In this episode I talk to Denise Cowle, a non-fiction editor based in Scotland. We talk about what the difference is between copy-editing and proofreading and what you need to look for in an editor.
Tim Lewis: This is actually the first time that I’ve interviewed an editor on this show. I met Denise at the Content Marketing Academy Live conference in Scotland, and discovered that she’s actually a professional copy-editor and proofreader for technical books, especially in the health area. She told me quite categorically that she’s not a fiction editor. I thought it’d be interesting to interview a properly trainer proofreader and copy-editor, at least from a UK perspective, to see how they work and what sort of tips they can give in terms of telling authors how to deal with proofreaders and copy-editors and of course, that essential distinction between the two roles.
Now, over to the interview. Hi Denise. Welcome to the show.
Denise Cowle: Hi, Tim. Thanks for having me.
How did you get into Editing?
Tim Lewis: How did you end up as a copy-editor and a proofreader, and how much training have you undertaken to do it?
Denise Cowle: Well, I’ve been editing and proofreading for the last six years, and before that I actually worked in the NHS as a physiotherapist. So, I had a complete career change when I decided that I wanted to do something totally different. I hadn’t realised, but I had been doing some informal proofreading for my husband, who actually works in publishing, but he’s in sales in marketing. I had been checking catalogues and marketing materials for him over the years. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was something that I wanted to learn more about. So, I took the plunge. I left the NHS and I went and got some initial training with Publishing Scotland, who run training courses up here in Edinburgh.
I did an Introduction to Proofreading course. I then did a further proofreading course, and I did Introduction and Further copy-editing. So, I got a grounding in proofreading first. I started getting some work in proofreading, and then once I felt I was competent at that, I started to expand my skills into copy-editing. I’ve done ongoing training since then in things like editing in Word, editing on screen. I do ongoing professional development with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, of which I’m a member. They have ongoing courses and local groups that do training.
It’s an ongoing skill that you need to keep up with, but I’ve really focused on it in the last six years, and I really enjoy it.
Proofreading and Copy-Editing
Tim Lewis: Can you explain exactly what the difference is between proofreading and copy-editing?
Denise Cowle: In the traditional publishing process, copy-editing and proofreading are two separate stages. Once an author has written their book and it’s the best they think they can get it to be, a copy-editor will then take that and they will clean it up, basically. They’ll make sure that it makes sense, that it reads clearly and well, that it’s consistent in its tone and style. That might involve reordering or restructuring sentences, shortening sentences or combining them, to ensure that it flows well. They’ll style it up with headings and subheadings and all the layout elements that might be required, if lists are required or quotes and things like that, they’ll basically prepare it for the design and typesetting process.
That is usually, generally speaking done in Word, in a Word document. That is then sent to design and it’s laid out. Then, once it’s been laid out and it looks like it will look as a published book, that’s the point that it gets proofread. This is true proofreading. At this stage, where the proofreader checks, they’re the final gatekeeper before publishing to check that any errors or omissions that have been missed by the copy-editor are picked up, and also any that may have been introduced during the designer layout stage, to catch them as well.
They’ll look at the headers and footers, chapter titles, they’ll make sure that any cross-referencing of page numbers has been done correctly, they’ll make sure the table of contents, if there is one, that the titles and page numbers in that match up with the body text, and of course they will check, as well, as they go through it, spelling and grammar and punctuation, just to make sure that that all is absolutely A1.
So, they’re two distinct steps in the publishing process.
Tim Lewis: Okay. From my understanding of it, I think with eBooks, it’s a bit more confusing because there isn’t really that print proofing stage that there is with print books?
Denise Cowle: Exactly. Yes. So, if you’re purely going to be producing an eBook, they can be combined basically into one stage, which is a proof-edit. Once it’s ready, then you may still want somebody to check its final layout and make sure that those internal links, that they all work and things like that. But yes, it’s slightly different for eBooks.
Tim Lewis: How do you determine how much it will cost to actually edit or proof read a book?
Denise Cowle: That’s the classic ‘how long’s a piece of string’ question, isn’t it?
Tim Lewis: Yeah.
