How it Works

Proofreading or Copy-Editing?

Most people will naturally tend to think of all editing as a form of proofreading.

Historically, proofreading would have been done on the printer’s proofs, which were produced to ensure that the type had been properly set. Before printing was industrialised in the nineteenth century many authors would have been closely involved in their book’s production: practically living with the printer so that they could personally read the proofs as they came off the press.

Today proofreading still refers to the final checking of a book or document before it is sent to the printer. Proofreading is a very detailed and demanding job but it only corrects the fundamental issues in the document – checking that the commas and fullstops are correctly placed for example. Proofreading would not make fundamental changes in the text, such as ensuring that the text is written to an appropriate standard of English, which would be the job of the copy-editor (who is involved at a much earlier stage in the production process).

What is copy-editing?

There are four basic types of copy-edit:

1. Substantive editing

A substantive edit aims to improve most aspects of a piece of writing. It may also include suggestions from the editor about where the work needs to be checked or improved.

2. Detailed editing for sense

A detailed editing for sense will look at the detail of each sentence to ensure that it conveys the author’s meaning appropriately. It also includes looking at the word choice, punctuation, abbreviations, and flow of the writing.

3. Checking for consistency

An edit that checks for consistency  will look at detail such as whether double or single quotation marks have been used throughout.

4. Clear presentation of the material

This edit will ensure that all of the parts of the work are complete. Although this is more important in longer pieces of academic work (such as a thesis), it can still be important in short journal papers where a number of illustrations or tables have been used.

The vast majority of work writing by non-native users of English requires attention to all of these points.


Technically, a proofread is done on a printer’s proof shortly before a document is submitted. A proofread will simply check layout, missing or incorrect punctuation, and placement of illustrations. It would be very unusual for the text itself to be changed substantially at this point because it would upset the entire formatting of the document. For example, inserting an extra paragraph into a journal paper would be very expensive because it would mean that the journal would need to be reformatted by the typesetter. Many of the large publishers and printers employ proofreaders to check for this sort of error before the document is sent to press. I have heard that the proofreaders at The Times in London used to proofread the newspaper in a mirror so that they would correct the detail and not correct the writing itself.

First, Second, and Clarification Edits

Ideally, the editing work will begin early on in the writing process. For example, it is usually better to work on a thesis as each chapter is written than it is to work on a whole thesis after it has been written. There are some very good reasons why this should be the case. The vast majority of my clients find that their English skills will make considerable improvements as the editing is done, especially when they check through the Track Changes in their writing. More importantly, beginning early will enable a second edit to be made. A second edit should ideally be quite brief. Even if changes have been made to the writing, which is inevitable and to be encouraged in academic writing, the second edit will be faster than the first edit. Basically, the second edit is doing a different job of work to the first edit: the first edit corrects all of the issues with English, which can be substantial, while a second edit will briefly check for any outstanding issues.

A clarification edit will check any changes that have been made to the document following the first edit. It will also answer any questions that you may have and check to make sure that any issues that were highlighted in the first edit have been corrected.

Unless substantial changes have been made, I will usually make no charge for the second or clarification edits. Similarly, unless substantial changes have been made, I make no charge for working on the corrections that have been made to a thesis following the Viva.

How quickly can it be done?

This is always the most pressing concern. The problem is that it is almost impossible to give an answer until the work begins. As a very rough guide, I estimate that I can edit about 15,000 words of reasonable writing a day. That number will rapidly drop in more intensive edits. I have noticed recently that there are a couple of websites that promise unrealistic deadlines. If you see a promise to have an 80,000 word thesis proofread to an acceptable standard of academic English in three days the results are unlikely to be very good. I have had clients who have used these services only to have the work binned by their supervisor who tells them to get it done properly.

Some of the best work that I have done has been with clients who have taken a year to write up their thesis. That being said, it is not always possible to begin so early in the writing process and there will be rare occasions when it is impossible to do any other than a first edit within very tight deadlines. I am happy to help in these cases, wherever possible. For example, I recently did an 80,000 word thesis in five days for a client who was working within a tight deadline. Although this is not really to be recommended, I was able to help and was also able to ensure that the work was still done to a high standard.

Track Changes and Notes

One of the benefits of using a ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG) word-processor such as Word is that you are able to use Track Changes and make notes in the document. This is especially useful in copy-editing work and I will always use Track Changes wherever possible or appropriate in a document (there are rare occasions such as long documents where Track Changes would introduce instability and cause the file to crash). I will also tend to leave notes in your document at any points that I feel need clarification or which need your attention.


I am always happy to help with any questions on your writing that you may have as the editing is being done. However, please remember that I am not marking your document and am only able to answer questions on the writing itself.


Although there are a handful of different ways of handling references (such as Harvard), in practice there are a large number of different interpretations of the detail of how to reference. For example, many of the large academic publishers will have their own in-house guidelines for authors, which will include how they expect you to reference. I am happy to help you with these details, especially if you can give me the name of your target journal. However, although I am happy to check that the reference has been formatted correctly, I am ethically unable to check the reference itself for you.

Word, LaTeX, and XML

Word has become the dominant word-processor these days and by far the most common file format is either .doc or .docx. This can have benefits as well as drawbacks. Although the format is dominant, it is not necessarily stable. This tendency towards instability in Word files becomes acute in large documents. For example, when building a master document of a completed thesis that uses a number of illustrations the file will suddenly crash, without giving any sort of warning. Often the file is unable to be repaired and it has to be built again from scratch. In these cases I find that the open file format .odt is far more stable and can save a lot of work. I have recently found a particularly nasty stability problem with Word files written on machines that have Asian fonts installed. For example, I sometimes have files with Chinese or Japanese characters in the file name, which causes the file to crash. The solution to this problem can often be as simple as copy and pasting the text into a new file. As a basic rule of thumb, the larger that Word files become the more unstable they will be.

LaTeX is a described on the website as a high-quality typesetting system that includes features designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. LaTeX is the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents. I have worked on LaTeX files in a number of environments (including a vi text editor and EMACS!).

XML is becoming a standard file format in many publishers, who will often convert other file formats to XML at the start of the production process. XML typescripts are edited very much like any other document, although a careful check will need to be made to ensure that there are no outstanding conversion errors that need to be corrected.

Despite the large differences in these file formats and the type of work that they require, they will all be copy-edited in very similar ways.


The most important point that needs to be emphasised here is that the work remains your own at all points. Ideally, editing will add nothing and take nothing away. Editing simply places your writing into an acceptable standard of academic English that observes the appropriate requirements of your examiner or publisher. It needs, therefore, to be emphasised that I do not offer a writing service. Similarly, I will not accept or work on material that has been plagiarised or which has broken copyright.