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Proofreading vs Editing: What Is the Difference Between Them?

Shaun Connell
July 8, 2022

In the world of writing, you often see "proofreading" and "editing" used more or less interchangeably. Are they the same, though, or are there differences?

The truth is, proofreading and editing are very different services, performed at different points in a project, with different goals and different degrees of depth.

So, let's talk about them!

All About Proofreading

Solution Proofreading is a thorough review of a piece of content, typically after it is in a "final draft" state but before it is published. This proofreading is heavily focused on technical issues. You can think of it as a final polishing pass on a piece before it is submitted to a journal or publisher, or simply published on the web.

Proofreading asks questions like:

  • Is everything spelled correctly?
  • Are there any technical errors?
  • Are there any grammatical errors?
  • Are there errors with homophones (like there/their/they're)?
  • Is formatting applied consistently throughout the piece?

Proofreading is generally considered something of a science and can, to a limited degree, be performed by machines. That is, if you crank up all of the settings in something like MS Word's spelling and grammar reviews, or if you use a tool like Grammarly, you have a machine that has a relatively thorough understanding of language and can flag technical issues, word choice issues, and other problems.

Machines aren't perfect, though. They may flag phrases that are correct, suggest corrections that make a passage worse or change its meaning, and can flag words not in their dictionaries as incorrect when they're really just specialized words or brand names.

Proofreading a Content Piece

As such, proofreaders need to have a high degree of fluency in their language, especially on a technical level. Blindly following a piece of software is bound to create mistakes.

Proofreading also generally requires a style guide. In most cases, this will be something like the MLA style guide (often used in academic writing) or the AP style guide (which has long been used in journalism and in most more formal web writing.)

Adherence to a style guide is an easy way to ensure consistency across different pieces of content and to avoid ambiguity that stems from different uses of different grammatical options. One of the most common is the Oxford Comma, the use of which depends on the style guide.

Proofreading is considered a final pass and is critically important for polishing a piece, and as such, it takes place after the writing and editing are done. Think of it like applying a coat of paint to a wall; it doesn't do you any good if you still need to tear down and re-do half of the wall.

All About Editing

Solution Editing, on the other hand, is a more in-depth, thorough, line-by-line process that occurs several times throughout the creation of a piece of content. At least, in formalized content creation settings, it does.

The truth is, editing and proofreading are often performed at the same time, by the same person, for rapid-turnaround, low-stakes content like blog posts and other informal publications. Something like academic writing for journals, research papers, thesis papers, and books will have much more dedicated editing.

Editing generally involves the editor reading a piece and making suggestions.

Editing a Content Piece

These suggestions can be large or small, and can include all manner of different recommendations, including:

  • Changing word choice for more precision or closer adherence to conventions.
  • Adjusting dialogue to better fit the personality of a character in fiction.
  • Rearranging lines or sections of a piece to make for a better logical flow.
  • Altering word choice, spelling, and phrasing to convey fluency in a language, even if the author isn't fluent.
  • Removing unnecessary instances of passive voice.
  • Requesting additional content to explain otherwise unexplained points or conclusions; asking for clarification.
  • Adjusting tone and voice for the target audience of a piece.
  • Tweaking aspects of the content to make it more persuasive or more educational.

All of these are just a selection of what an editor may do. Editors will point out and fix typos and grammatical errors as they go, but it isn't their primary goal. Rather, their goal is to make a piece better, whatever it means to make it better. It may mean adjusting the formality of voice, a change in tone, a more persuasive style, or even knowing when to violate grammatical rules to make a point.

Where proofreading is a once-at-the-end review of a piece of content, editing is often done in tandem with writing, especially for longer pieces. For a book, an editor might review each chapter as it goes, or a few chapters at a time, rather than waiting for the whole book to be written. They may even get involved earlier by offering suggestions on an outline. At the very least, they get involved in the rough draft stage. A piece will bounce back and forth between writer and editor several times throughout its creation.

The exception to this is generally in the aforementioned low-stake content. Things like blog posts generally won't need multiple layers of editing and revision outside of bad initial writing from a content mill. Instead, the editor will review a piece for both editing and proofreading purposes, and while they may request revisions, they may also simply make adjustments themselves before sending the content on to the client.

Comparing Proofreading and Editing

Editing Written Content

To make it simple to see the differences, here's a direct comparison.

  • Proofreading is a final draft, just-before-publishing review, while editing takes place throughout the writing process, often multiple times.
  • Proofreading addresses primarily surface-level and technical issues, while editing addresses writing, structure, and flow issues.
  • Proofreading is largely objective, with the objectivity based on a style guide; editing is more subjective and depends on factors like your target audience's familiarity with the subject.
  • Proofreading is polish on a piece; editing is structural improvements.
  • Proofreading doesn't remove sentences, rearrange sections, or adjust content; it simply fixes things like spelling and punctuation of what is already in place. Editing is more likely to prune out sections, rearrange paragraphs, or implement word count reduction.
  • Proofreading can be "invisible" to the writer; they submit content, and the proofreader reviews it before forwarding it. Editing is more of a back-and-forth discussion with the writer.
  • Proofreading can be done relatively quickly and is one-and-done, while editing is a longer and more detailed process, with multiple phases, particularly for longer or larger projects.

