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Editing Versus Proofreading: What's the Difference and Why You Need Both

Updated on June 28, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, author of 21 (and counting!) business books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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When someone asks me for help with editing a book, I ask if they truly want editing or just proofreading. A quizzical look often follows. There is a dramatic difference between the two activities and authors do need both! Here's why...

Editing versus Proofreading

Actually, editing and proofreading answer different questions about an author's manuscript.

  • Editing: "Does this writing say the right things in the right way for the right audience?"
  • Proofreading: "Does this writing comply with accepted language use rules so that it will be readable and accepted by the target audience?"

Therefore, editing is all about the message. Proofreading is all about the mechanics. It is entirely possible that a work could pass a proofreading review and completely fail an edit... and vice versa. (Trust me, I've seen both.)

Both activities are ideally done by an outside party. And don't try to do editing and proofreading during the writing phase!

Editing is all about the message. Proofreading is all about the mechanics.

— Heidi Thorne

Can You Over-Edit?

An author friend of mine received a nice royalty advance from a publisher to write a book. After the book was written, then came the editing process which was definitely challenging.

The publisher's editor was relentless with changes and it showed in the final work. Since I know the author personally, I could easily see where her work had been severely edited... almost sanitized. While there was nothing wrong with the writing or how it was finally presented, some segments just didn't have the author's usual "voice."

My friend said she did learn a lot from the editing process. So it was a great learning experience for her. But there does come a point where a work can be over-edited and lose some of its authenticity and appeal.

Editing should be done to make the writing better, not to turn it into something it's not.

What is Editing?

Editing looks at the overall goals of the author's work and evaluates whether the work is in alignment with them. Some of the key areas that editing focuses on are:

  • Clarity. Is the overall message (or story as in the case of fiction) clear and obvious? Also, is the text written in a way that can be clearly understood by the target audience?
  • Cohesiveness. Does every part of the work seem to fit together?
  • Continuity. Does every segment of the work flow smoothly into the next and ultimately bring the reader to a satisfying end?
  • Content. Will the message be relevant and understandable for the target audience? Is it appropriate for this market? This is especially critical for works written for younger or sensitive audiences.
  • Voice. Is the work written in a manner that would resonate with target readers? Does the work "sound" like it was written by the author? (See sidebar example.)

Punctuation Plus Pandas Equals a Proofreading Classic!

Chicago Manual of Style (Reference I've referred to since high school!)

What is Proofreading?

Since the editing process may require rewriting of some passages, proofreading is done in the final stages of manuscript preparation prior to production, whether it is a print or electronic work. Proofreading focuses on nitty-gritty details of proper language use and physical layout of the work, but doesn't question the overall message or intent.

Though not always necessary, some works require that writing follow specific style guidelines such as the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA) or The Chicago Manual of Style. Following these standards is usually required for scholarly works.

Here are key areas that proofreading addresses:

  • Punctuation. Does the writing contain all the proper punctuation marks... and in the right places?
  • Grammar. Does the writing use generally accepted word constructions for the language? Note that in some cases, particularly for dialogue, improper grammar might be included for effect.
  • Spelling. Are all words spelled correctly? Are the right words used (e.g., there versus their)?
  • Formatting. Can the eye easily follow the text? Does the layout of the text, headings, etc. help the flow of the writing or is it distracting?
  • References. Are footnotes, bibliographies, table of contents and other references in the work formatted to standards? Are they error free, e.g., page numbers match up with the listings in the table of contents?

Only Human

Editing and proofreading are STILL human activities as of this writing. As such, they can never be 100 percent accurate every time. However, having a trained eye doing both of these tasks can greatly improve the quality of any written work.

Maybe one day robots will be able to do it for us. We'll see.

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2015 Heidi Thorne

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    • Chris Antonaros profile image

      Christos Antonaros 2 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Very useful! I wanna ask though, is there in the Internet a place that can do both and cheap? Or a new writer has to spend a lot of money and risk having a bad result?

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Useful article Heidi, as it is often a fine line between the two. You explained the difference clearly. Well done.

      Chris, you can get both done for $5.00 at "fiver" depending on the length of the article.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 2 years ago from USA

      I love this easy to understand explanation of these different tasks. Thanks for posting!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's an important distinction, Heidi, and one many writers are not aware of. As always, right on!

      Send me some ice cubes, will you? Way to hot here on the west coast.

      Happy Monday to you!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      As an English teacher, I always tried to emphasize, while similar in nature, proofreading and editing are not the same thing.

      Great hub!

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 2 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This hub is amazing. Thank you for making the difference so clear.

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      You're so welcome, KoffeeKlatchGals! It's so easy to confuse the two. Thanks for your kind comments. Have a great week ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Yes, Larry, the two functions are similar... and there may be some crossover at times. Glad to hear you've emphasized to your students the importance--and difference--between them. Thanks so much for chiming in! Have a great week!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi billybuc! True, it is a very important distinction and the terms are often used reflexively and incorrectly. And with all the rain we've had this year in CHI, we'd just need a few days of 32 degrees and we'll have all the ice you could want. :) Stay cool, buddy!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      You're welcome, purl3agony! The terms are so often confused. So I thought it might be helpful to sort it all out. Have a beautiful week ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Chris! Indeed, hiring an editor and/or proofreader could be expensive. As our HubPages writing guru, billybuc, often suggests, maybe you'd want to partner up with some other writers and exchange editing or reviews. Something to consider. And Jodah has a suggestion in his comment on this post, too. Thank you for joining the conversation and good luck with your writing adventures!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Thanks for the suggestion, Jodah! When budgets are tight, some of those types of resources may be an option for writers. And I appreciate your kind comments. Thank you for adding your insight to the conversation! Have a wonderful week ahead!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Interesting and useful to help new writers. Oh that human factor!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      This is a clear explanation of the distinction.

