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What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

The difference between editing and proofreading

A lot of beginner writers and even more experienced writers wonder: What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

And what’s copyediting?

Then there’s developmental editing, substantive editing, and stylistic editing. Structural editing, line editing, project editing, technical editing, and fact checking. Even proofreading is sometimes (erroneously) called editing, although there is such a thing as editorial proofreading.

Gah! What’s a writer to do?

If you Google “types of editing” you’ll get all sorts of confusing information. On top of that, in the blogging world an “editor” is sometimes more of a WordPress geek or administrative assistant than anything.

But it’s not really all that complicated. And every writer should have a good understanding of the editing and proofreading process. Even if you never hire or work with an editor or proofreader, you should be taking care of these steps yourself.

And chances are good you already are.

Stages of writing

Editing is probably the most confusing concept whereas copyediting and proofreading are fairly specific. Let’s take a look.

Any type of writing ideally goes through four stages in order: writing, editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

We know what writing is, so let’s skip that part and move on to editing.

Editing definitions are confusing partly because of the overlap with writing early in the editing process. And later, a bit of a blur occurs between final copyediting and proofreading.

Plus, professionals use terms in their own way, and that might be different from the ways others use them. Publishing houses, editorial service companies, and freelancers all have their own definitions within certain boundaries.

For example, developmental and substantive editing are often used interchangeably. Stylistic editing can be performed as a separate step, but it’s more often part of some other editing process. And copyediting is usually synonymous with line editing—but not always.

Let’s look at editing as improvements made after the writing is in fairly good order but before focusing on small details.

This stage is most often called developmental or substantive editing.

The big picture: Developmental or substantive editing

Think of a novel. The first step in the editing process is developmental editing, sometimes called substantive editing.

During this process, editors review the entire manuscript from a broad perspective and suggest improvements in organization, structure, and consistency. They might also point out problems with characterization, point of view, tension, or conflict. Or maybe the story has too much dialogue or the setting needs more detail.

At this stage, editors don’t focus on fixing awkward sentences, misspelled words, or punctuation. Instead, a developmental editor’s job is to improve the story itself—the big picture—from beginning to end. This applies to non-fiction writing as well.

And bloggers, by the way, do the same thing with their blog posts, especially the lengthy epic posts. The big picture has to be in place before detailed editing can begin.

Developmental editing can blend into substantive editing, which focuses on the finer points of structure: chapter or paragraph organization, transitions, and even sentences. It all depends on the company or organization and how they’re defining editing.

Substantive editing can also refer to heavy copyediting (discussed below), and it can mean almost a complete rewrite at the sentence and paragraph level. As you can see, there’s an overlap in each direction.

In your own writing—let’s say a blog post—developmental editing includes deciding on details you want to include or delete. Organizing your information and refining your focus is also a part of this stage. And if you’re using an extended metaphor, you’ll want to be certain it’s carried through the entire blog post, as in this case.

When the blog post is in 100% solid shape—or you think it is—it’s time for copyediting.

The fine-tuning: Copyediting

Also called line editing, copyediting takes place mainly at the sentence level.

It means correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Awkward sentences are reworded, and verbiage is eliminated for conciseness. Excess passive verbs are exchanged for active verbs, and transitions might be added in between and within paragraphs.

Style issues can also be a focus during this stage. In my own writing, for example (even in this blog post), I have a tendency to use formal, academic language even when I want a casual tone. By reading out loud, I can spot it and improve it since I don’t talk that way (far from it).

Consistency issues are also checked such as capitalization, hyphenation, and numbers spelled out or represented as numerals (four vs. 4). Plus, lists are checked for parallelism; each item should have similar structure and start with the same part of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.).

Think of it this way:

Copyediting isn’t the big picture, but it doesn’t require a microscope.

You can break it down into three different types: heavy, medium, and light copyediting.

Heavy copyediting is the kind that blurs into substantive editing as described above. It can mean almost a complete rewrite at the sentence level.

But it could also mean working with a non-native, non-fluent English writer. The content might be fantastic from a developmental perspective, but sentences are cumbersome, paragraphs need better organization, and word choices aren’t the best. And that means heavy copyediting.

Light copyediting means the writing has little need for improvement. Wordiness is corrected here or there, punctuation or a subject-verb agreement mistake is corrected, or a few sentences are broken up or joined for clarity.

In some cases, light copyediting is what the writer has requested of a freelance editor regardless of actual existing issues. In this case, only the most glaring or problematic issues are corrected.

Medium copyediting, of course, comes in between light and heavy.