As you might expect, proofreading is also cheaper than editing for a variety of reasons.

Other Kinds of Editing

While editing is a big job, there may be specialized editors who do certain kinds of editing while ignoring other kinds of issues. Major projects like books often have these different kinds of editors, while more casual content (or very formal content, like academic papers) do not.

Editing Content

What kinds of editing may fall into this category?

  • Content Editing. This is a very deep dive in editing and basically involves everything in the above editing section cranked up to 11. It's exceptionally detailed and very nitpicky to produce perfect content as much as possible.
  • Fact-Checking. This is a kind of editing that looks at the claims being made and the facts used to back them up and verifies them for accuracy. It ensures that statistics are conveyed properly, that facts are quoted in context, and that claims are made in good faith. It is often performed by subject matter experts rather than editors.
  • Substantive Editing. This is editing primarily used in fiction and novelized projects, where editing focuses on things like consistency of character actions and voice, accuracy in foreshadowing, and narrative flow. It's what is responsible for the firing of Chekov's Gun in projects where a writer may otherwise have forgotten it.
  • Sensitivity Editing. This is editing that helps to review a piece of content to make sure it doesn't use language that is harmful to various groups of people, whether it's overt racism or bigotry, or just language that plays into and proliferates harmful stereotypes. It may also be concerned about things like diversity in the characters of a novel.

The larger and more significant a project is, the more likely it is to need multiple editors covering different aspects of editing. Fiction novels have a variety of editors as part of the process, while blog posts generally only need something like proofreading and possibly fact-checking.

Do You Need Proofreading, Editing, or Both?

There are a lot of different factors that go into whether or not you need proofreading, editing, both, or neither.

Solution A simple answer is that every single writer can use a proofreader. Even experienced writers can make mistakes. Sometimes, they can get away with using machine reviews, particularly as a means of saving some money, but they aren't perfect, as mentioned above. Proofreaders may be more expensive and take longer, but they're likely going to have a more nuanced view of the content.

Editing is another story. For a lot of casual content – social media posts, blog posts, website copy – you don't necessarily need editing. Part of the reason for this is that they're just low-stakes. A few small errors in a blog post aren't going to make or break your company, your SEO, or your individual pieces of content. The other reason is that web-published content is generally "living," in that you can edit it and improve it at any time. If someone spots an error or finds a way that a piece of content can be made better, you can just implement it. You don't necessarily need to proactively edit the content before it's published.

That said, some editing is valuable. Structural editing, developmental editing, and line editing can all be useful for high-value blog posts, pillar content, eBooks, landing pages, and other kinds of content where the value needs to be high-impact and immediate.

If the content you're writing is going to be published in print, editing is much more important. While print editions can have published corrections (in subsequent issues of a magazine or journal) or a reissue (as in second editions of a book), it's not often that you actually have the influence to warrant a second print run.

Likewise, things like fact-checking and sensitivity editing are important for certain kinds of writing and publishing but less relevant for others. A technical blog focusing on marketing isn't necessarily going to need sensitivity editing. A medical blog would do well to have fact-checking. A lot of it is simply contextual.

Making Content Edits

Obviously, editing is also expensive. Talented editors are experts in both their language and in the subject/style/content they're editing. A novel editor and a blog post editor have different strengths and weaknesses and different rates.

Editing can be helpful for a lot of kinds of content, but it's not necessary for the kind of content you're likely to be buying when you hire a freelancer. You may want revisions in a developmental editing perspective, but often you can produce an outline for a freelancer to follow and circumvent the problem.

Solution If you're looking to make your writing more polished without substantively changing the content, structure, flow, or organization, all you really need is a proofreader. They're relatively cheap to hire and sometimes can be handled with a piece of software and a trained eye.

On the other hand, if you're looking to do things like:

  • Make sure your content isn't harmful to minorities.
  • Make sure your content isn't stating misinformation as fact.
  • Make sure your content isn't too simple or too complex for your target audience.
  • Improve the persuasiveness of a piece of copy.
  • Adjust the logical flow of a piece to make more sense and lead readers to a conclusion.

…then you'll benefit from having an editor, or even multiple editors. Exactly who you hire depends on your needs, but you can find those out in discussion with prospective editors as well.

Either way, both services help make the content you produce better; it's just a matter of what your goals are and how you want to achieve them.

After reading today's article, are you still not quite fully grasping the differences between proofreading and editing? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below! We'd be more than happy to continue our discussion on this topic to assist you further! 

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Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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