Wednesday, October 7, 2020

How To Tell if Your Manuscript Nitpicker Is Qualified

This week on SFF Seven we’re talking about nitpicking, which puts me in mind of the wonderful folks we hire to do these things: proofreaders and copyeditors. Back in the olden days of publishing (and still the case for some folks), our publishers took care of interviewing and hiring manuscript-polishing professionals, but now we don’t always have access to those experienced individuals. So how do we find qualified nit pickers for our work? How do we trust that they’re finding all the errors in our manuscripts and making the right changes? It’s tough out there both for freelance book prep folks and for the writers, but I’ve been on both sides of the writer/editor divide and can, hopefully, offer a few insights. 

What Qualifications Should a Proofreader/Copyeditor Have?

Proofreaders and copyeditors are not licensed professionals — we mostly find these services through online searches or word of mouth — so it can be really hard for writers outside the book-publishing industry to find a qualified contractor. Literally anyone can claim to be qualified to edit your words. Very few people actually are.

Heads up: a degree in English is not, on its own, enough to qualify someone as an editor or proofreader. Most college English degree plans don’t even require a grammar class. It’s almost better for a person to have linguistics or extensive foreign language knowledge because those courses of study actually look at how language has evolved and is structured. An English degree means you’ve read a lot of classics and have written a bunch of analytical papers. 

Similarly, years spent teaching English is not a qualification that can stand on its own. If you think English degree holders have slim credentials in the grammar, punctuation, and usage realm, check out education degree requirements. (Disclosure: My degree is in English, from a biggish university, but I also went through teacher training and have a minor in secondary education. I learned nothing appropriate to an editing or proofreading career in college.)

One Way to Tell Whether a Proofer/Editor Is a Fit for Your Manuscript

So that potential proofreader who claims they know what’s what because of a English or Journalism degree and/or teaching career? Nice start, but you need more.

What you want is a work sample.

(Note: Editors/proofers, looking at a writer’s sample pages beforehand can also help you.)

Here’s what I suggest: send a prospective roofer/editor/copyeditor ten pages before agreeing to a contract. You won’t need more than that to assess their work style, and honestly, they are likely to be thrilled at a chance to see how dense an edit they have in store. If they read those ten pages and your prose is so messy they’ll need a ton of extra time to do the project, that’s something they will want to know in advance and charge accordingly. If your manuscript is super clean, that should affect their pricing and scheduling as well.

You don’t order a wedding cake without tasting a baker’s samples, right? The cost of a good cake and the cost of a good edit is comparable, so you should invest at least as much due diligence in selecting a book baker.

How To Know When Your Edit/Proofread Has Gone Off the Rails

Jeffe Kennedy’s anecdote from earlier this week (Sunday) provides a crap-case scenario for how to tell when your manuscript has been savaged by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. A few quick tips for judging the work if you’ve already had the edit/proofread done:

1. Look for comments. The best late-stage editors will only change text where they see an obvious error or typo. They will never, ever make in-line changes that affect an author’s voice. If they notice you have a bad habit (e.g., a lot of dangling participles, too many proper nouns), they will highlight a few instances and comment. The best editors will explain, either in the comments or in an edit note, what the persistent error is, how to find instances of it in your manuscript, and a couple of ways you might go about fixing it. Extremely diligent editors will comment every instance of this error and in the comments suggest a possible sentence recast. Those editors deserve public praise and maybe chocolates.

2. Look for a ton of identical changes. If, for instance, you have written an entire manuscript without using the Oxford or serial comma but your editor has a passion for the thing and has decided every manuscript needs to use their personal punctuation headcanon, you’ll see a half dozen nasty red inserts per page. That is a problem. If you’re self-publishing, you have the right to adhere to whatever style you want so long as it’s consistent. Caveat: If you’re writing for a publisher, that publisher will have a house style, so it’s possible all those added (or removed) commas are an attempt to adhere to that. However, a publisher is more likely to just send you the house style at an earlier stage, probably before developmental edits, and ask you to implement those changes yourself. A late-stage copyeditor or proofreader should never bleed that much red ink over your book. 

3. Look for voice changes. An editor at any stage should not significantly rewrite your manuscript. Any changes to your author voice (e.g., “fixing” sentence fragments, adding or removing details in order to speed or slow pacing, rearranging scenes) are not in within the purview of an editor. A good early-stage, or developmental, editor will send you a (sometimes really long, bless them) edit letter outlining spots where pacing sags or continuity is a problem or a scene needs you to delve deeper or hit a moment harder. Sometimes those edit letters will have suggestions or examples of how you can fix things. Beware of any editor who tries to apply a big fix in-line. A good rule of thumb is you should never accept-change for an entire scene. I would submit, you should never accept-change for an entire paragraph. Writing is your job. 

Signs of a Nitpicking Job Well Done

All that said, a good nitpick read is a beautiful thing. You can tell your money has been well spent if your finished product reads smoothly both for you and your advance/review readers. Don’t be alarmed if you get your manuscript back and changes are minimal: that’s just a sign that your manuscript was clean to begin with and did not require a lot of correcting. A competent proofreader will not manufacture errors just to have some mythical minimum amount of red ink. 

Of course, the ultimate sign that you’ve been edited well is ... crickets. If no reviewer comments on weird punctuation choices or “typos,” and your audiobook reader doesn’t point out a bunch of problems, and you  yourself are content in the knowledge that you’ve produced a quality piece of fictional entertainment, that’s the best feeling.

And the final step is to then recommend that manuscript polisher to everybody else, because they’re a unicorn and we all want to do business with that person.


  1. I agree this is excellent advice. I have been proofing/editing for the best part of this year for an American indie author. Merriam-Webster is a godsend. I want to be a chocolate eating unicorn. I will take all of your comments above into my next project. Thank you.

  2. Ditto what Jeffe said. Super useful!