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  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

What’s the difference between proofreading and editing?

When most people say something needs proofreading, they often mean editing. Proofreading is a very specific part of the publishing process: the final quality check. Editing, on the other hand, is the time for your writing to be improved, to raise queries and hone your particular style.

 

In a recent poll on both LinkedIn and Instagram, I asked my followers to vote on this question:

 

When you’re writing (or have written) your book and you know you need a professional to go through the spelling, grammar and overall readability of the final draft, do you look for a ‘proofreader’ or ‘book editor’?


These were the three options I gave them to choose the title of the professional they'd use:

 

-          Proofreader

-          Book editor

-          Copyeditor

 

Nearly 50% of people who answered said they’d look for a proofreader to help them with the ‘overall readability of the final draft’ of their book. Unfortunately, I imagine the majority of that 50% would be disappointed if they used a proofreader to achieve this. To understand why I’m making such a bold statement, you need to understand the different levels of book editing and what proofreading actually means.

 

The publishing process

 

 

In an ideal world, your book would go through the following stages of editing:


Developmental/structural editing – working on the big picture elements of your book such as structure, the central argument, the storytelling techniques and your authorial voice.


Copyediting and/or line editing – a line-by-edit that focuses on linguistic mechanics such as spelling, grammar, inconsistency, repetition, word choice and overall readability.


Typesetting – your book design (focusing on the physical readability of your book, taking into account everything from font choice to page dimensions)


Proofreading – the final check for any errors, such as spelling or grammar mistakes, or inconsistencies with formatting.

 

From this, you can see that proofreading happens at the very end of the publishing process; editing occurs between drafts and before the final version of your book is typeset (formatted into a digital version of the ‘actual’ book).


(Read my blog post 'How long does editing take?' to find out how much time each stage needs.)



A pile of books (dictionaries and a copyediting reference book) are in front of an open laptop
Whether it's proofreading or editing, we need to use our reference books

 

What’s included in proofreading?

 

When you proofread something, you are trying to change as little as possible, because the more changes you suggest, the more time and money this will cost as it goes back to the typesetter. In any proofreading training, we are told to adopt the attitude of judging when something is ‘good enough’ for publication.

 

This may surprise you and you can understandably think it means that content gets published even if we spot errors, but that’s not it. Mistakes, of course, need to be amended, whereas feeling something ‘could be better’ may need to be left.

 

A mistake when proofreading would include:

  • spotting a sentence not starting with a capital letter

  • bullet points where all but one start with a capital letter

  • a spelling mistake

  • inconsistencies with spelling (organize in one sentence and then organise in another)

  • inconsistencies with grammar (using the serial comma in one paragraph but not in the rest of the book)

  • common sense errors (stating you were born in 1994 and then writing about your 40th birthday)

  • direct repetition from other parts of the book (easily done with copy and paste when self-editing)

 

Proofreading is not the time for suggesting a more appropriate word. So if you describe something as ‘nice’, when a different word would strengthen the impact of your writing at that point, a proofreader would have to leave it as it is.

 

What do we mean by editing?

 

‘Book editing’ is an umbrella term for everything that happens before typesetting and proofreading. In a large publishing house, a book editor is more like a project manager, overseeing the development of a book from proposal to a book on the shelf. This might include any or all of the following: reviewing manuscript submissions; looking out for up-and-coming authors; checking editorial decisions made by members of the publishing team; liaising between these members and the author; keeping each stage moving forwards.

 

Of course, book editors also edit books. In smaller publishing houses (and certainly independent editors, like myself) this means that stereotypical notion of what a book editor does: carefully reading a manuscript; suggesting ways the writing can be improved; spotting and amending linguistic errors.

 

In the self-publishing world, if someone says they are offer ‘book editing’, they will mean they offer some sort of developmental edit and/or a line-by-line edit (often called copyediting or line editing).

 

Developmental edit

 

As the wording would suggest, this is when you develop your book and its ideas. This can take several weeks as you work with a developmental editor on various drafts of your book or certain chapters you know need some extra love.

 

A branch of this type of edit is a manuscript appraisal, review, or critique (they are one and the same, we just use different names for them – after all, we love words!).

 

This usually involves an editor reading through your whole manuscript and then producing an editorial report which details what they love about your book and what needs more work (with suggestions on how to implement these improvements). Manuscript appraisals are popular as they take less time (and therefore cost less money) than a developmental edit, but help catch any major structural or rationale issues with your book.

 

When I conduct a manuscript appraisal, I include a video handover call, so I can discuss my suggestions and feedback with you and we can work out together which aspects you like the sound of and which you don’t think will work for your book.



A caucasian hand with pink nails is holding two books: 'New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors' and 'The Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction'
There are so many types of editing, no wonder it's confusing!

 

Copyediting and line editing

 

I know, I know, more terms for you to get your head around! On behalf of the publishing world, I apologise for this. I have to mention both of these terms as some editors offer these as two separate services. Technically, my copyediting service is a combination of the two (which is how many self-publishing copyeditors work).

 

Line editing focuses on the flow, style, and readability of your manuscript. This stage thinks more about the context behind word choice: how does each sentence contribute to the author’s intention?


Copyediting is all about polishing the sentences through syntax (word order), spelling, and grammar.

 

In both instances, editors are deciding how to improve the existing content. They will raise queries with the author (‘what do you mean here?’, ‘if you want to emphasise this part of the sentence, move the comma to here’).

 

When I copyedit, I use Track Changes in Word so that my authors can see every single change I’ve suggested or made, and then they can accept or reject each one. I use comments to distinguish between mistakes that need to be changed (‘I think you mean this word, which means xxx’) and the changes that are suggestions (‘see what you think of this change, as I wanted to emphasise the torment you were experiencing at this stage’). Comments are also used to explain reasons for change (‘you can’t assume their feelings at this point, so I’ve removed the word “compassionately” here’).

 

I also use my editorial report to explain the summary of changes (if a word has been misused or repeated throughout, any timeline issues, etc.), detail significant queries in certain chapters (whether a chapter has particular repetitions or issues with style), outline formatting choices (heading and bullet point style, captions, journal entries, etc.), and list elements you need to check before publishing (the contents page pagination, any missing content from the front matter, etc.).

 

As with my manuscript appraisal, I use a handover call to go through the critical queries such as any timeline mix-ups and confusion over word choice/meaning.



An open laptop shows a webpage with the title 'Non-fiction book editor and proofreader'. An open notebook with a teal foutain pen is in front.
Offer both editing and proofreading services

 

Do I need an editor or proofreader?


In the self-publishing world, this decision will come down to time and budget. If both were unlimited, you would work with both an editor and a proofreader. An editor would help improve your book, and then a proofreader would spot and amend those final mistakes before publishing.


If you opt for just a book editor (developmental and/or copyeditor), your writing and thesis will improve, but there would be no final check of your book, meaning it’s likely some final errors would be published.


Working with a proofreader with no prior editing means you publish a book with hardly any spelling, grammatical or formatting errors (no proofreader can promise 100% error-free), but the mantra of ‘good enough to print’ underpins the whole project.


When I'm copyediting for a self-publishing author, this could include structural changes (which I'd usually spot after the first read-through) as well as those line-by-line edits, so you will find an overlap between some services as we do our best to offer your the most value for money.


Ultimately, understanding the difference between editing and proofreading means you can set your expectations. Many self-publishing authors end up disappointed that they pay for a proofreader who doesn’t help them improve their writing, but that’s not what a proofreader does.


Any decent book editor or proofreader will make sure you know exactly what's included in their service, but if they don't, at least you have this blog post to start you off.

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