And by the way, you might see copyediting spelled copy editing (with a space) or even copy-editing (British). I prefer copyediting since it’s a single concept just like copywriting, which is always spelled as one word.

The goal of copyediting is to produce writing that’s as close to perfection as any writing can ever be. But one final step is critical, and that’s proofreading.

Now put it under the microscope: Proofreading

No matter how skilled a copyeditor is, proofreading requires a different focus. And even if a copyeditor is an excellent proofreader, the two tasks should be done separately.

And that applies to writers doing all the work on their own. When you’re thinking about grammar and style, you won’t see that extra space or missing quotation mark.

It’s like using a different part of your brain for writing and copyediting and another part for proofreading.

Here are two ways to remember what proofreading is about:


1. Proofreading proves the article or manuscript is ready to be published.

Everything else is—or should be—done.

2. Proofreading makes tiny adjustments and corrections, not big changes.

A proofreader scrutinizes the writing for minor spelling errors, extra or missing spaces, missing or double end punctuation, margin consistency, fonts, numbering, and so on. With website copy, links are checked for accuracy, and a proofreader might even examine keywords and meta data behind the scenes.

If copyediting errors are found, professional proofreaders check back with the copyeditor (if one exists) rather than make the changes themselves.

Proofreading can overlap into copyediting

Like types of editing, proofreading doesn’t have strict boundary lines. Proofreaders don’t ignore misspelled or incorrectly used words (peak instead of pique, for example) that a copyeditor missed.

But whether a proofreader has liberty to make changes depends on the job definition within a publishing house or other company. Sometimes a large company employs editorial proofreaders who have more leeway with copyediting than typical proofreaders. Other times, only one or two editors do all the editing and proofreading work.

At a small local newspaper, for example, a freelance writer might submit articles to the only person who sees them before they’re published: the editor. That editor might be one of several department editors, but if the budget is tight, copyeditors or proofreaders don’t exist. And in that case, editors either approve articles as they are or handle copyediting and proofreading themselves (or pass it on to an assistant editor).

For your own proofreading:

If you’re reworking convoluted sentences or replacing technical jargon with more common words, you’re not proofreading. You’re still in the copyediting stage, and it’s best to start fresh with proofreading or you’ll miss something.

If you do find a bigger problem while proofreading, you could highlight it and return to it later. That way, you won’t lose your proofreading focus.

But be sure to re-proof the entire paragraph when you make changes during this last stage. It’s very easy to introduce new errors when switching between proofreading and copyediting. (Ever see a double or missing word in a blog post? Yep, that often happens at this stage.)

~~~

Remember, developmental and substantive editing are the main types of editing, and they’re all about the big picture.

Copyediting is a separate entity, and it focuses on fine-tuning at the sentence level.

Proofreading is a completely different step. It requires a microscope (so to speak), and it’s done only when all other editing is complete.

Your turn! What challenges have you faced while editing or proofreading your own writing? Have you worked with an editor or proofreader? What was your experience like? Comments and questions are always welcome.

Photo credit: David Goehring

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14 comments… add one
  • Thank you for this insightful article. Very useful and clearly explains the difference.

    Reply
  • Great post, Leah! 🙂

    Reply
  • Leah, another excellent and informative post. Kudos!

    Reply
  • Very informative as well as well descriptive .

    Reply
  • Thank you for this article. Now I also know why my work is done half, and I keep on paying and my one story never gets finished. My story has been changed and I gis I would have to get someone to do the substantive editing for me. What is the amount payed for a page now?

    Reply
  • Hello,
    My name is Mojisola, I am an editorial Assistant. I went through this article and I find it educative and eye-opening.
    Please I will like to seek your permission to post your article on our blog: http://www.quramopublishing.wordpress.com.

    Thank you as I look forward to your response.

    Reply
    • Hi Mojisola,

      I’m glad the article is useful to you. Sure, that’s fine if you post it on your blog. Thank you for the courtesy of asking. Please provide a link back to it using Simple Writing as the anchor text. Thank you!

      Reply
  • Hi Leah,
    This is very useful, particularly clear and insightful!
    I’m just wondering about one little word, see which is10 lines from the bottom/end of the article …. is the context “Do you ever see …” OR “Have you ever SEEN … ”
    I hope you don’t mind my asking, Leah. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Grace,

      Glad it’s helpful. Properly spelled out, that sentence would be “Have you ever seen…” It could also be “Do you ever see…” Either one works. In this case, I was writing very casually and imitating the way people talk. If you heard me as I talk among friends, it would be something like “Dj’yuheversee…” 🙂

      Reply
  • Thanx

    Reply

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