by 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.