Denise Cowle: There are a few factors that an editor will consider. They will look, first of all, at the level of editing that’s needed, whether it is a copy-edit or a proofread. To do that, they’ll want to see a sample of the work if not the whole piece, so that they can get a feel for it. They’ll take into consideration the length, obviously, either the word count or the page count. Also, your schedule’s a factor in it as well. If you want a very quick turnaround, then you’ll have to accept that you might have to pay a rush fee or something like that. So, it does pay to be organised.
The word count is generally the starting point. Some editors will price it based on a per ten thousand words rate or per thousand words rate. Some will quote you on a page rate. If you’re quoted on a page rate it’s very important that you are both talking about the same thing. The number of pages, you must define it between yourselves that you both are coming from the same position. There’s an industry standard that some people go by, not everyone follows it, which is 250 words equals one page, and some people would define a page as being set in 12 point Times New Roman, double spaced with one inch margins, as their starting point.
Now, it doesn’t really matter what position you start from as long as you both understand that that’s what you’re basing it on. If an author sends you a document and says it’s 100 pages but it’s single spaced in 8 point Times New Roman, that’s not going to be the same number of pages as when the editor actually works it out at their industry standard. So, it’s important that you’re both coming from the same position.
It’s not a hard and fast rule about, you know, an 80,000 words novel will cost this much. There are other factors that are involved, and that’s why it’s important to have the conversation with the editor well in advance, so that you can have the discussion about length and timescale and the level of editing input that’s going to be needed.
Tim Lewis: Obviously, when we met at the CMA Live Conference, you said to me quite emphatically that you’re not a fiction editor, you’re a non-fiction one. How important is it to find an editor with the skill and interest in the topic of your book?
Denise Cowle: I think it does depend. I’m quite clear that I don’t work with fiction, because I think fiction editing is a very different skill from non-fiction editing. Fiction editors will look at the narrative arc, the point of view, the character development, all these things that I’m saying that to me they’re just words. I don’t really know what any of these things are. I love to read fiction but I do not want to edit it.
So, these are issues that a fiction editor will look at, but these aren’t present in non-fiction books. I think, for a genre type, a fiction editor is a specialised role. Some editors do both, but I choose not to. I think for non-fiction books, if you’re writing a very niche subject, it may well be essential that you do have an editor who understands the concepts and perhaps subject-specific language that you’re using, and that will very much depend on who you’re writing for. If you’re writing for others in your field, then you need to write at that level.
For example, if you’re using a lot of legal terms, if you’re writing a law book or a medical book or something with a lot of maths of it, for example, you need somebody who’s going to pick up any potential errors, and to make sure that you’re pitching it at the right level for your audience.
On the other hand, if you’re writing for a general audience, it can be helpful if you’re not from that field as an editor, because then you can read it to make sure that it’s accessible for the intended audience. You’re looking at it from the reader’s perspective, and you can clarify any meaning if it’s muddy or if the level’s too high. There is the ‘curse of knowledge’ that people talk about, where if you’re very experienced in a topic it’s hard to bring your language down to a low enough level for the general audience. People with a lot of subject knowledge will often pitch their writing a bit too high for the general reader.
So, that’s where an editor who’s not a specialist in that field can help the writer to make sure that they are writing in an accessible way for the intended audience. There are times where it’s very, very helpful to have a subject-specific editor, and other times where it’s good to have somebody who’s a good editor, but doesn’t know an awful lot about your field.
Author’s biggest mistakes
Tim Lewis: If we get into the nuts and bolts of proofreading and editing, what are generally the biggest mistakes that you fix in books, in terms of both proofreading and editing?
Denise Cowle: I think that there are a few different things. Authors often have repetitions and tics. They have favourite words or favourite phrases that they don’t realise that they are using, they’re part of their lexicon, they just use these words all the time. We may not pick this up when somebody’s speaking, but when it’s written down, you think, “Oh gosh, they said that just a minute ago.” So, it can be a case of removing these repetitions and tics and finding alternative ways of saying things. That’s quite a common one that I have to deal with, that authors have their pet phrases, and it’s good to introduce variety.
Long, convoluted sentences are quite an issue often. Somebody gets right into their topic and starts writing, but their sentence wanders and meanders and it can take up a whole paragraph. That’s not good for the reader, so very often it’s a case of punctuating it differently, breaking it up into slightly shorter sentences, to make it flow better and improve the clarity of the writing.
