Proofreading and editing are jumbled up in many people’s minds as “something to do with writing”. If I say I do both, then one of the first questions I’m asked is: “What’s the difference?”

You might think that a proofreader checks for mistakes, and of course that’s true. But there’s a lot more to it than that. And if that’s what a proofreader does, then what’s an editor?

Well, I’m by no means a domestic goddess, but housework gives us a helpful example here.

Imagine you are expecting visitors. Proofreading is like running round with the hoover and dusting between the ornaments at the last minute. On the surface, everything your guests will see looks good and there’s nothing to complain of.

Editing is Feng Shui for your writing. It’s like rearranging the furniture and making sure you have your guests’ favourite flowers and music. Everything will flow better and be just right for your audience.

As for copywriting, that’s more like getting rid of all the furniture and moving to a different house. But that’s not what I’m covering in this post.

Let’s look at proofreading and editing in more detail.

What is a ‘proof’, and who reads it?

This use of the word ‘proof’ comes from the world of publishing – it means a copy set out in the way the final document should look, ready for checking. Before computers, these proofs were always actual copies on paper.

By that time, an editor would have (or should have) already checked for spelling, grammar and factual gaffes. (That’s called copy-editing or line-editing.) The final check was to weed out any mistakes in typesetting onto the page. Hence the word ‘typo’– a typographical error was, and is, an error using type. Typos used to happen because printers (people) had to physically pick up individual letters (the type) with tweezers and set them in tiny rows (back to front). Now, of course, they happen because computers enable everything to be done at high speed.

So proofreading was originally meant to be the last thing done before publishing. And it still should be. However, outside the publishing world, ‘proofreading’ usually means a combination of copy-editing and proofreading done at the same time. But what exactly gets checked?

Errors and inconsistencies

Yes, never fear, a proofreader or copy-editor will make corrections to wayward spelling, punctuation and grammar. But not everyone who makes a habit of spotting rogue apostrophes makes a good proofreader.

Sticking rigidly to rules we are convinced are right does not always work. A good proofreader keeps abreast of changing trends in punctuation, capitalisation and word order, and considers where best to apply them. For example, there is a move towards using fewer commas, for a clearer look on the page (or screen). What were once strict rules are now more flexible, as long as the meaning is clear.

Audiences vary too. The language used in advertising will be different from the formality and ‘correctness’ of a Board Report. One size does not fit all. You might like to take a look at my blog How to break with convention, one word at a time for more on this topic.

A proofreader will also sort out things that may not be errors but still need changing. These include inconsistencies in name spelling (eg, McDougall or MacDougal), date style (7th July or July 7th), heading style (capitals or lower-case), bullet point style, section spacing… The list goes on.

This is not done for the sake of being picky – it’s to make life as smooth as possible for your reading audience.

So what’s editing?

Editing (often called structural editing in the book-writing world) looks at flow and style. The writing may be correct, but is it clear? Is it suitable? Does it make sense?

An editor’s job is to suggest changes to word choice, paragraph spacing or text order. Often, that involves slashing chunks of unnecessary text. We do love a word-blitz! But again, it’s not done for our own sake – the whole point of writing is to communicate a message, and my job is to make that message as clear as possible for the people reading it.

That means being flexible. Yes, I could whittle the words down to the bare minimum, but that isn’t always appropriate. For example, on my own business cards, I explain the difference between proofreading and editing in 12 words. But this is a blog post, where readers expect some expansion and new things to think about.

To sum up…

Proofreading corrects written language errors and inconsistencies. Editing looks at the bigger picture, sorting out logic, style and flow.

You may hear other terms being used (copy-edit, line edit, structural edit…). In practice, I offer two levels: straightforward final proofreading if you are confident with your content, or editing, which will include broader advice and proofreading corrections in one service.

You’d probably tidy up if you had visitors coming. Your writing is out there for all the world to see – it’s even more important for it to look its best.


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