Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 28, 2014

Do You Know How To Edit AND Proofread Your Story?

proofreading, Writers In The Stormby Jenny Hansen, @JennyHansenCA

Editing and Proofreading: Two separate processes that equal one great story.

Like most writers, I hang out with a boatload of other writers. Still, I never saw much of other peoples’ works in progress until I coordinated a contest several years ago. Coordinating contests changed the way I see writing. Period. It was a window into both sides of the submission process.

Plus, I saw firsthand one of the important talents that separates the amateurs from the professionals: the ability to both edit and proofread.

In novel-writing, editing is King and proofreading is Queen.

Professional writers, whether published or pre-published know: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. They work hard to make a great first impression.

As a contest coordinator, I had to read every piece of paper sent between the judges and the contestants to ensure everyone played nice with each other. (It should be noted that nearly everyone did.)

There was an area on the score sheet called “Mechanics” worth a whopping twenty points.

One well-known author gave a contestant FIVE points, along with an amazing gift: she chastised the writer that 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 master.

I let this (very blunt) comment stand because I knew it might save that contestant’s career.

Many writers 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 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 from proofreading?

Here's a great article that discusses the differences between the two. These rules apply whether you’re dealing with business documents, such as white papers, articles or novels.

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, 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?

Note: Sharla Rae wrote an amazing blog on this topic, called Echoes – Repeat Offenders. It's 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 above – 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 current novel.

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

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm. Jenny also writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

photo credit: sidewalk flying via photopin cc

36 comments on “Do You Know How To Edit AND Proofread Your Story?”

  1. Excellent post, Jenny, and a great reminder.

    Thank God for my crit partners - they catch my comma drama every time. I'm not bad at grammar (I still stand by my love for the semi-colon) but I'll never understand two things - perfect comma usage and when to use Lay/Lie/Laid/Lain. Sorry, brain blockage.

    My best technique for editing (wait for it - long time WITS readers know what's coming) Margie Lawson's deep edits. Once I highlight my pages (honestly, check it out at Lawson Writer's Academy) I turn them upside-down, so I can't read the words - just see the balance of color - and then a miracle happens! I can see where I went crazy with a description, or went on and on in a character's thoughts. The technique gave me balance, and after a while, I didn't need to highlight - I WROTE balanced!

    This was huge for me, since backing away and seeing my work objectively is something I struggle with.

    1. WOWZA, Laura. On writing balanced, you reached the enviable state of unconscious competence.

      Each night, I tuck my WIP under my pillow and unleash tiny gnomes to write while I'm unconscious. Lazy little boogers. On to Plan B...

    2. You? Comma drama? Pffffft---

      Well, okay, I can't lie to the nice people. However, you have excellent writing to make up for the commas. And Fae has broken you of the em-dashes. Now if she could only break me of my "as"...

      Thanks Laura, for being the best crit partner EVER.

  2. Great tips! I find that stepping away for a bit and changing the medium does indeed help in catching things we might miss. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jenny, thanks for this ... thanks since I am in that stage with my WIP. I use different methods at different times of the process. The first go round (drafts two or three) I am finding continuity, flow and gross repetition. Hard to believe that I go on a bit too much??? Well I do. And I go on with the same phrases often.

    I move into different stages. One wonderful lesson one of my readers taught me is, "Please, this time be sure you want me to read it." What I've done is print out however many pages and then I'd call her and say. "No, don't read that copy. I want to change a few things."

    Also ... this one insists on a hard copy, another reader takes a computer copy ... I have also used the ability to transfer a document to my Kindle ... AND ... drum roll please ... AND Margie's color coded deep editing is one of the most valuable tools any of us can ever learn. Once I finally got what she was talking about, I got rid of half ... no three quarters ... of my back story.

    Great post, Jenny 🙂

    1. You? Go on too much? What, you mean LIKE THE REST OF US. 🙂 We all do it.

      Thank the heavens for writing partners, Margie Lawson and the ability to revise. What would we do without those things?

  4. YIKES! I am in the habit of proof reading and editing at the same time. Do you suppose this is how an 'on' can magically transform to 'in' after 1,583 passes?

    As for tips on what works for me, the first is to STOP THE MADNESS. Don't edit ad infinitum while trying to let your voice and story play out on the pages. A purty sentence doth not a novel make. Forsooth.

    I have entire SCENES I spent hours making 'just so' only to discover I did that JUST SO I could (gasp!) trash them. That experience is a cranky day waiting to happen.

    Your advice to change the format is one I use. When I switch to full page format, where I see two pages laid out like a book, I catch errors in grammar, missteps in cadence, and those pesky typos that sneak under the red squiggly line's radar.

    Best strategy?

    Trap a writing buddy in a car for a long distance drive on an interstate. [Take a preemptive pee so you don't have to stop and give her a chance to run.] Then hand her your WIP and make her read it aloud. AMAZING catches. I almost drove into the ditch several times. On purpose.

    1. Oh good Lord, I know you did that to Sherry... The endless Full Bladder Road Trip, right?

      That being said, it's so heartbreaking to have to cut beautiful scenes. I feel your pain. As much as it's not fun for my critique partners, I kind of vomit on the page, then go back later and gussy it all up. It cuts down on that "endless revise" time by a mile.

