Editing vs Proofreading

Writers, wannabe writers, writing teachers, and people in general often use “editing” and “proofreading” interchangeably. When I taught college writing courses, I urged my students to distinguish the two. Editing and proofreading are two separate activities, and using both terms interchangeably can create problems.

First of all, let’s define editing and proofreading.

Editing: editing is the act of improving a text. When you edit, you are looking at broad and narrow areas.

Broad areas include overall plot, character development, storyline, timeline, and all the factors that go into telling a good story.

  • Are there areas of your story that are confusing or not well explained?
  • Are there any plotholes?
  • Do you provide sufficient backstory for your characters?
  • Do you have too much detail or too little?
  • Are you using cliches and overused ideas and plot conventions (the hero rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress, etc)
  • Is your story unique, fresh, and interesting?

Narrow involves looking at individual sections (chapters and paragraphs)

  • Do you have one main idea per paragraph?
  • Is each paragraph between 1/3 to 3/4 a page long (excluding dialogue)?
  • Does one paragraph contradict what you said five pages ago? Did you talk about a character wounding his left arm, then on page 89 say it was his right arm?
  • Would a certain paragraph be better in a different area of the story?

Proofreading: proofreading is the act of polishing a text. Proofreading is looking at issues such as these:

  • Do you have a variety of short, medium, and long sentences?
  • Do you avoid starting each sentence with a proper noun, noun, or pronoun?
  • Are all your words spelled correctly, and do you use the wrong words (their for there  for example)
  • Is your punctuation correct?
  • Are you avoiding widows and orphans? (A widow is a single line at the top or bottom of the page and an orphan is a single word on the last line of a paragraph)
  • Is your text properly formatted?
  • Are you repeating words and phrases?

One mistake many writers make is trying to proofread too soon. When I taught, my students often agonized over a sentence or fussed with commas when they had barely any content written down. If you try to proofread in the early stages of writing, you will only frustrate yourself. As you work on a piece of writing, it often changes dramatically: your final draft may only contain 40% of your original content. There is no sense trying to “pretty up” text that you do not ultimately use.

Editing happens over several drafts. Don’t worry about proofreading until you have gone through a few drafts and your writing is shaping up nicely. Once you have a good piece of writing in place, then you can start criticizing your sentences and looking over your vocabulary.

To be less frustrated and more successful as a writer, don’t confuse editing with proofreading. These are two separate processes and should be treated as different but equal.

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