A big one is lack of consistency in style. So, that’s in things like spelling, capitalization, hyphenation and punctuation. These are all things where, however you choose to do something, and there’s often more than one way of spelling a word or of hyphenating it or whether or not you choose to capitalise it, and one way, you should stick with that. Very often an author is in the zone, they’re in the flow when they’re writing, and that’s not the sort of thing they should be concentrating on at the writing stage, anyway. They just want to get their words down, so it’s important that an editor can go back and introduce consistency.
That might be deciding whether or not to capitalise ‘internet’ with a capital I or not, it might be deciding whether or not to hyphenate a word like ‘e-mail’ or ‘co-operate’. But, whatever the decision is, that should be applied consistently across their writing, and that’s where a style sheet can be very helpful, to make a note of something like that.
The final thing that I spent a lot of time correcting is punctuation. That’s basically because a lot of people aren’t sure about punctuation, about the correct way to punctuate sentences. The use of colons and semi-colons, and where to put a comma or not. So, that’s something that an editor or proofreader can really help you with, and that can really improve the quality of your writing, and give it a very polished look, if it’s punctuated correctly.
Tim Lewis: You mentioned about style guides and things. Do you use any? I mean, like the Chicago Style Manual, and there’s things like that,
Denise Cowle: Yeah.
Tim Lewis: Do you use any of them, or do you just agree, “This is what we’re going to do in terms of a consistent style for this book.”
Denise Cowle: Yeah. If somebody hasn’t followed a particular style guide then I will generally have a chat with them about what sort of style they want to impose on it, and I’ll go through some options. The one that I tend to use is New Hart’s Rules, which is for UK based writers. It’s for British English. That’s from, originally, it’s an Oxford University Press title, and a lot of UK nonfiction editors will follow New Hart’s Rules and also another title, produced by Cambridge University Press, which is called Butcher’s Copy-editing.
If somebody doesn’t have a style guide or a style sheet, I’ll use those as my base and I will point out where I’ve imposed these styles. Of course, an author is free to have a different opinion. It’s their book, and if I’ve said lowercase I for internet and they say, “No, I want an uppercase,” well, it’s their book, we can do that. So, it’s a discussion. But I will use those two books.
I use the Chicago Manual of Style if I’m working on American English. I have a copy here, it’s like a brick. It’s a huge book. That’s very much American based, but it’s still got a lot of really useful information for British English as well. So, it will very much depend. When I’m working for publishing houses they will have their own style guide, but for self-publishers, that’s a conversation that we need to have about what they prefer.
Tim Lewis: On a bonus question, if somebody was starting to work with you in terms of, let’s say they had a book about, I don’t know, physiotherapy or something that they’d written, and they approach you, how does the actual process of getting the book edited work? I mean, how many passes do you make through the book in terms of copy-editing? How do you deal with the author? How does the actual, how does Denise’s method work?
Denise Cowle: Right, my process. So, when somebody first contacts me to work, I’ll ask them for a sample, obviously. Once I’ve seen a sample and we’ve discussed rates and options and how it’s all going to work in terms of payments, then we move on to how it’s actually provided to me. So, I ask for a Word document and they’ll send that to me, and I will do one pass, chart changes in Word, with Track Changes on, and depending on the length, I either do the whole thing in one go and then send it back to them with the Track Changes on and a separate list of comments and queries for them to work through, or if it’s quite a big document, or if maybe the queries are going to take quite a long time, or perhaps if there are a lot of references that have maybe needed to be checked, I might send them a few chapters of queries at a time.
So, I send it all back with all the queries, I ask them to address the queries and keep Track Changes on. They are not to make changes without Track Changes, otherwise it gets very messy with version control. Then, it comes back to me for a second pass. Then I will tidy it all up, incorporate their changes and send it back to them. That is the editing. So, two passes of editing.
If they then want me to proofread it once it’s been laid out and set out, then it comes back to me as a PDF or as an eBook or whatever for me to do one proofreading pass of it.
Telling if an Editor is Qualified
Tim Lewis: You obviously talked about your process. What is the easiest way to tell if an editor or a proofreader is actually going to be any good at editing your book?
