Editing versus Proofreading
by Brendan Brown
The greatest debate in the world
(for writers, anyway!)
Many first-time clients of a professional editing company or freelance editor are unsure about the difference between editing and proofreading, and which service they should choose. Editing and proofreading services produce different outcomes for writers, and therefore potential consumers must be aware of what they do.
The Expert Editor has created this guide that describes the difference between editing and proofreading, not only to help our clients, but for writers in general who are evaluating their options. Based on our experience as a professional editing and proofreading company, we also provide general recommendations as to when a typical client should receive an editing or proofreading service.
The target audience is academic, book and business authors who are new to the publication process, such as students with a thesis or dissertation, first time book authors or businesses newly outsourcing their editing or proofreading. We avoid editor jargon and focus on helping writers make an informed choice between an editing or proofreading service.
Editing involves a proactive editor making changes and suggestions that will improve the overall quality of your writing, particularly in relation to language use and expression. After editing, your language will be sharp and consistent, your expression clear and the overall readability of your writing enhanced. Editing also involves the ‘proofreading’ of your document, with spelling, grammar and other language errors eliminated. Editing ensures that your writing gives the impression that the English language comes naturally to you, even if it does not.
Quality writing is so important in all walks of life. The quality of writing can ultimately be the difference between success and failure, such as defending a dissertation, selling copies of a book, or landing a business client. The higher the standard of writing, the clearer and more persuasive your arguments, and the more authoritative you will sound as an author. No matter how inspired your ideas, brilliant your logic or moving your story, if the writing is not fluent, consistent and mistake-free, it will not have the impact that it should.
In addition to improving the quality of writing, academic editing and book editing also serve the important function of ensuring that specific conventions are met. For academic editing this includes referencing style and formatting requirements and for book editing important literary elements in a fiction or non-fiction book.
Proofreading, on the other hand, has less ambition than editing and is therefore a cheaper service, but it still performs a vital role. Proofreading is the process of correcting surface errors in writing, such as grammatical, spelling, punctuation and other language mistakes.
You might think that eliminating mistakes and inconsistencies in a document is not a particularly demanding job, and that a friend or family member, or even a computer program, could do it. However, a professional editor is a far more accomplished proofreader than your typical friend or family member and any computer program that Google has dreamed about. A professional editor understands the conventions of English writing and the nuances of the language, is trained to be methodical, and through experience can identify and eliminate the common errors that often plague, for example, a novel or thesis. As well as catching easy to overlook mistakes, they can also identify inconsistent terminology, spelling and formatting.
Proofreading is an important service because any writing intended for publication—whether an academic article, book or business document—must communicate its message in the clearest possible way. For writing to be clear, there must be no spelling, grammar or punctuation errors, or inconsistency in language, as these can undermine the impact of the writing and the credibility of the author.
What a typical writer should choose
In our experience, there are particular types of writers that should usually choose editing, whilst for others proofreading is more appropriate. The following examples are not hard-and-fast rules, but a general insight into the typical needs of certain writers. As a professional editing company, we know all too well that there are exceptions to the rule, and that writing between authors of similar backgrounds can vary greatly.
When editing is essential
- An English as a Second Language (ESL) author will almost invariably require editing rather than proofreading, whether they have written something academic, book or business related. ESL writers generally have trouble with the complexity of the English language and its sometimes curious norms. Even an ESL author that is highly proficient at speaking English can get tripped up by the nuances and contradictions of formal English writing (as many native-speakers can too!).
- At first instance, a book author should seek editing rather than proofreading. Book editing can be invaluable in enhancing the overall quality of the book’s language, and can ensure that it reaches a publishable standard. The self-publishing and e-book markets, let alone the traditional publishing one, are so competitive that you can be sure that the writers you are competing against have received a professional book editing service, so not having one puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
When editing is advantageous
- A native-English speaker requiring academic publication will usually choose editing. Although some academics and students are confident writers, professional editing can still provide great benefit. As described above, editing improves writing quality, which ensures that your arguments—the original insights you spent significant energy and time developing—are expressed in a clear and compelling way. Academic editing also involves an editor checking your conformity with style and formatting conventions. Quality writing and absolute adherence to academic conventions are two cornerstones of successful academic publishing.
- A business may choose editing or proofreading, depending on the document and its level of importance. The standard of communication defines the identity of a business, with quality writing signifying competence and professionalism. If the author of the document is not a confident writer, or if multiple authors have had an (often inconsistent) input, then editing is highly advantageous.
When proofreading is appropriate
- Students and academics who are confident writers, and have self-edited, may only require proofreading to eliminate surface errors. The writing itself should already be publication quality, with proofreading ensuring the removal of mistakes, inconsistencies and academic-specific abnormalities that can detract from the end-product.
- Book authors that have already received professional editing usually benefit from a final proofread to publish with absolute confidence. Although some authors may balk at the prospect of paying for proofreading after the book has already been professionally edited, the reality is that just a few errors can detract from the reading experience and ensure it does not reach its potential. A litany of surface errors, needless to say, will be fatal dagger in the heart of any author.
- Some businesses may just require a mistake-free document, rather than the quality of writing to be optimised. Again, much will depend on the type of document and its level of importance to the company.
Are you satisfied with the quality of your writing?
If yes, a proofreading service will generally be your best option, however, if there is scope to improve your writing, including language use, expression and adherence to any formal writing conventions specific to your field, editing is the way to go.
Ideally a writer would receive an editing service first, and subsequently a final proofread just before publication to ensure absolute perfection. While we recommended this approach to book authors that covet publishing success, the reality is that many writers—academic, book or business—cannot afford both services. If you are only after one service, you need to choose the correct one, and this guide is designed to help.