Proofreading Vs Editing: Key Differences and When to Use Them

Alaina Bradenburger
Published: Sep 08, 2023
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Anyone who writes as part of their professional life understands the importance of a good proofreader. Spelling and grammatical errors aren’t just embarrassing, they are also potentially costly. Studies have shown that website bounce rates increase by 85% when there are spelling and grammatical errors on a page. Proofreaders review text and help catch these errors before they go live.

Good editors are also a necessity for writers of any genre. Whether you’re a business writer creating ad copy, website content, reports, or other documents or you’re a novelist, you need an editor to hone in your work. Editors help your text flow consistently and ensure that your points are coming across. Let’s break down the differences between proofreading and editing and how you can use both to improve your writing.

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is the practice of reading over written content and checking it for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. According to Merriam-Webster, the proofread definition is: “to read and mark corrections.” In the early days of printing presses, the process was labor-intensive, and typesetters had to arrange letter tiles onto large plates to print books, newsletters, and newspapers.

Before making multiple copies, these typesetters would send a “proof” copy to a publisher for a final readthrough. Today, you can proofread on your computer or print out a copy of your document and give it to a proofreader.

Process of Proofreading

Proofreading is usually done at the end of the writing process, right before the piece is ready to be published. Because a proofreading editor is responsible for marking spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and other mistakes, it’s best to leave this task until all substantive editing is complete.

It’s tempting to rely on spell check or use a software editor such as Grammarly and call it a day. However, these programs may not catch all your mistakes. A proofreader reads each word meticulously, marking up errors with standard proofreading symbols. They also look at sentence structure and other grammatical components of writing, including subject-verb agreement.

Common Errors that Proofreaders Look For

If you’re asking yourself, “What do proofreaders do?” they look for these common mistakes:

  • Spelling errors
  • Punctuation, including commas, apostrophes, and periods, among others
  • Verbs
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Pronounce
  • Grammatical errors
  • Sentence structure
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Consistency

A proofreader may also read your writing to see if you’re switching from active to passive voice or if you’re switching verb tenses. They will help you maintain consistency in your writing.

What is Editing?

Editing refers to the process of prepping a piece of writing for publication. An editor may note spelling and grammatical errors, particularly if they get your work before the proofreader. However, editors are primarily concerned with content, reading your piece for its tone of voice and readability.

An editor may suggest changes to the copy, revise your piece’s order, cut some of the copy, or make other changes that help the piece flow. Editing comes in the middle of the writing process. After you’ve written your first draft, you would hand over your copy to someone to begin the editing process.

Editing is not a one-time step in the process. You may turn your work over to an editor after each revision, allowing your piece to be as clear as possible.

Process of Editing

The editing process starts once a draft is complete. An editor may start by reading the whole piece to get an idea of its intent and flow. Or they may start editing as soon as they begin reading. In the first stage, your editor will read a piece of writing to make sure your message is clear and that the piece makes sense to a potential reader.

They may have you add information to clarify sections that aren’t clear, or ask you to reorganize your content to improve its flow. At this stage, your editor is looking for readability.

Your editor may add writing editing symbols similar to those a proofreader uses. Most often, they will use the carat symbol (˄) indicating that you need to insert something into the piece. Or they will cross out the text they want you to delete.

Once the editor is done, they will likely turn the piece back over to you so you can make the first round of edits.

Different Types of Editing

Writers use five different types of editing depending on the nature of the piece itself. These types are:

  • Developmental or substantive editing
  • Structural editing
  • Copy editing
  • Line editing
  • Mechanical editing

The first type of editing deals with content and meaning, while copy editing and line editing focus on your word choices and writing quality. In this stage, your editor may note alternatives to strengthen your writing. Proofreading is a type of mechanical editing that focuses on spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Is Content Editing and Editing the Same Thing?

As writing has evolved and more people have focused on written content as a form of marketing, editing needs have shifted as well. This is where content editing comes in.

What is Content Editing?

Content editing involves reviewing a piece of writing for digital marketing purposes. A content editor will help ensure that the piece is optimized for search engines, that all information is factual, and that each reference is credited correctly.

With a content editor, you can be sure that each piece of written content you produce is consistent and authoritative. This helps you manage your reputation, establishing you as a credible authority and keeping potential customers engaged.