Denise Cowle: This can be difficult for authors, because as people have found out, anybody can set themselves up as an editor. It’s not a protected title. You don’t have to go through specific training before you can call yourself an editor. So, it can be very difficult for self-publishers to find somebody reliable.
I tell people that there’s several points that they want to be able to tick off when they’re looking for somebody, somebody’s recommended to them. These are: Do they have an online presence where you can check them? If they’re a professional editor they should be visible online. So, do they have a website with their services, do they write a blog about it, are they on LinkedIn as an editor, do they have a Facebook business page and are they active on social media, on Twitter, Instagram even as an editor, where you can get a feel for the sort of editor that they are and the sort of work that they do?
On their website, what training have they done? As you asked me earlier, they should be able to provide evidence of training. There’s a misconception that people have that because somebody is good at English or because they have a degree in English or English Literature that makes them a good editor. It doesn’t necessarily. They may be a good editor, but it’s not necessarily because they’ve got a degree in English.
So, you want to look a specific editorial or proofreading training, evidence of that. Are they a member of a recognised professional organisation? In the UK, that’s the Society of Editors and Proofreaders. It’s not compulsory, but it gives you an indication that somebody is a professional, takes their profession seriously and is looking to keep their skills up to date. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders, for example, it has a searchable online directory of editors. Only of professional and advanced professional members who have met certain criteria are listed in that, so you know you’re going to get a professional editor from that directory, for example.
The other key thing, obviously, is can you see a portfolio online? Can you see evidence of other books that they’ve worked on? Are there testimonials from satisfied clients, and obviously, are the books in their portfolio, are they similar to the sort of thing that you’re writing? Because it can be helpful if they work a lot in the same genre as you do.
Word of mouth is obviously a very good thing as well. If you or another author has been very happy with an editor and they sound like somebody you’d want to work with, that’s often a good starting point. But, it can be a bit of a minefield for self-publishers, and also quite intimidating. You know, where do you start looking for somebody? That’s one of the things that I’ve actually addressed in my blog. Quite a lot of the things we’ve talked about today I’ve covered in previous blog posts, so people can find out more about that as well.
Tim Lewis: Is there an equivalent to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the US?
Denise Cowle: Yes, there is. Yeah. There’s the Association of Copy-Editors in the US. There’s one in Canada as well. It’s the EAC, the Editors’ Association of Canada. There’s also, now, in America it’s ACES and the EFA. I can’t quite remember what that stands for.
In America there are also lots of more local chapters of organisations, state-based, I think, rather than one that covers the whole of America. I’m a member of a few Facebook editing groups that have a very international membership, and a lot of the members who are in America are also ACES member, the American Copy-Editors Society, so, that’s a good starting point as well.
It’s a similar thing in Australia and New Zealand. Australia has accreditation of editors, actually, so there is a recognised standard in Australia, which we don’t have in the UK or in North America.
Tim Lewis: That’s covered the largest chunk of downloads of the show, which is the US, I think, Australia and the UK.
Denise Cowle: Yeah.
Tim Lewis: I mean, I’m sure you probably have or you could write an article on your blog about all of the various international accreditation agencies for editors.
Denise Cowle: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a useful resource for people to have, because it’s difficult to know where to begin. The other thing to bear in mind is that because of the wonders of the internet your editor doesn’t need to be local to you. They can be anywhere in the world. But, of course, you may want to have somebody who’s from the same country as you, who’s going to edit in the same type of English as you, so if you’ve written in American English you’re going to want an editor who can edit American English, because there are very distinct differences in language and in punctuation between American and British English, and Canadian English, and Australian English. There are lots of different Englishes out there, so that’s another thing to consider, when you’re looking for your editor.
But, I have clients all over the world. They don’t need to be local to me. But that’s a decision that, you know, it might be that the perfect editor for you is on the other side of the world, and you should be able to work through that, that shouldn’t be an issue. Time difference is the only thing, if you want to have a phone conversation or a Skype call, that’s the only barrier, potentially.
Tim Lewis: I’m going to throw in another bonus question.
Denise Cowle: Okay.
Tim Lewis: This is a kind of a variant of I’ve asked of other people, it’s just really me being nosy, but what would you say is the most difficult book that you’ve edited and why was it difficult to edit, from a kind of editing point of view?
