Do you puzzle over the difference between editing and proofreading? If so, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common misunderstandings I encounter in my work.
Many people aren’t quite sure of the right label for that thing they want done to their manuscript. And sometimes they’re (unpleasantly) surprised by what they receive when they commission someone to do a particular job for them… because they were expecting the wrong thing.
Editing and proofreading are two separate parts of the publishing process.
Every book needs both editors and proofreaders. Publishing houses always have both, and also sometimes put a book through multiple layers of editing before it ever hits the proofreading stage.
Depending on the level of editing that’s been commissioned, an editor might make small changes to improve the flow of a book, or large rearrangements, deletions, or suggestions for entire new sections. They help the author identify, refine and achieve the overall goals for their manuscript.
People often assume that as a book editor I just check spelling and punctuation. However, I mostly do developmental and structural editing, looking at the big picture of how a book fits together and what it could become… and correct a bit of spelling along the way. 😉
There’s a story that Ian Fleming’s editor was the one who said James Bond should drink martinis, shaken not stirred. That anecdote may or may not be true, but that’s the type of contribution an editor can make – helping develop what the author has created. (But note that a good editor helps the author find the book that was in THE AUTHOR all along, rather than forcing the editor’s own vision onto the book.)
Proofreading, on the other hand, is about correcting errors and inconsistencies. For a printed book, it’s done after typesetting, right before the book is published. For an ebook, it’s also done right before publishing, after all the other changes have been made. It’s a surface run, a final check.
A good proofreader:
- Reads every letter of every word, yes, even in headings and footnotes
- Checks every punctuation mark is the right one in the right place
- Notes inconsistencies, such as character names that are wrongly spelled, or special terms that are worded differently on different pages
- Looks for typos, missing words, accidentally repeated words
- Checks that diagrams and illustrations are the right one, in the right place
- In a print book, checks that page breaks fall in an ideal place so you don’t have a heading appearing at the bottom of a page, or a paragraph broken in an unfortunate way
- Checks that chapter headings and page numbers match the Table of Contents
- Doesn’t waste time telling you that you should have set the book in Spain or added an extra chapter, because it’s too late for that!
Ready for take-off
Imagine that book you’re building is a new type of jet airliner.
A developmental editor might test-pilot the early prototype, and make suggestions for improving the aerodynamics, engine speed, wing placement, fuel tank size etc. Other types of editors do various tasks from suggesting the design of the livery to rearranging the seats to make people more comfortable and the staff movements more efficient.
In this situation, a proofreader might be the one who goes around just before takeoff, making sure the tray tables are stowed, everyone’s luggage is in the overhead locker or under the seat in front, and the doors are locked and cross-checked.
There’s no point locking the doors until just before take-off, is there?? That’s why proofreading happens right at the end.
And you still need someone to lock the doors, even if you’ve had all that other input to the earlier stages of development. Likewise, it’s essential to have that last set of eyes proofing a book, because there WILL be typos that have slipped through, and new ones that have been created as the book has gone through the back-and-forth between author and editor.
Editors need proofreaders. Proofreaders need editors. And books need both!
What’s your experience with editors and proofreaders? Join the discussion!
Featured image via Bigstock/firebrandphotography