Editing Versus Proofreading: What's the Difference and Why You Need Both
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
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.)
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.
Chicago Manual of Style (Reference I've used 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?
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.
Punctuation Plus Pandas Equals a Proofreading Classic!
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