butter! You wouldn’t believe how often I see them …

affect/effect appraise/apprise
asses/assess born/borne
chaise longue/lounge complement/compliment
dairy/diary discreet/discrete
dual/duel elicit/illicit
emigrate/immigrate extend/extent
faze/phase flout/flaunt
font/fount form/from
forward/foreword its/it’s
lead/led magnet/magnate
metre/meter ordnance/ordinance
pallet/palate/palette peak/peek
pedal/peddle potable/portable
principal/principle prostate/prostrate
public/pubic rational/rationale
ravish/ravage stationery/stationary
team/teem there/their/they’re
vial/vile waive/wave
where/wear/we’re woman/women

… and of course, apostrophes in plurals. Oh, and scare quotes.

We copyeditors are famously detail-oriented … and this can be handy. One time I was editing a crime novel and noticed that a (male) dog introduced on page 178 had somehow morphed into a female dog by page 180. The author, concentrating on bigger aspects of the plot, hadn’t noticed. We had a good laugh about that!

How to get the most out of your editor

– Allow enough time for the task

– Factor editing into projects from the start, rather than as an afterthought

– Provide your editor with sufficient information to estimate how long the work is likely to take. If she asks for a sample chapter, she’s not ‘vetting’ you, she’s trying to work out how many hours your document will require

– Be clear about what you need … a quick check for typos, or more thorough grammar and fact checking? Keep in mind that there’s really no such thing as a ‘light’ edit – whether you have one error per page or one hundred, your editor will still need enough time to read every single word in every single sentence on every single page, to work out what changes to recommend

– If there are rules your document needs to follow, let the editor know. For example, does your university or publisher have a style sheet or guide? What version of English is required?

So … who needs an editor?

Anyone who publishes. Whether you’re writing a novel or a thesis, a journal paper or a restaurant menu, a museum sign or a sandwich board, it is a good idea to ask someone else to read through your material to check it makes sense and point out any embarrassing bloopers. It is also a good idea to use an actual editor rather than just a pedantic friend or relative. Qualified editors tend to have tools and checklists they can use to ensure fewer errors make it into print. We’re also remarkably good value. My hourly rate is about half as much as I pay my electrician or car mechanic, and about one-sixth what I pay my dentist!

Don’t think of editing as an additional expense. Think of it as an investment in making your book, thesis, report or website a pleasure to read.

Author Bio: Karin Hosking is a Canberra-based editor and proofreader.