Novice editors, reach up the value ladder

Posted on May 21, 2018

At some point in your editing career, you've been asked to "look over" a document for publication. Perhaps you were told, "It just needs a proofread." My apologies if that triggers a bad memory of a sunny weekend spent indoors restitching badly sewn writing. If you're an editor, you will have such memories.

Maybe you're not an experienced editor, but you've been asked to help. And chances are that document needs help. Your first step is to assess what kind.

First, a word of advice

Novice editors tend to dive straight in, checking spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization. Yes, these things are important, but resist that impulse for the moment. First, my brutally honest advice: many clients and authors (who are often different people) consider those issues trivial.

My preferred approach

To get clients' attention and respect, reach up the "value ladder," from proofreading and copy editing to stylistic and substantive editing. For descriptions of these terms, download the Editors Canada Professional Editorial Standards, free of charge. The Standards document is only 16 pages, but take time to read it carefully.

If that's too much overhead (very likely you've been given a fraction of the time you need for this "proofread"), start with the audience, the purpose of the document and the medium, and check the following:


  • the reading level and tone are appropriate for the intended readers
  • the document doesn't contain any technical terms this audience would not be familiar with
  • the titles and opening paragraphs in documents for web content contain the kinds of search terms the audience would use to google it
  • the document is being published on the right platform, where its audience will find it


  • the document is "packaged" appropriately (for example, if it's a policy document, it should be structured and laid out like your department's other policy documents)
  • it's clear what the author expects readers to do with this information


  • the medium is appropriate for the content (for example, maybe a 400-word email would be better packaged as web content or a downloadable document; your department's information management experts might suggest a more permanent format than email)

Other issues to consider

If there are tables with columns of figures that should add up, get out a calculator and make sure they do. If figures in the table are mentioned in nearby text, make sure the 2 numbers agree. If there is more than 1 table, they should be numbered in sequence.

Apply your own subject-matter knowledge; don't be afraid to fact-check if something looks suspicious. Don't assume that authors are experts who can't possibly make simple mistakes. When you find something that doesn't add up, leave a margin comment, diplomatically asking the author to "please verify."

Then proceed with the proofread or copy edit you were asked to do, treading lightly to avoid altering meaning or introducing errors. Tools such as Antidote or PerfectIt, if you have them, will speed up this process.

You may miss the odd small detail; we all do now and then. The greater value you'll deliver is finding that one substantive error or asking a question about purpose, audience or medium. Authors and clients will notice, and will appreciate your effort.

Have you had a client thank you for catching a substantive error or for asking questions about purpose, audience or medium? Write about it in the comments section!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Tom Vradenburg

Tom Vradenburg

For most of his 30 years in publishing, Tom Vradenburg has been an editor and a member of Editors Canada. He now runs a small communications unit at Statistics Canada and appreciates TERMIUM Plus® more than ever. Tom has been a student of good English writing and wit since age 11, the year he subscribed to Sports Illustrated and embraced Monty Python’s Flying Circus.




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