Benefits of Content Editing

Using a content editor can up your digital marketing game. Before you publish your work, a content editor will check your use of keywords and phrases, making it easier for your piece to boost your SEO. They will also examine readability, formatting, spacing, sentence length, and structure.

When you’re writing content, it’s easy to get lost in your copy. Content editors offer a fresh perspective and allow you to put your best foot forward with potential customers. This way, your writing comes across as clear and authoritative. It’s also more likely to resonate with your readers.

Key Differences Between Proofing and Editing

Until now, we’ve explored proofreading vs. editing in terms of what they are and what each process entails. Now, it’s time to break down their key differences.

1. Scope

Editing is often much broader in terms of scope. Editors focus on making your writing more readable and recommend important changes. An editor will help make sure your tone of voice is consistent throughout the piece. If you’ve hired a content editor, they may read other pieces of business writing to make sure current pieces match your overall brand.

On the other hand, proofreading involves a narrow scope. A proofreader’s job is to clean up the final piece before it’s ready to publish. Your proofreaders usually won’t make significant changes to your copy or writing style.

2. Purpose

Editing and proofreading are both necessary to make your writing the best it can be, but their purpose is different. You would use an editor to make sure you’ve gotten your points across in an engaging way. An editor can look at your work the way a reader would, noting where you may need clarity.

Depending on what you’re writing, an editor may also fact-check your piece. If you’re writing a news story, research paper, or piece of digital marketing content, your editor will make sure all your statements are factual and properly credited. If you’re writing an academic paper or a research study, your editor may also check your references to make sure they are cited correctly.

3. Level of Detail

Editors often read your work from a higher level than proofreading editors. Although many editors are meticulous about grammar and spelling, they don’t usually evaluate your work at a granular level. Their job is to make sure your work is consistent and flows well.

If you’re writing a novel, an editor may notate any continuity errors within the story or find places in which you’ve contradicted an established character trait. They would also make sure each part of the plot makes sense within the story.

Proofreaders look at every line with meticulous detail. They often go line-by-line, adding editing marks for writing that tell you where to change punctuation or fix spelling mistakes.

4. Timing

The main timing difference between editing and proofreading is that editors come into the process much earlier. Once you’ve finished your initial draft, you may choose to do a self-edit before turning it over to an editor. However, you still need to read through your piece and make notes on parts that could be improved.

Proofreaders don’t touch your piece until it’s almost ready for publication. You will probably go through several edits before a piece is ready for a proofreader. When you have substantial edits in a draft, it can be hard to visualize how a piece will read in the next draft. After you’ve fixed these issues, you and your editor may notice other parts of the piece that need adjustments.

A proofreader would not look at your piece until there are no additional content edits because they would essentially have to proofread after every draft.

5. Expertise

Even though many editors have a firm grasp of grammar and spelling, you don’t need these skills to be an editor. However, you need to understand the basics of good writing. An editor has great communication skills. If you’re an editor, you understand how to tell an interesting story.

You likely have a background in English, journalism, or communication along with a strong writing background. If you work in a field known for technical writing, you may need specialized expertise in your industry.

Proofreaders need a firm understanding of the English language. If you’re a proofreader, you need to be familiar with sentence structure, grammar rules, and punctuation. You also need strong attention to detail and the ability to focus for a long time.

Depending on your clients, you may need to understand how the English language is used in different countries. For example, if you’re working with clients in the UK or Canada, you need to know which words are spelled differently. You might also need to know different slang terms if the writing is more casual in nature.

When to Use Proofreading and Editing

Ideally, you should edit and proofread every piece of written copy that leaves your desk. If it’s not feasible to hire a proofreader to read text messages, emails, and other correspondence, then read them before hitting send.

If you’re writing content for digital marketing, have a good proofreading and editing team at your disposal. Use these resources to make each piece of content as sharp as possible. By taking the time to clean up your writing, you are better positioned to optimize search engine results. Your pieces will also speak to your target audience more effectively than if you just write them and post them with no review. Any time you think a piece would benefit from an extra set of eyes, turn it over to an editor. If you think your piece is solid, but you want to make sure there are no mistakes, send it to a proofreader.

Additionally, if English is not your native language, have an editor and a proofreader check your piece so it makes sense to native speakers. Conversely, if you’re an English speaker writing for a foreign market, have a native speaker proofread and edit your work so it connects with the locals.

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