Denise Cowle: The one that comes to mind is one that I did fairly early in my editing career. It was a huge multi-author book. I think it had 25 or 30 chapters, each one written by a different author and each one with its own separate list of references, and none of the authors were native English speakers. They were all from different European countries, they all had their own particular levels of English. Each chapter was like editing a separate book because they were all so different in style and in level of English proficiency, and the publisher wanted a uniformity across all those chapters.
That was really challenging, because not only did I have to edit each chapter to make them sound the best they could be and read as well as they could be, I had to make sure that it was consistent between all the chapters as well. When you have a chapter book and its all the same author, that’s very easy, because they’re all written in very much the same style, and your editing is at the same level across the book. But, when you have individual authors who are all very different and who’ve all contributed to this book on the same subject, but they all have their own … Some of them are very verbose and some of them were very flat in their writing, lots of short sentences. Some of them, their English was much better than others. That was a real challenge. That took a long time to do that, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the desk editor. Fortunately it was for a publisher, so that was a bit easier because the desk editor could make all the difficult decisions.
Yeah, that was a real challenge and I’m glad I’ve not had one like that recently to deal with.
Helping out an editor
Tim Lewis: I mean, from an editor’s perspective, what are the things that an author can do to make the editor’s life easier? I mean, obviously not doing all the editing for you, but there must be things where you think, “Well, the author was actually thinking about the editing process they would’ve done this before they sent it to the editor.” What are the things that, as an editor, you think authors should be doing to make your life easier?
Denise Cowle: I think the big thing I would say is don’t try and lay out your writing and words like you want it to look in the book, because that really isn’t helpful to the editor. When an author spends a lot of time trying to make things look nice on the page in Word, when it’s still to be edited, that actually can slow up the editing, because often we have to undo a lot of things.
I’m thinking of things like using a lot of hard returns or tabs to move things about the page, or if it’s a non-fiction book and you’ve maybe got tables in it, spending a lot of time trying to make the tables look nice. The editor can do that for you much better than you probably can, unless it’s something that you do every day in your job. So, don’t worry about making it look good or worrying about the font or worrying about how your headings, your chapter headings or subheadings look, because it doesn’t matter at this stage. The important thing is that the text is all there for us to work with. What we can do is we can add styles for you, we can use word styles to show which bits are, what are heading ones and heading twos, which bits are going to be bullet points, for example, lists. If you’ve got pull-out quotes, we can tag them so that when it comes to design and layout the designer knows how to treat each of these.
How it looks in a Word document isn’t important, so don’t waste your time and effort spending a lot of time trying to make it look pretty, because your editor’s probably going to take it and the first thing they’re going to do is put it into a point size and a font that they like to work in, so it doesn’t matter how you’ve prepped it, they will deal with it differently. Because, that’s all going to change when it goes to design anyway.
The other thing is to do a bit of a self-edit yourself. Don’t have us waste our time that you’re paying for doing stuff that you could have done yourself. Run Word spellchecker through it. It’s not going to be perfect, but it will pick up some things that you can check and correct, things like your obvious typos, double words, double spaces after a full stop, we don’t like them, we take all them out. All these sort of things, you can just clean it up yourself and make it one less thing for us to do. So, you want to provide us with as clean a document as you possibly can.
I’m trying to think if there’s anything else. I think those are the two main things. Don’t get hung up on how it looks. That’s not important at the editing stage.
Tim Lewis: Well, I think that’s kind of covered all of my questions. How can people find out about Denise Cowle and your editing services?
Denise Cowle: Well, I have a website. DeniseCowleEditorial.com. On that website, I have a blog. I usually write about one blog a week. That covers lots of the things that we’ve talked about today, and other aspects of editing and proofreading that people might be interested in. Also, I’ve got a Facebook business page, which is Denise Cowle Editorial Services, and I’m on LinkedIn as Denise Cowle. Feel free to come and find and connect with me. I’m also on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @dinnydaethat. That’s the one thing that doesn’t sound very professional about me, but it was created long before I was an editor, and I was advised just to keep it, because it’s a bit quirky. So, that’s me. Yes, feel free to get in touch with me at any of those places.
Tim Lewis: Okay, well, thank you very much for being on the show today, Denise.
Denise Cowle: Thanks for having me on, it’s been fun, Tim, thanks.