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Proofreading and Editing - What's the difference? - Helen Sewell

Proofreading and Editing – What’s the difference?

Many people are confused by the difference between proofreading and editing. Some think of proofreading as involving mysterious symbols, others just think it means correcting something. So let’s have a fairly simple look at what these terms normally imply.

First up, proofreading normally involves suggesting changes, called “queries”. Strict proofreaders don’t make most of the changes for you, that’s the editor’s job.

In its purest form, proofreading will not change anything that isn’t a spelling, grammar or punctuation mistake. Even here, if the proofreader isn’t sure about something, they will ask, not go ahead and change it. A proofreader also looks at inconsistencies in text size, font, or line spacing.

For example, a strict proofread would not change this paragraph;

I went to the shops and I’ve bought some carrots and I was buying some milk and also I buy a piece of bread that I will be eating in ten years time.

This is because although the sentence keeps changing verb tense, and the speaker probably means a loaf of bread, and is unlikely to genuinely want to eat ten year old baked goods, each part is grammatically correct. It may even be that the writer meant to use all those tenses – why not? A proofreader strictly looks for mistakes in grammar, spelling and punctuation to correct. They do not attempt to make things make SENSE without first checking with the author, that is, submitting a query. They don’t try to make changes to make the author’s work read and better, that is the job of an editor, unless sentences or paragraphs are obviously mixed up to the detriment of meaning. You can see an example of that below.

So an edit of the above could read something like;

I went to the shops and I bought some carrots and I bought some milk and also a loaf of bread.

Then the editor would have to check with the author what exactly they meant about ten year old slices of bread. Having checked perhaps this would be the outcome;

I love that type of bread so much I hope I will still be eating it in ten years’ time.

A proofreader won’t try to make your work flow better if for example you have written a very long rambling sentence that just tends to meander on for a very long time with no real purpose and takes in several subjects at once such as isn’t it cold in Bristol this time of year, though some people do say that is just because British weather is always cold though I tend to disagree and after my tea I’m going to go on YouTube for six hours. You get my point? There’s nothing actually wrong with this sentence so a proofreader would not change it, but an editor probably would.

Looking at the following, though, a proofreader would recommend and make changes here;

so and I was talking to my aunty Mabel isn’t it cost me a lot of money theze socks then I was go to the party wot was on in the freinds house we gone together me and him

Probably I’d recommend something like this;

Anyway, I said to my aunty Mabel, “Don’t they cost a lot of money, these socks?” After that, I went to the party at my friend’s house. I and he went together.

A proofreader might also change something that’s obviously out of place like this;

First on our list are Parson’s Field and Shady Nook. These areas of outstanding natural beauty are worthy of further discussion.

Now we will look at some wonderful places in nature you can visit on the South Coast, Parson’s Field, Shady Nook, Holy Oak Wood and Crosby Stills. Then we move around the coast to Nash Falls.

OK. It’s pretty obvious those two paragraphs should be reversed.

And look at this.

Jenny and I were crying so hard that we dropped our dolls in the playground while we were sitting in the classroom. We had heard such a loud bang it made us run out of the school gates

It’s pretty obvious the full stop is in the wrong place.

But apart from that sort of glaring anomaly, proofreaders won’t mess with your flow. If they think there’s a problem, they will query it with you.

An edit, on the other hand, will change parts of your document to make them flow better, fit better, and make sense better… if that makes sense? A good editor (and I consider myself to be one… though you are free to disagree) will try not to change an author’s individual style and voice. So if your book is written like a conversation down the pub, I won’t change it to sound like the political section of the Times. If your document is a pamphlet advising on local elderly care provision, I won’t pepper it with silly jokes about funerals…

You get my drift.

What about those mysterious symbols? Well there are a set of symbols that can be used as a form of shorthand for the proofreader. They are not necessary for making recommendations to clients at all. So don’t worry about them unless you really want to know more about them, in which case you could take a course.

So what do I offer?

Generally most people ask for me to correct and edit their document. I use track changes* (if you ask me to) which keeps a record of all the changes I’ve made, so you can see. I can also provide detailed explanations of the changes I made and why. Obviously this takes longer and so costs a bit more.

You will get the document with all the changes recorded in it ( you will need to have your own copy of Word or Libre Office Writer in order to see this). I am sure you will be happy with my recommendations (corrections) but having the changes recorded and your original document allows you to choose revert to part or all of the original if you wish to.

*this is a feature in Word that allows you to record edits to a document as you make them.

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