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...