Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 9, 2011

Editing vs. Proofreading: Why This Matters To Your Manuscript

Note: Parts of this post were originally published on Jenny Hansen's Blog as The Pros Do The Finish Work.

I read a great article last month that discussed the differences between Editing and Proofreading and (of course) I got to thinking about analogies could relate to writing. These rules apply whether you’re dealing with business documents, such as white papers, articles or novels.

Like most writers, I've always hung out with a boatload of other writers. That doesn’t mean that I saw much of other peoples’ works in progress until I coordinated a contest several years ago. This experience changed the way I see writing. Period.

I got to see firsthand what separates the Amateurs from the Professionals – the ability to both Edit and Proofread. In novel writing, editing is King and proofreading is Queen.

Note: I’m not talking about the difference between published and pre-published – there are many writers that are pre-published simply because they haven’t gotten their work in front of the right person.

These pre-published authors are still consummate professionals who put in the time to make all aspects of their work shine. They know that old, but apt, cliché:  You never get a second chance to make a first impression. And they work hard to make a good one.

As a contest coordinator, I had to read ALL the contestant score sheets that were returned from the judges as well as the thank you notes that were sent from the contestants to the judges. These rules are in place to ensure that everyone plays nice with one another. (It should be noted that nearly everyone does.)

Still, there are those rare occasions when the coordinator gets the fun job of asking a judge to find a nice way to say that a contestant’s heroine is “Too Stupid to Live.” It is also the coordinator’s job to ensure that a contestant doesn’t send a nasty-gram for a low score. I mean, really, the ONLY thing to say when someone takes time from their own work to volunteer to look at yours is, “thank you.”

Getting back to the Editing vs. Proofreading…there was an area on the score sheet called “Mechanics” that was worth a whopping twenty points. One (extremely well-known) author gave a contestant FIVE points, along with an amazing gift: she chastised the writer about how these twenty points were the easiest points to ace in the entire contest. She told the contestant that “there is no excuse for not taking the time to get all twenty points EVERY time.”

Spelling, grammar, punctuation and neatness are nearly the only thing you can be completely confident of when you start writing because things like voice and pacing take a while to get the hang of. I let this (very blunt) comment stand because I knew it might save that contestant’s career.

I think many writers, especially new ones, see editing and proofreading as the same thing. In reality, these two techniques employ very different parts of your writing brain.

Think of it like building a house. You can lay a solid foundation, frame the house correctly, hang the drywall, slap on some paint and that house is structurally sound, sealed and dry. It is a well-edited house and the floor plan is amazing.

BUT, if you don’t take some extra time on the finish work: painting the trim, adding some lovely scrollwork or lining up the crown molding, fewer people will want to buy it. Worse, if they do buy it (for a much lower rate) they’ll walk away from the exchange thinking you did half-assed work because now they have to take time to fix it.


How is editing different than proofreading?

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, we know from the link at the beginning of this post, that editing and proofreading are two different stages of the revision process. Both demand close and careful reading, but they focus on different aspects of the writing and employ different techniques.


Editing is what you begin doing as soon as you finish your first draft. You reread your draft to see, for example, whether your work is well-organized, your point of view correct, whether all the scenes support your plot and the transitions between these scenes are smooth.

Have you varied the length and structure of your sentences? Do you tend to use the passive voice too often? Do you use an excessive amount of clichés? What about the more subtle editing techniques like deleting your echoes? Sharla Rae wrote an amazing blog on this topic, called Echoes – Repeat Offenders, that I consider a must-read.


Proofreading is the final stage of the editing process, focusing on errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. It’s recommended that you proofread only after you have finished all of your other editing revisions (so you only have to do it once) but most writers do it as they go along. The danger in this habit is that familiarity can make you blind.

Some tips to help you to search (and find) your errors:

  • Don't rely entirely on spelling or grammar checkers.
    These programs work with a limited number of rules, so they can't identify every error and often make mistakes.
  • Proofread for only one kind of error at a time.
    If you try to identify and revise too many things at once, you risk losing focus, and your proofreading will be less effective.
  • Read slow, and read every word.
    Try reading out loud, which forces you to say each word and also lets you hear how the words sound together.
  • Circle every punctuation mark.
    This forces you to look at each one. As you circle, ask yourself if the punctuation is correct.
  • Proofreading is a learning process.
    You're not just looking for errors that you recognize; you're also learning to recognize and correct new errors. This is where handbooks and dictionaries come in. Keep the ones you find helpful close at hand as you proofread.
  • Ignorance may be bliss, but it won't make you a better proofreader.
    You'll often find things that don't seem quite right to you, but you may not be quite sure what's wrong either. If you're not sure about something, look it up, and don’t be shy about asking others to proofread your work.

Some tips that apply to both editing and proofreading

Get some distance from the text! It’s hard to edit or proofread a work in progress that you’ve just finished writing—it’s still too familiar, and you tend to skip over a lot of errors. Put the paper aside for a few hours, days, or weeks. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King recommends a minimum of 2-3 weeks.

Do something else.  Clear your head of what you’ve written so you can take a fresh look at the paper and see what is really on the page. Better yet, give the paper to a friend—you can’t get much more distance than that. Someone who is reading the paper for the first time, comes to it with completely fresh eyes.

Below are some techniques from the University of North Carolina article I referenced up top – I highly recommend reading the entire article if you have time.

