Many business disputes stem from misaligned expectations: Each party thinks it understands what should result from an agreed-upon transaction, but the results leave one or both parties unsatisfied. Proofreading is no exception, which is why it’s important to know going in what you can expect from your editors – and what you can’t.
Proofreaders and editors can do a lot to improve your writing, but some tasks are simply beyond their scope. It’s better to know in advance what to expect from your proofreaders than to be surprised and dismayed by a final product that doesn’t meet your expectations.
To put it in layman’s terms: You wouldn’t hire the person who tints your car windows to rebuild your engine. Your dentist wouldn’t be the first person you’d ask to remove your appendix. If you’re casting an opera, you don’t pick a bass for a soprano role (unless you’re going really, really avant-garde).
Likewise, your proofreader or copy editor is not the person you should expect to do intensive fact-checking, teach you how to be a better writer, or save you from errors only someone intimately familiar with your industry would recognize and flag.
What should you expect that your proofreader or copy editor won’t do? Read on:
Formatting and layout: Unless these tasks are specifically included in the contract, your proofreader will not address them. Editors work with the text, not the packaging – that’s a job better suited to a graphic designer.
Fixing your website: Your proofreaders can make the copy on your website shine, but they aren’t programmers or web designers. They won’t make changes to your website directly. In addition to being outside the scope of a proofreader’s duties, that sort of arrangement can create security concerns. Your IT department will tell you (loudly and at length) why it’s unwise to give unfettered access to your website to anyone outside your company!
Industry-specific expertise: When you use a proofreading service, you’re almost always hiring a generalist, and that type of proofreader and copy editor rarely has a deep understanding of your industry and audience – most focus solely on tidying up the language. If you need proofreaders who specialize in a subject such as law, medicine, technology or finance, be prepared to pay a higher rate. In exchange, you’ll receive the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you and your editors are on the same page.
Fact-checking and research: If you assert that the sun orbits the Earth or that 2 + 2 = 5, your proofreader will almost certainly flag that error. However, proofreaders aren’t equipped to perform in-depth fact-checking. They will ensure that any URLs included in the text are working, but they won’t call phone numbers or hunt down social media pages. Not every document needs intensive fact-checking, but proofreading alone is inadequate for those that do.
Coaching: Your proofreader is not your writing teacher. A copy editor’s job is to fix the mistakes, not explain why they are mistakes. All editors are by definition word nerds, so we encourage everyone to improve their writing. There are plenty of ways you can do so for free or at a low cost. Khan Academy and edX (which partners with top universities around the world) are among the most well-regarded resources for self-directed and online learning. It’s never too late to become a better writer!