Editing and Proofreading

See also: Introduction to Grammar

Editing and proofreading are both stages in the production of a document or text once it has been finalised by the author. Both were traditionally parts of the printing cycle, and involved marking up paper copies of the document. However, they are now usually done electronically, using editing tools within word processing packages. Both involve checking for errors and ensuring that the document is ready for publication.

Nowadays, both editing and proofreading are essential parts of producing any document that will be read by someone else.

This page describes the stages of editing and proofreading, and explains how you can ensure that your documents are ready for publication.

Definitions of Proofreading and Editing

Some definitions of editing and proofreading

edit, v.t. to prepare for publication, broadcasting, etc….to compile, to revise

proof, n. (publishing) an impression taken for correction: proofread, to read and correct in proof.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition

Traditionally, therefore, editing is the broad process of preparing a document for publication.

It involves checking the structure of the text, looking for grammatical and spelling errors, and ensuring that the document does what it was designed to do.

Proofreading is the final stage of editing.

It involves checking the finished version of the text for any typesetting or formatting errors.

The two terms are now often used interchangeably—but actually still describe different activities.

A proofreader has no editorial control. They can ask questions, and suggest changes, but it is up to the editor and author to decide whether to accept those changes.

Stages of Editing

It is generally agreed that there are several stages of editing and proofreading, covering:

  1. Structural, content or substantive editing. This involves making changes to a relatively early draft of a document, and may include moving large parts of the text, deleting sections, or suggesting substantive additions to the text. This process may be done by the author, or by the author and an editor together.

  2. Line editing. This is revising the language, including sentences and paragraph structure, to ensure that the text communicates the content effectively.

  3. Copy editing. This involves making changes to individual sentences and words. It is generally designed to ensure that correct grammar, formatting and spelling has been used. It also includes checking the style against any requirements such as a style manual, or publisher’s house style. This is the stage that most people think of when they talk about editing.

  4. Proofreading. This is the final stage of editing, and is designed to pick up any remaining errors, including spelling mistakes, inconsistent style or formatting errors. It is, effectively, a final check on all the other stages of editing.

Professional editing: What stage of editing do you need?

As a general rule, very few people (except publishers) specify the precise level of editing required. If you ask a professional editor to work on your document, they will work on your document to make it publishable—in whatever way is needed.

Generally speaking, most documents will require copyediting, and perhaps some line editing. It is rare, but not unheard-of, for an editor to suggest substantive editing once an author has finalised their text. It is also rare for documents to need only proof-reading, unless they have been substantially edited in advance.

Do not get angry with the editor if they suggest that your text needs more editing than you thought! They are only doing their job by pointing it out. It is up to you whether you take their advice.

However, if you have particular requirements, do make those clear in advance. For example, if you have agreed the structure of the text with your manager or (for students) your supervisor, then do say that. This will make your editor’s life much easier.

Tips for Effective Proofreading and Editing

There are several ways that you can become more effective at editing and proofreading.

1. Use Proofreading and Editing Tools

Use the tools available to you, because they do make your life easier.

We all know that word processor grammar- and spell-checking tools are not always right. However, they can help you pick up on minor errors that can be very hard to spot by eye, such as double spaces between words, or words that have become elided (pushed together by deleting the wrong space). It only takes a few minutes to run through the spelling suggestions to check if there is anything useful there.

You can also do a ‘find’ to check for particular errors that may not be picked up by the spell check. For example, if you are using UK English, either -ise or -ize endings are acceptable, but not a mixture. You can use the find function to check that you have been using one or the other consistently.

There is more about this in our page on Writing in US and UK English.

2. Take a Break

One of the most useful tips for proofreading is not to do it immediately after writing.

Go away and come back to it, preferably at least 24 hours later. You will have forgotten exactly what you meant to write, and you will read it as it is written. This will allow you to see errors more clearly, and you will probably find more on a second reading too.

3. Read it Aloud

It can be helpful to read your text out loud.

Doing so helps your brain to engage with it more fully: you are both reading it (visual) and hearing it (auditory), as well as doing something (speaking). This therefore involves more of your brain, and means you are more likely to spot errors.

However, this works best if you actually engage with it as you go, and genuinely listen to what you are reading, rather than simply reading it over in a monotone.

4. Look Twice

Proofread more than once. It is dull, but it works better.

This is especially true if you are using tracked changes. Check once with the tracking switched on, then hide the tracking and read the clean copy. You will find it easier to read, and also be better able to check for formatting issues.

5. Involve a Friend

It can be helpful to ask someone else to check your work

Someone who doesn’t know what you intended to write is more likely to find errors. They will also be able to highlight when something is not clear, or if the text does not flow.

TOP TIP! A reciprocal arrangement

It can be a good idea to set up a reciprocal arrangement with a peer or colleague. You proofread their work and they proofread yours in exchange. This prevents requests for reading from seeming like an imposition.

6. Involve a Native Speaker of the Language

If you are writing in a language that is NOT your native tongue, you should always get your document read and checked by a native speaker of the language.

This might be a colleague or peer, especially for documents that are internal to your organisation (for example, reports for senior managers). However, you can also pay a professional editor to review your paper. This is recommended for academic work, especially if it is to be published. Most journals can recommend at least one language editing service, and many of these services offer a discount on the editing to authors targeting particular journals. Alternatively, you can find freelance editors via websites and platforms such as Peerwith.

TOP TIP! Give it time

Make sure that you give your editor—whether professional or colleague—plenty of time to read your document. It may be your top priority, but they will have other commitments.

They are unlikely to drop everything to read your paper—and they certainly will not be prepared to work all night on it.

Good proofreading and editing also takes time. If you want a good job done on a long document, be prepared for your editor to take several days or even weeks by the time you include checking their suggestions and responding.

A Final Word

Editing and proofreading may be the final stages of preparing your document, but don’t be tempted to rush them. They are worth doing well, because they can make all the difference in how your document is received.