      Some decades ago I worked for a book publisher as a copy editor. Copy editing was the same as what you call proofreading. The publisher-editor (it was a small company) focused on the editing as you describe it. Work with the accepted manuscript from the author, I focused on the mechanics as you describe them -- including spotting inconsistencies, anachronisms, etc. I went by one of the standard manuals of style. Back then proofreading still had the original meaning of scrutinizing page proofs provided by the printer to be sure no errors had been made in setting the type with a linotype machine. These days a proofreader or (more often) the author gives a pdf document a final scrutiny before printing commences. A family friend recently took online classes and got a copy editing certificate. Apparently it is an in-demand craft.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi B. Leekley! Indeed, the title by which a proofreader or editor goes can vary across the industry. So when seeking out these professionals, it is good to be very clear about what work is wanted. These days a "publisher-editor" might also be referred you as a content editor. It can be very confusing, that's why I thought this hub might help clarify. And you are definitely right: Both functions are becoming in-demand crafts as more and more people enter the publishing arena and realize they need these services.

      Thank you so much for adding your industry experience to the conversation! Appreciate the support. Have a great week ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Got that right, RTalloni! Until some sentient robot understands the complexities of human communication, these functions will remain within the human realm. Thanks so much for reading and your kind comments. Have a beautiful week!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a useful hub, Heidi. It contains a great description of the differences between editing and proofreading.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi AliciaC! Glad you found it helpful. Yes, there is quite a difference. Thanks for stopping by and have a delightful day!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Excellent and very helpful. I wonder though, do you have a formula for enjoying these two processes? I used to love editing and proofreading because I enjoyed the challenge, but now I just hate it.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi lambservant! Glad you found the info helpful. Enjoying the two processes? Hmm... I try to do both on a printed copy of the work at a pleasant place, such as a Starbucks, where I don't have home distractions. I think just doing either in a place other than where you write can help get more clarity and accuracy. Let us know if you find any other strategies that make either function more pleasant or productive. Thanks for the great question! Have a beautiful day!

    • profile image

      Mary R P. Schutter 2 years ago

      As an English major and writer, I found your article wonderfully succinct and clear. You explained well the difference between editing and proofreading and the need for both. Hopefully, each person who reads your article will realize that self-editing and/or proofreading don't always work well since we tend to become so familiar with our own writing that we overlook mistakes. You reminded me that even an English major needs an impartial eye to make sure that my work is the best it can be. Thank you for helping to educate other Hubbers and the general public.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Mary! Thank you for your kind comments... and coming from an English major, I'm certainly honored! Being a former editor, I, too, find it easy to get into self-editing/proofing. ;) Appreciate you adding your experienced insight to the conversation. Have a wonderful weekend ahead!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Bravo! This was excellent! You have such a clear, concise manner and the expertise to back it up. Voted way up +++, shared, and G+.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Aw, FlourishAnyway, thanks for the kind words and sharing! So appreciate your support. Have a great week!

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Very interesting article Heidi with lots of great information. In an ideal world we would all be able to afford a proof-reader and an editor as the skill sets are not the same.

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi CMHypno! Agreed. And in an technically ideal world, our computers would be able to do this for us automatically. One day maybe. :) Thanks for the kind comments! Have a beautiful day!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Very interesting

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi lawrence01! Glad you found the info interesting. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Great advice heidi, its always good to know the difference as I always get muddled up with the technical terms etc, nell

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Nell! We all can get muddled up at times with all the nitty gritty of writing. :) (Even those of us who have done editing.) Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a great weekend ahead!

    • profile image

      Kevin Goodwin 24 months ago

      I see profeading is just looking for spelling mistakes and other minor mistakes. Editing means that you look for flaws in the writing of the author. Everyone can proofread not many have the patience to edit.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 24 months ago from Chicago Area

      Oh Kevin, you are soooo right! Proofreading is definitely a skill that many have. But editing? Patience, knowledge of the material and so much more are required. Thank you for adding that insight to the conversation! Have a terrific week ahead!

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 24 months ago

      It was interesting Heidi. I have read about proofreading where you need to learn all of those marks. I use it after writing a draft. I write first in Word and then in Hub. Before I publish in Hub I edit.

      Kevin

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 24 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Kevin! I remember all those editing marks, too. But I think people are less inclined to use them these days since a lot of editing is done in Word and/or online. Identifying those marks might make a good quiz, eh? :) Thanks for adding your drafting and editing tips to the conversation! Cheers!

    • breathing profile image

      Sajib 19 months ago from Bangladesh

      “Editing vs proofreading” is a debate that has probably been going since the beginning of writing. But the difference between the two is quite clear and the author has distinguished it successfully. Both editing and proofreading has important roles in writing. One cannot be completely ignored while giving precedence to the other. Good editing of a document makes that easily pass the proofreading process. While a good document can be great by effective proofreading. So for a good writer it is very important to combine editing and proofreading in order to get best of his/her writing. This post can be pretty much helpful in that regard.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 19 months ago from Chicago Area

      Thank you, breathing, for chiming in and for your kind comments. Cheers!

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