      However, everyone has to find their OWN process. However, perhaps you want to adjust yours to make you less stressed? Anything I can do to help get your book out to the masses so they can enjoy your warmth and wit?

  5. Excellent tips, thank you! Reading out loud is one of my favorite self-editing devices. When I'm doing my final proofread, I send the Word doc to my Kindle. Also, some of my writing colleagues send their final files to CreateSpace and make an ARC for final proofreads or for beta readers...tricks your brain into reading it like a book, where it could be easier to find errors. If you're planning to use a professional editor on your manuscript, doing all the self-editing you can first will not only make the process go more smoothly, but will also reduce your costs.

  6. Great post, Jenny. The process that works for me is to edit on hard copy then proof on an e-reader. Amazing the things that pop up when you switch to a different format. And if I've edited a few times, I'll change the font and do another round. 🙂

  7. As someone who writes and edits under time pressure in a corporate environment, I've developed a habit (bad or otherwise) of editing and proofing at the same time. I feel like I can hammer out the punctuation details and shape text at the same time. That said, with my personal writing, there comes a time when someone else has to look at it. I can only flog it so many times before it stops breathing.

  8. Jenny, this is a wonderful piece--I never really thought much about the differences between writing and proofing, but it's very true that these are vastly different processes and both are essential to good writing. The main problem I have is turning "off" my editor while I'm writing, so that I'm not constantly saying, "Oh, man, that's a dumb sentence! Wait, that next sentence is even worse! You'd better quit now before anyone sees this!"

  9. Thanks for a great post. With my first novel, I thought I'd edited and proofread it properly (several times), but as soon as I self-published it friends and family started pointing out typos and even missing words. I now realise part of the problem was that I'd confused the editing and proofreading stages - I was constantly proofreading.

    I'm also going to check out this 'deep edit' thing'.

  10. Thanks Jen. I've judged in contests and scratched my head sometimes wondering why they didn't proof. A contest is a trial run before sending a piece to an editor so it's almost as important. For my part I'm huge on the reading out loud during proof reading and editing. Used to make my poor son listen for stuff I might not hear. It works great!

  11. This is a very informative article on editing and proofreading! I love it! Although, I would add that it may be helpful at times to read short pieces while exercising. The endorphins expelled during exercise makes things clearer at times. It may not be good to use during critical parts of editing or proofreading. However, it may help get a refreshed view of short pieces.

  12. I have found it helps to proofread the chapters in a random order rather than working from start to finish. That way I don't get caught up in the story and try to edit it (again!).

  13. Very useful advice (in the comments as well as the actual article)! As a 5th grade teacher, I read my middle grade fiction aloud to my students. No matter how many times I look over it, I ALWAYS catch errors (and awkward phrasings, inconsistencies, etc.) when I hear my own voice reading it aloud. Not to mention that my students' reactions and feedback help me see what scenes work well and what don't, if anything is confusing, etc.

  14. I am a human spellchecker, finding the misspelled words, the misplaced words, and the missing words is part of my giftedness. Been doing it for over 40 years. Fortunately, I enjoy reading a lot.
    Also I think there is a writer inside trying to breakout. He is having a hard time though.
    I greatly appreciated your article and all the comments. I see a vibrant community of people engaged in similar pursuits. Very cool! I will be back

  15. Change the look of your document is a great technique. A friend of mine prints hers out in the form it would actually look in a book - two sides and smaller print, single space.

  16. Jenny, for final edits, what works the best for me is to print out the MS in a different size and a very different font than I use on the computer, make a cup of tea, find a quiet place where I won't be disturbed and start reading, from page one, as if it's a book I've never read before, written by another author. It's amazing how doing this helps me catch everything from G/P/S errors to logic flaws, and everything in between.
    Good post, and informative. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Good reminder post for me right now. I'm editing a previously pubbed book - edited & published by a NY Big Publisher. Yes, it happens. Taking out filler & repeated phrases and adding depth of character and motivation. I'm hoping for a miracle, those Girls in the Basement to do the work. But they're pushing me to work so they can dance! When this I'd done, I'll join them. Nice to know I'm in such good company here.

  18. Great advice. I always seem to be proofreading and editing at the same time. I really want to try and break it into steps so I don't overlook anything.

  19. Thank you for posting this. I'm a beginning writer and editing/proof reading is an area I need to improve.

  20. Oh lordy. I actually edit while I write...the day after I write something, or when I've got a new section, I look over it to make sure it matches up. Typoes and other things too...they can be mean. Once I missed a use of a lowercase L instead of an I...and I still don't know how it happened, lawl XD

    So sharing this on Facebook and in my author group. 😀 (And, lol, I use my personal/art-based account for FB, sorry about the awkward name.)

    D.N. Lyons (author of Neptune the Briarhearted)

  21. This is a very helpful article - and so are the comments! Personally, I edit as I go, generally paragraph by paragraph. When a piece is complete then I proofread in a quiet place where I can read it out loud. So many people fail to do this! If it doesn't flow off the tongue it's not going to flow in the brain/imagination.

    I've had writing misadventures literally editing the piece unto death. Most have remained buried for years! I've learned not to do that anymore. Thanks for the great read, Jenny. Sharing & reblogging.

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