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What are the basic differences between editing and proofreading?

Editing and proofreading are basically the same skill, aren’t they? Actually, no. The differences between the two are significant and this blog details the basic differences between editing and proofreading services.

What are the basic differences between editing and proofreading?


Imagine your story as a new house. You’ve painstakingly built the house brick by brick. It’s taken you at least weeks but probably months or years. You take a step back from your brand new house and feel proud – and so you should be! 

However, upon closer inspection you begin to notice a few cracks. Perhaps nothing major but they need looking at to make sure your house is strong. To make sure it will withstand the test of time. To prevent nit-picky observers from finding fault with your house and telling others about your cracks.

You need an expert to check the house. Someone who is familiar with building houses and checking for cracks that could potentially lead to gaping holes. Someone who will either fix the cracks, or show you how to fix them well yourself. All the while understanding that you are the architect who has designed and built the house from scratch.

An editor is that house checker! An editor reviews and potentially re-shapes stories so that they make perfect, logical, easy-to-read sense. Editors usually use Track Changes in a Word document to make comments, suggestions and improvements for authors to implement. For example, an editor may suggest a paragraph re-jig, point out timeline impossibilities, or give re-write ideas to aid comprehension. An editor should be able to make suggestions for improvements without losing the author’s unique voice.

A good editor adds value by being:

  • Supportive
  • Passionate
  • Professional 
  • Constructive 
  • Approachable 
  • Knowledgeable 

A good editor gives value by helping authors to:

  • Revise and improve their story themselves by offering comments and suggestions rather than prescriptive instructions;
  • Build confidence in their manuscript prior to publication;
  • Ensure their story meets genre and readers’ expectations (which could increase its chances of receiving favourable reviews);
  • Offering and/or signposting to post-edit services where appropriate.

A good editor should never:

  • Miss your agreed deadline;
  • Point out ‘mistakes’ in a negative, aggressive or prescriptive way;
  • Alter the manuscript beyond all recognition;
  • Show your manuscript to any third parties without your permission;
  • Re-write large sections of your manuscript for you to claim as your own;
  • Claim they can guarantee certain outcomes e.g. better reviews, interest from a publisher etc.

Penning and Planning editing example


Proofreading is the equivalent of dressing a freshly decorated room. The holes in the walls have been filled and sanded. It’s had two coats of paint as well as a new carpet and curtains. Finally, the furniture has been brought back in and all that’s left to do is place all the knick-knacks.

To sum up, it’s when everything else is in place in the manuscript and all that’s left to check are the final details.

In a nutshell, a proofreader carefully examines a draft text/document and makes spelling, punctuation, grammar and inconsistency corrections to ensure the text/document reflects an exemplary standard of written English.

A proofreader will usually use Track Changes or sometimes proofreading marks/symbols. If using Track Changes, some proofreaders will send you two final versions of the corrected text/document back. One showing their corrections and another ‘clean’ version which is ready for you to use immediately. Others may not offer a ‘clean’ version in order that you become responsible for accepting their suggested corrections, or not.

A good proofreader gives value by:

  • Providing authors with a publication ready manuscript;
  • Offering peace of mind during the busy pre-publication process;
  • Ensuring your manuscript is as error free as possible to prevent nit-picky, public feedback from readers, which could influence other readers negatively.

A good proofreader should never:

  • Miss your agreed deadline;
  • Leave glaring inaccuracies/inconsistencies in the manuscript;
  • Change the content of your manuscript beyond proofreading inclusions;
  • Show your manuscript to any third parties without your permission;
  • Do a basic spell-check job. Using homophones/near homophones correctly is so important. Punctuation also needs to be accurate and there should be no remaining grammar mistakes. Human eyes and brains are far superior to any grammar/spelling software. This should be evident in your proofread manuscript!

Penning and Planning proofreading example

Frequently asked editing and proofreading questions

I’ve got spell-check on my computer – why do I need a proofreader/editor?

As mentioned above, a basic spell-check does not pick up everything. Homophone and grammatical mistakes, cultural preferences (e.g. English/American spelling differences), punctuation omissions, inappropriate tone, and/or formatting irregularities can be missed. Correcting all of these ensures your content speaks for itself, instead of allowing errors to confuse/distract your reader and sabotage an otherwise positive impression.

If I use a professional editor/proofreader, am I guaranteed to get the outcome I want?

Guaranteeing specific outcomes is not possible (or ethical). However, an editor/proofreader uses their skills and expert knowledge to suggest improvements to your manuscript within the remit of their job, which then gives your manuscript its best chance at achieving the outcome(s) you hope for.

What qualifications should my editor/proofreader possess?

A good quality proofreader/editor should possess:

  • A keen eye for detail;
  • An excellent grasp of the English spelling, punctuation and grammar rules;
  • A clear understanding of idioms, colloquialisms, cultural references etc.

Although there are no specific requirements necessary to become an editor/proofreader, any professional should be able to evidence their qualifications and experience. For example: an English, Publishing, Media Studies or related degree, appropriate professional memberships, relevant training and/or career experience, and/or transferable skills thereof.

Any editor/proofreader confident in their abilities should be happy to provide you with a sample edit or proofread (some are free, some are paid). This helps you decide whether they are a good fit for you and your book. It also helps them find out if you are a good fit for them and their preferred genres and/or specialisms. Reputable editors and proofreaders should also have plenty of testimonials too.

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If you have found ‘What are the basic differences between editing and proofreading?’ useful, feel free to check out my other posts for indie authors too:

5 editing terms indie authors should know

What is the difference between a blurb and a synopsis?

What are the differences between line and developmental editing?

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