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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 13th October 2020

The difference between editing and proofreading

13th October 2020

If you are a student, a professional academic, a book writer, journalist, blogger, copywriter, ghost writer, author – or any other type of writer in between – then understanding the difference between proofreading and editing is going to be crucial to your level of success in your field.

Students who produce clumsy essays littered with errors are only going to frustrate markers and in turn, hinder their chances of getting high grades. A blogger will vastly increase their chances of building a loyal and engaged readership if they write blog posts that are mistake-free and enjoyable to read. Needless to say, no book is ever going to make it past being a printed manuscript if it hasn’t been edited and proofread to absolute perfection.

On first glance, there may not appear to be too many important differences between the concepts of ‘proofreading’ and ‘editing’. It’s widely understood that they both involve amending and improving the written word, to some degree. What’s more, there are paid professionals who do both proofreading and editing, all under the umbrella job title of ‘editor’.

Although we are not here to learn about how proofreading and editing are similar, understanding their subtle similarities will in turn help us establish how they are different, and when you need each process to help you best realise the potential of your written work.

So, how are editing and proofreading different? Which process – proofreading or editing – is going to help you most, and when? Does your writing need to be proofread, then edited? Edited and then proofread? Is only editing required? What about a ‘light’ edit? Or would just a proofread, and no editing, serve you better? There are lots of questions to consider, so let’s dive in and see if we can help shine a light on the answers.

The differences between editing and proofreading – an overview

The table below gives a quick outline of the most noticeable differences between editing and proofreading, as well as a brief look at when each process might be used and what you could expect to pay for professional help.

EditingProofreading
Who?Anyone needing help with structure, formality and tone of voice. Especially useful for those whose first language is not English.Anyone who has written their final draft and is confident in their writing, but wants to ensure that it’s as accurate and as possible.
When?After early drafts of the work have been completed and plenty of work is left to do.When the final draft has been completed and final polish is all that is required.
What?Ensures consistency; ensures you adhere to formal or academic conventions; checks for logic and veracity; checks the document meets the terms of the brief; reduces the word count if necessary.Corrects spelling (including Americanisation); remediates non-standard grammar usage; ensures punctuation is accurate and appropriate; ensures you adhere to the “house style” or academic stipulations.
Time and costThis a lengthy and detailed process, which can take days or weeks depending on the length of the document. Expect to pay significantly more than you would for proofreading.Assuming a light-touch tidying job is all that is required, a proofreading job can be turned around fairly quickly – from just a few hours to a day or two – and quite inexpensively.

A closer look at editing – with examples

As you will see later, a proofreader is something of a scientist. An editor, by contrast, is an artist. Scientists are methodical, systematic workers who aim for clarity without disturbing the content. Artists, on the other hand, can be more liberal. They remove and redistributing content, find and tidy patterns, and produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

In essence, an editor is free to work their art on a piece of writing.

Editing: Making it CLEAR

A good editor must be an expert, not only in the field in which the piece is written, but also in the field of writing. Because of this expertise, an editor will often make changes to a piece of work to make it CLEAR.

This acronym refers to the following four areas, which we’ll explain in more detail using real examples below:

Conventions
Logic
English
Accuracy
Referencing

Conventions (CLEAR)

Every piece of writing has a set of conventions, or rules, that it must adhere to. For example, an editor with academic experience will ensure that an essay has the appropriate academic tone, that it satisfies the terms of the question or brief, and that it uses subject-specific terminology instead of layman’s language.

Let’s take a look at an example sentence from a Sports Science essay, where any underlined words highlight issues:

The main fuel source for high intensity cardio is carbs, so these should be eaten to refill the muscle’s stores after exercise.

The example above has too many abbreviations and informal language choices, missing values, and a lack of Sports Science terminology. An edited version may look like this:

The primary fuel source for high intensity cardiovascular work is glucose. Accordingly, 1g dextrose per kg of athlete’s bodyweight should be consumed to refill muscular glycogen after exercise.

Logic (CLEAR)

An editor who is tracking the argument or stance of your work can ensure that it has consistency and efficiency. One paragraph (and/or chapter) should lead into the next one with neither contradiction nor redundant repetition.

Here’s an example of marker feedback on an English Literature essay:

Student claims in the opening section that “Shakespeare’s known homosexuality (clear in his successful Sonnets) is unequivocal evidence for the liberal society of the 17th Century”.

Student later claims that the “concept of homosexuality is a modern one, and so cannot be applied to pre-19th-Century figures without resorting to anachronism”.

Student claims, finally, that “poets may take on personas and as such their work cannot be taken as autobiographical”.

The issues with logic: the first claim hinges on the assumption that Shakespeare’s sonnets are evidence of his homosexuality. This claim is then undermined by the second statement (that homosexuality as a term cannot be applied retrospectively) and by the third statement (that poets’ work should not be read as autobiographies).

One way an editor might fix this would be to amend the opening section of this essay to state that positive reception of Shakespeare’s arguably homoerotic sonnets may indicate that the 17th Century was at least liberal enough to tolerate same-sex affection in verse. This would then tie the opening section and the subsequent sections together in a clear, logical manner.

English (CLEAR)

An editor who is an expert in English can monitor your language use for clichés and empty phrases, as well as unnecessarily vague or overgeneralisations.

The nuanced way in which they will edit your work will depend entirely on the nature of and audience for whom your writing is intended.

The editor might pick out issues regarding Standard English spelling and grammar, but this surface-level amending is usually the work of a proofreader.

Example sentence (with issues underlined):

In my own personal experience of my all-male classroom, boys will be boys, and behaviourally-centred interventional strategising is basically defunct.

The example above shows examples of tautological phrasing, or saying the same thing twice using different words (“my own” and “personal”), clichés and vague language.

