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Proofreading v Editing: Why does the difference matter?

2010 March 9

If you don’t work in publishing or communications then you’re forgiven for not knowing the difference between ‘proofreading’ and ‘editing’.  Why should you. But here’s a tip if you’re planning on producing a really good information document: before you start make sure you understand the difference between them.

Confusing proofreading with editing is not just a common error, it’s a common and expensive error.

If you’re after a top-quality document as your result you need to do both – edit and proofread. And you need to understand why so that you can keep your costs down.

The production cycle

If you’re creating a designed document (whether for print or simply as an electronic PDF) the sequence should go something like this: Write – Edit – Design – Proofread.

Unfortunately, all too often the person producing the document thinks they have such a good writer (or are themselves such a good writer) that skipping ‘Edit’ will save them time and money.

It won’t! And I’m not saying this because I’m a writer/editor/proofreader who is trying to convince you to employ me.

I’m saying this because chances are that if you skip out ‘Edit’ you’re going to more than double your costs on the ‘Design’ and ‘Proofread’ stages.

Unless your designer and proofreader have had the misfortune of giving you a fixed quote, you’re going to pay them a whole lot more than you planned on, or you’re going to end up with a disgruntled pair who will never want to work with you again.

And chances are excellent you’ll also end up with a less-than-perfect document.

When to edit (in an ideal world)

ALWAYS.

To paraphase The Business Dictionary, the job of an editor is:

  • Picking up and removing factual, grammatical and typographical errors;
  • Checking that what has been written is as clear as possible;
  • Deleting any information that has been unnecessarily repeated or is not suitable for the target audience;
  • Making sure that the sequence of information is correct and the document reads smoothly and logically.

You might choose to outsource your editing, or you might do it in house because you don’t have the resources. But whichever option you choose, the most important thing is:

  • The person editing the document needs to be a different person to the writer. Why? Because the writer knows what they want to say. They also have extensive background knowledge that informs how they read what they’ve written. Ideally you need a ‘blank mind’ to read and make sense of the information. (No, I’m not advocating a ‘thick’ editor, but someone outside of the writer’s ‘jargon circle’ or is a good match to your target audience is a good place to start.)

And why bother with proofreading?

A proofreader is there for a final check of the document once it’s been sent to the designer and been laid out. The proofreader’s job is:

  • To do a final check for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
  • To check the formatting is consistent: that the font sizes are correct, the bullets all indented equally, and the headlines are the correct size.

The proofreader is there in case the editor missed something, which will inevitably happen, and to ‘catch’ the errors that creep in when the text is taken from its original format into the design program. There is no other way of checking this except manually.

If, however, there are obscurely complex sentences, inaccurate and duplicated information and ‘bits missing’, the proofreader is going to do one of two things:

  1. Ignore the chaos and only sweat the small stuff, since they were employed to proofread the document, not edit it.
  2. Make the necessary suggestions, point out the duplications, reorder the information and add in missing text, as well as checking for typos, formatting, etc.

Option 2 is what inevitably happens, because the ‘curse’ of being a proofreader is a flaming obsession with good communications.

And option 2 is where it gets expensive. Because now your proofs need to go back to the designer, who needs to make the changes, then back to the proofreader again. And this cycle might need to repeat itself a few times before you get a final proofread document.  And if they’ve quoted you a fixed cost on your project, chances are they’re going to be fed up at this point and not do the best job they’re capable of.

So, if you take the time to edit before your document goes for design you’re saving the cost of two people’s extra time, and potentially also their sanity.

Of course you might get a proofreader who goes with option 1 and does what they were asked to – proofread. But you’re going to end up with a well-spelt, grammatically correct but most definitely a sub-standard document. In which case, why bother with a proofreader at all?

If I only have the resources for either an editor or a proofreader?

If you can’t afford to pay someone to do both tasks then I would suggest that you get someone to edit rather than proofread. You can always get someone to read through the document to make sure all the information has been imported and is in the right order.

Personally I think it is preferable to have a factually correct, coherent document with a few spelling errors and grammatical inconsistencies rather than illogical, duplicated information that is difficult to read but well spelt.

And if you’re bothering to produce something at all, why bother to produce something half-arsed that will damage your credibility?

And the final (perhaps slightly bitter) word

Whichever you decide, now that you know the difference between the two, don’t try and ‘sneak’ a proofreader an editing job. They will notice. And they will not be appreciative.

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One Response
  1. hanlie permalink
    June 11, 2010

    Why do so many people, even experienced people, not get this?

Comments are closed.