The 10 Immutable Laws of Editing and Proofreading

Posted on 08 April 2013

I’m Kay Ross (@kayross on twitter), and I’m a proudly persnickety editor and proofreader. In my 30+ years of experience, I’ve discovered the following 10 immutable laws of editing and proofreading:

1.    The client probably doesn’t know what editing and proofreading are, how long those tasks take, or what they’re worth. That’s not their fault. It’s your job, as an editor/proofreader, to educate them.

2.    No matter how clear you think your instructions are, the graphic designer won’t make all the corrections you asked for, in the way you expected.

Me with my trusty red editor’s pen

3.    The graphic designer will change something you didn’t ask him/her to change.

4.    Even if you asked the graphic designer to change just one single little itsy-bitsy comma, you absolutely MUST check the finished artwork before the document goes to print or gets published online.

5.    You won’t spot every mistake in your first round of editing/proofreading. In the first round, you’ll spot most of the obvious grammar and spelling mistakes. Once they’re fixed, you can focus on the higher-level errors of style, tone, rhythm, consistency, fact, logic, structure, layout, marketing effectiveness… It helps to take a break (and even better, to sleep) between rounds of editing/proofreading. You’ll always spot more errors the next day.

6.    You’ll spot more errors if you read a hard copy of the document than if you read it on your computer screen.

7.    You’ll spot more errors if you read the text out loud.

8.    As soon as you see the printed/published document, you will spot something you missed. It doesn’t matter how many rounds of editing/proofreading you did, or how many people checked and approved the document before it went to print. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

9.    Some people will accuse you of being an anally retentive perfectionist, or they’ll sneer: “Get a life!” Ignore them.

10.    Good editing/proofreading makes documents better, and that’s good for business.

Do you have any other laws to add to the list? Please leave a comment.

Photo credit: Kenneth Lim


6 responses to The 10 Immutable Laws of Editing and Proofreading

  • Suvi Lampila says:

    After the first round, change the font and you’ll be surprised how many mistakes went unnoticed.

  • Viv McWaters says:

    Great list Kay. No. 8 is so true! And I’d never thought of number 7 – great tip. I’d also add to do a complete run through just on headings, another just on captions, another just on endnotes.

    Cheers, Viv

    • kay says:

      Thanks Viv! Yes, it’s definitely a good idea to do several rounds of editing/proofreading, focusing on different things each time. I’ve also learned that a good editor doesn’t just look at what’s there on the page; she also spots what’s not there but should be, for example a missing page number, or a missing item in a list (if the intro text says “There are five reasons…” but then the list includes only four reasons).

  • 8.5 …and one of those errors will be one you put in yourself.

    Meanwhile, I’m off to check whether “persnickety” really is a word. (I seldom write it, but when I say it there’s no ‘s’.)

    • kay says:

      Thanks Patrick. Yes, you’re right, “one of those errors will be one you put in yourself.” I did check my dictionary about “persnickety” – apparently it’s a Scottish variant of “pernickety”. I was born in Scotland and migrated to Australia at the age of three, and “persnickety” is the way I always heard the word when I was a child.

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