One pitfall all editors face—I can say this on the authority of having at least two friends (on Facebook) who are also editors—is that, sometimes, the writer whose work you’re proofing is actually pretty good. …Now, that doesn’t sound like it should be an issue at all; after all, if the writing is good, then that just means less work for you, because there are fewer mistakes for you to catch or phrases for you to re-write.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
The problem I find is this: the further I get into an article, or report, or textdump from a videogame without finding any mistakes at all, the more I start to lose my shit. “I’ve lost my touch! I’m not doing my job! They’re going to think I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!!” It freaks me out, and I end up spending more time on the text than I normally would, parsing out each individual word—each individual letter—in the hope that something, anything, DEAR GOD THERE HAS TO BE A TYPO SOMEWHERE will make its presence felt so I can heroically take to the keyboard and be useful.
The pitfall here is the possibility that you’ll start finding errors where there are none—making changes just for the sake of proving that you even opened the document at all. This doesn’t help anyone. Unless you’re enhancing the already-great text—which, if the writer is really that great, you probably aren’t—you’re just messing with the prose, disrupting an intricately crafted web of words that was just fine before you started monkeying with it, thank you very much. The writer gets annoyed, you get annoyed at the writer for getting annoyed, your wife gets annoyed because you’re annoyed because…and so on.
I mentioned this concern to a fellow editor friend (on Facebook), and he brought to light the root solution to this problem: Understand that it’s OK if you don’t find many (or any) mistakes; sometimes the writer just wants a second pair of eyes looking things over before sending it off, not to find mistakes, but to not find mistakes. To confirm that everything’s perfect. Heck, I do that myself—I don’t even let a blog post about yardsale findings go by without making someone (usually my wife) read it over to make sure I didn’t embarass myself by claiming to be an editor, and then spelling “embarrass” that way.
I think it might help, too, to get on the same page with the writer before starting on a project. Ask what they’re looking for. Do they simply want a proofreader to double-check everything? Do they want an editor to clean up messy prose? Do they want a script-doctor to come in and completely re-write everything? Ask these questions first. The so-called “good writers” may just want you to root out typos, and if you don’t find any—they’ll probably be glad, not disappointed.*
* Of course, another scenario—one I experienced several months ago—is that the writer will just want “simple proofreading,” and it’ll turn out that “simple proofreading” won’t be enough to save the text. My solution, which turned out to be the completely wrong solution, was to go full-on janitor on the text, and when I sent them the proofed document, they ended up ignoring all of my changes, because they weren’t happy with my re-writes. Not because (I’d like to think) I did a bad job, but because they didn’t want me to re-write things in the first place. The end-result was that the game got published still chock-full of typos, because in ignoring the re-writes, they also ignored the necessary fixes.