I’m often asked to proofread a document only to find after wading through a mishmash of muddled text, that the document clearly needs a major rewrite. At other times, I’m asked to edit a document when it’s clear that only minor grammatical errors need correcting. Proofread or edit – which is called for?
The trouble is that we’re not always clear what we mean when we request a proofread or edit. Many think they mean the same thing. Actually, proofreading and editing refer to very different tasks – one a straightforward, mechanical process, and the other a more artful process that can require considerable judgment and analysis. Let’s take a look at the differences.
Proofreading simply means to review the mechanics of a document – to eliminate typographical errors and to check for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Usually, this simple mechanical process is a task best left to the end – after the document has been written, revised, and edited. It’s the final polish applied before the document goes public.
Often writers, even very good writers, pay little attention to this step. After all, as the famous writing teacher, Peter Elbow, once remarked grammar is the least important part of the writing process – a true statement in as far as it goes. Nevertheless, grammatical errors, especially spelling and typographical errors, stick out like a sore thumb. Self-styled grammar mavens will see every typographical error, every misplaced comma or apostrophe or spelling error and judge the quality of your writing based on these simple mechanical errors. For this reason, proofreading is important. And, error-free text is the mark of a professional.
Still, proofreading is relatively simple and straightforward while editing is more complex. Editing is much more substantive and can involve the major rewriting of a document for readability and clarity as well as flow. An editor will judge not only whether the text is correct and consistent, but whether it is clear, logical, and, above all else, readable. Editing involves a great deal of judgment and analysis and not just an application of simple rules.
Of course, this is all a matter of degree. Proofreading sometimes is described as light editing. And there is a task between proofreading and editing that we call copyediting. Copyediting involves proofreading as well as looking for style inconsistencies, e.g., do you write the number 10 in one section and in another spell it out with the word ten? Do you capitalize consistently? Do you use the postal code abbreviation AZ for Arizona in one place, and spell it out in another? The copyeditor eliminates these inconsistencies.
Editing can take place on many different levels. In fact, the Editors’ Association of Canada outlines 12 different editing tasks. Book publishers generally describe five different levels of editing. For our purposes, we really only need to distinguish between the three discussed here: proofreading, copyediting, and editing.
In most cases, the best solution to your editing needs is to find a writer who can do all three. Before the digital age, several people performed these functions. Publications hired proofreaders, copy editors, content editors, and substantive editors to perform different tasks. In the fast pace world in which we now live, time and expense demand that the same person perform all these functions.
Unfortunately, not every writer can do it all. Some have an eagle eye for copy editing, but don’t have a feel for the whole picture. Others are great substantive editors, but aren’t as detail oriented. Make sure to choose the right editor, and make sure the editor knows which function you want performed. Start with a clear view of the task at hand and you will enjoy greater copywriting success.
Richard Cantrall is an award-winning freelance writer and editor with over twenty years experience as a publicist and communications director for businesses and associations. His feature articles have appeared in Today Magazine, Hamilton Magazine, Facets, and several other magazines and newspapers.
History of Proofreading and Editing
A little history, proofreading originally came from looking at proofs, actual typeset copy, prior to its being printed. Prior to the development of In Design and earlier page composition software, typesetting was a manual process. At one time, metal type was actually bound together in forms that were placed into presses. Later, printers developed phototypesetting. This process still involves physical manipulation. Text was typeset in columns or galleys, which was then cut and pasted to fit the page. Making text changes once the page was typeset involved considerable expense, and so editors would avoid substantive changes at this point.
The digital era introduced technology that makes it easy to change the text at any stage of the production prior to printing. Not only is the text much easier to manipulate, but we now have assistive software and grammar checking tools that make finding and correcting errors much easier. New cloud computing developments such as Google docs now allow for real-time editing and proofreading that can be done for clients while they watch the process. It’s a brave new world in editing.
A major proofreading task involves checking for typographical errors. often called typos. It’s very important to complete this process before final publishing. Usually these errors result from mechanical mistakes made in text entry, words misspelled, or wrong keys hit. Sometimes a simple spell check will find these mistakes and correct them. Sometimes spell check programs will not catch an error. There are many homonyms in English – words that have the same spelling, and pronunciation, but different meanings or different spelling and meaning, but are pronounced the same. It’s easy to use the wrong word even though spelled correctly, for example, people often use “to” when they mean “too” or “there” when they mean “their” or “they’re”. So don’t rely exclusively on spell check programs.
So some simple tips on proofreading for typos.
- Perform a spell check. The computer software program will catch some errors but not all. For example, you may enter, “pear” when you mean “pair.” Both are spelled correctly, so spellcheck will not see the word you used as an error. Spellcheck will not recognize a misused word, just misspelled words. So much for artificial intelligence.
- Read the document twice. Sometimes we rush to publish and don’t give a document a second look. Always a mistake. You can catch many typos and misused words simply through a second reading.
- Read the document out loud. Language is aural, i.e., hearing based, and not visual. That’s why blind persons find it easier to pick up reading than deaf persons. Simply hearing the text read out loud will allow you to pick up many errors. You can read the text aloud or have someone else read it to you.
- Read it backwards. This trick is effective, because the brain processes patterns, not logical sequencing. If you read left to right, the brain will see a pattern in the sentence and not recognize small errors such as a typo. Reading backwards, there is no discernable pattern and it thus becomes much easier to pick up typos (Japanese readers read from right to left and thus need to reverse the process). This process is tedious and better suited for shorter pieces. Longer pieces of writing may be more problematic. However, it it’s an important document, and getting it right is imperative, you may want to try this technique.
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