Editing from an editor’s viewpoint
I’ve been a professional editor for over 30 years. For most of that time I worked in various Australian public service departments, latterly as Director of Publishing at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
I’m no longer in full-time employment—haven’t been for about six years. Most of my time now is taken up with my own writing but I continue to contract edit, again for government departments because that’s where my clientele is. But I also occasionally edit manuscripts for authors.
I imagine what editors actually do may be a bit of a mystery to some. I know you’re familiar with the general idea: picking up errors and making or suggesting changes to improve a document, but do you know the nitty gritty? For those who don’t here’s a rundown.
There are three levels of editing.
1. Substantive edit. A substantive edit is the full box and dice. You scrutinise and fix everything: structure, content, language, style, readability, clarity and logic, spelling, punctuation and grammar. It includes applying styles to all text and generating automated tables of content.
Once in a while a full restructure or rewrite is necessary, but usually it entails a thorough edit and, if necessary, pointing out overall weaknesses the author should address and making suggestions about how to fix them.
2. Copy edit. This involves looking at consistency of language, spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. It includes checking capitals and hyphenation consistency (hyphens, ems and en rules). For government and corporate jobs it also includes checking in-house style, references and glossaries, tables and graphs, heading levels and applying styles to all text and generating tables of content.
3. Proofread. This is exactly what it sounds like. A proofread is usually done after the document has been typeset and is ready to be printed. It’s the final check to make sure everything is okay. You make sure the formatting is correct and also check for overlooked typos.
However, with a copy edit and even proofreads, if I find something I think should be addressed I will make a note of it for the client without attempting to fix it.
I use tracked changes so the client can see exactly what I’ve done. It’s up to them to accept or reject my changes.
And now for the editor’s secret.
What is it?
It’s a one-on-one proofread.
This is instead of the single editor proofread.
It consists of one editor reading out loud from the final copy before it was typeset. The text obviously mirrors the text in the typeset document.
This read includes everything: capitals, paragraph breaks, widows/orphans, etc. It also includes formatting—by that I mean bold and italics, indents, justification, inter and intra paragraph spacing etc.
The second editor checks the typeset document against what is being read.
They both use rulers to focus on one line at a time.
It’s not usual with private jobs because only one editor is involved, but it is commonplace in departmental editing where there are several editors on the team, at least in the departments I worked in.
Try it. In my experience you find all sorts of discrepancies including spelling, punctuation and grammar typos.
That was great, thank you, Alana. My editor not only finds errors (fortunately not that many) but also comes up with some wonderful suggestions and it sounds like you love your ‘job’ too.
Alana’s family immigrated to Australia from the UK when she was four and bought land an hour south of Adelaide. For the next 15 years she explored her way through school, the beach, roaming as far as her bike would take her in a day, and books. In 1966 she met John, married him the next year, and the year after had twins, Simone and Simon— Alana and John still get ribbed about that. Three years later Nicole joined the team—for a moment they thought she was twins too, and joke now that it would have been Nicole and Nicholas. You can imagine the derision!
In 1980 they moved to Canberra to further their careers until 2004 when they moved to Queensland, spending five years there before moving back to Canberra because they missed their family. They also now spend time in the UK with Simone, her husband and two sons. Alana’s website is
and you can read our interview and Alana’s spotlight.
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