  • Decide what medium lets you proofread most carefully.
    Some people like to work on the computer, while others like to sit back with a printed copy that they can mark up as they read.
  • Try changing the look of your document.
    Altering the size, spacing, color, or style of the text may trick your brain into thinking it’s seeing an unfamiliar document, and that can help you get a different perspective on what you’ve written.
  • Find a quiet place to work.
    Don’t try to do your proofreading in front of the TV or while you’re chugging away on the treadmill. Find a place where you can concentrate and avoid distractions.
  • If possible, do your editing and proofreading in several short blocks of time, rather than all at once—otherwise, your concentration is likely to wane.
  • If you’re short on time, you may wish to prioritize your editing and proofreading tasks to be sure that the most important ones are completed first.

Whew! Writing this made me feel like I’ve run a marathon already…how about you? I’m going to take a walk and come back and do some serious editing on the high-risk pregnancy memoir I'm writing.

What editing and proofreading techniques have you found the most helpful? Are there resources that you rely on during your editing or proofing phase?

Newsflash: The next installment of Lyn Horner's Publishing With Amazon series is on deck to post this week so stay tuned...


0 comments on “Editing vs. Proofreading: Why This Matters To Your Manuscript”

    1. No problem, PW. This is one of those posts where I studied it and studied it because I have so much trouble with editing but almost none with proofing. The article really turned the lighbulb on for me about the differences.

  1. Advice I was given and have found helpful: Be a judge in a contest. You see what bothers you when you read someone else's entry, and are more aware of your own work afterward.

    1. Oh, yeah! Being a contest coordinator absolutely changes the way you look at a submission. Plus you get lesson after lesson in humility, generosity and DIPLOMACY! (lol)

      Thanks for the comment, Judy.

    1. Paul,

      I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I should be excited or feel sorry for you on the editing front. Let us know how the process goes with this fresh in your mind. I'll be curious to see if it changes anything for you to do it this way.

  2. I wholeheartedly support your advice about proofreading. It is truly essential, especially when it comes to spelling, noun/verb agreement and precise word choice. However, my experience with contests late has been that the nicest of judges becomes a punctuation Nazi. Various genres use various types of punctuation. Run-on sentences, for instance, might rarely show up in a sweet romance, yet are rampant in heavy suspense. Literary novels leave out the majority of commas, and the rule about offsetting modifying clauses is often haphazardly applied. And there are major divergences in style manuals regarding the use of commas, semi-colons and colons, as well as run-on sentences.

    The makes the judges arbitrary arbitrators. For this reason, I think contest should not be giving such high scores to mechanics. Granted the entire contest process is based on opinion, but grammar is such an evolving thing that no one is an expert, although many think they are. I've heard that one major publisher has eliminated the use of "whom." Yay, yay, I say, but their hapless authors are probably going to get dinged in a contest. And if you get a judge who prefers a style different than yours, there goes your chances of being a finalist.

    Sorry for the rant, because this is an excellent post and one that everyone should read. I just felt someone should point out that puntuation rules rest mainly in the opinion of the reader, yet are applied as though they are fact.

    1. Said, Connie, who obviously didn't proofread 🙁 Sorry, I thought I had a preview option where I could make corrections before this posted.

    2. Connie,

      All of us here at Writers In the Storm will absolutely agree about contests being subjective. (We've got the bumps and bruises to prove it!) Laura Drake did a great post called "Contesting Contests" on the topic that you might like.

      I'll tell you, I think as much work as it is to coordinate a contest, I'd rather be there than judging OR entering one.

      1. Yeah, I agree. I've judge a number and entered a number and some time ago I pulled back on bothl Thanks for your reply to my post. I very much enjoyed yours.

    1. Thanks, Regina! I'm so glad it's helping our readers as much as it helped us. 🙂

      You guys always push us to grow and learn new stuff. Thank you for the comment!

  3. Wonderful post, Jenny. I plan to bounce over to the reference sites you mention. I am in the throes of getting ready to enter The Molly (more like throw-ups at the moment as I write my synopsis).

    I employ many of the tips you mention, especially reading aloud to check cadence and missed words, changing the screen view so it appears in book format, and editing a hard copy. It's uncanny what I pick up when looking from different perspectives.

    It's embarrassing to see how many times I misuse "your" versus "you're" and "there" versus "they're" versus "their" b/c I know proper usage for all of them. Lie versus lay? That's another story.

    Since The TARA (submitted 5/1) and The MOLLY (due 5/15) are my first contest entries, I'm anxious to get feedback. The liquid (and, sometimes subjective)puncutation and grammar rules challenge me b/c my voice lends itself to sentence frags, em dashes, and many of those nifty rhetorical devices Margie Lawson teaches.

    Thanks for a great post and more fodder for my proofing/editing checklist.

    1. Hi Gloria, Laura here.

      Good luck on your contest debut! If you chose contests that give feedback, I've found that it's usually worth the price of admission.

      Faye and I just returned from Margie Lawson's Masters Immersion Class in Colorado. Wow what an experience!
      I highly recommend it!

      1. Hi, Laura. Thanks for your encouragement. I've been a fan of Margie's since I took her online DSDB class in January, 2010. I met my Canadian CP online during that class and we both attended IMC in Boulder last September. I agree. WOW!

        Margie held two IMC classes at my house the week after Dreamin' in Dallas, so I was blessed with more Margie time. I've said it before, but will repeat. If you want to lose weight, keep pace with Margie's energy. If you want to write a bestseller, steal her brain!

        Hope to see you on the 21st. Gloria

        1. Oh Gloria, you're so right. I told my crit group that they're going to have to wear sunglasses from now on, because Faye and I are so brilliant! I truly believe that the best money anyone can spend on improving their writing is through Margie's classes, be it online, IMC, or just buying the packets.

          A heck of a bargain, considering what you get!

  4. ACK! My post failed the "ing(space)" search-and-destroy edit pass. 😉

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