Depending on the formality required, a better sentence would read:

In personal encounters with an all-male classroom, predictable gender norms prevailed, rendering behaviour management strategies incapable of effecting change.

Accuracy (CLEAR)

An editor with expertise in the specific field in which your document is written can also notice – and remediate – errors in the content of your work, using their own developed understanding of the topic discussed therein.

Here’s an example of a claim made in a Psychology essay:

Men have higher pain thresholds than women do, because they have always had to cope with higher stress situations that have led them to cope better.

The issues here (aside from the clear biased favouritism towards the male gender!) are oversimplification, and conjecture instead of the use of data.

An knowledgeable editor may rewrite this as follows:

Biological and psychosocial factors influence pain tolerance in a way that sometimes corresponds with sex, from testosterone to gender roles, but frequently does not: such as early-life exposure to stress and the presence of chronic pain (Bartley & Fillingim, 2013).

Referencing (CLEAR)

In an academic format, an editor familiar with academic writing can also monitor your use of references. He or she will ensure that outside ideas are cited, cited according to conventions, and that only reputable sources are cited.

Here’s an example reference from an undergraduate Sociology essay, for which the standard rubric is APA formatting:

Carroll, Jason S., et al. “Generation XXX: Pornography acceptance and use among emerging adults.” Journal of adolescent research 23.1 (2008): 6-30.

The above example is incorrectly using MLA formatting. So an editor would correct the reference to read:

Carroll, J. S., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Nelson, L. J., Olson, C. D., McNamara Barry, C., & Madsen, S. D. (2008). Generation XXX: Pornography acceptance and use among emerging adults. Journal of adolescent research, 23(1), 6-30.

Editing: the wheat and the chaff

Beyond making things CLEAR in your writing, a good editor can also help you cut out what’s not needed (the chaff) so you can include more of the good stuff (the wheat) and raise the quality of your document overall.

Often, this is a case of identifying repetition and redundancy at the sentence level. More often than not, however, it comes from removing entire sections which do not contribute to the purpose of the piece.

Some editors, somewhat controversially, when editing a piece shorter than five hundred words (typically abstracts, personal statements and essays written under timed conditions), will often remove both the introduction and conclusion in their entirety to look at the quality of the content within.

Take a look at this example from a UCAS personal statement:

In this personal statement, I intend to demonstrate to you, university admissions teams, why I have the skills, qualities, experience, and academic excellence required for studying such a course at such a university as yours – and thus why you should consider my application as a strong one that is worthy of giving either a conditional or indeed an unconditional offer.

[…]

I hope that I have demonstrated to you that I am a very suitable applicant for the above course and therefore that you should consider giving me a conditional or unconditional offer to study this subject at your university. Thank you.

The problem with this introduction and conclusion is that, unfortunately, they don’t actually say anything.

A UCAS personal statement allows for 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text. The above example wastes a quarter of the lines and a sixth of the characters saying essentially nothing.

An editor would cut these redundant paragraphs, allowing more space for some actual content: your A Level choices; your trip to Cambodia to build a hospital; when you came second in the Poetry by Heart national final… you get the idea.

A closer look at proofreading – with examples

If the edit is an art form, then proofreading is a science. Proofreading takes the final draft of a piece of work and polishes it ready for submission. A proofreader, as a result, need not be an expert in the field of study for which the piece is written – which is good, as it means they are more easily available.

What this does not mean is that anyone is capable of proofreading your work. Indeed, proofreaders are experts in the English language, especially English for Academic Purposes (AAP) when academic writing is concerned.

Common proofreading errors

Let’s take a look at the types of errors that a proofreader’s eye is trained to spot.

Homophones and homographs

Without a shadow of doubt, one of the most common “errors” found in writing – academic or not – is the confusion between words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophones) and words that are spelled the same but mean different things (homographs).

Whilst these go essentially unnoticed in conversations, when written down they give the impression of – at best – a lack of mastery in English, or – at worst – a sign of lazy proofreading!

See if you can spot them all in the following passage:

Allot of the principle reasons for the brake down of family dynamics in dysfunctional family’s are related to what the children are aloud to do. Variable levels of discipline heavily effect the development of a child. Studies have shown that more then 79% of young adults who’s parents were more lenient were characterised as ‘problem’ cases (Chilflin, 2016). Conversely, children who except there parents’ moral authority and have rules set out are less likely to engage in criminal activities when their older (Tamkins, 2018).

How many did you count? There are actually ELEVEN errors, corrected below:

A lot of the principal reasons for the breakdown of family dynamics in dysfunctional families are related to what the children are allowed to do. Variable levels of discipline heavily affect the development of a child. Studies have shown that more than 79% of young adults whose parents were more lenient were characterised as ‘problem’ cases (Chilflin, 2016). Conversely, children who accept their parents’ moral authority and have rules set out are less likely to engage in criminal activities when they’re older (Tamkins, 2018).

Now, as wonderful as Microsoft Word’s spell-check function is, it only flags up FOUR of those ELEVEN errors. If you didn’t spot all of them either, then don’t worry – not even a sophisticated piece of computer software specifically designed to do the job managed it!

Punctuation

Proofreaders all too often see issues with punctuation. The addition of punctuation where it’s not necessary, the selection of inappropriate punctuation, the failure to include it where it is necessary…. The list goes on.

Because punctuation is such a fundamental part of English education, from primary schools and up, inappropriate use of punctuation at advanced writing levels may either come off as lazy, or may mean your writing simply won’t make the cut. We say this not to scare you, but rather to prepare you.

Most people use full stops appropriately. The same goes for parentheses (brackets), exclamation marks and question marks. Ellipses, when appropriate, are usually okay. Hyphens (once differentiated from dashes) are manageable for the majority of people.

But once we enter the realms of colons, semicolons and apostrophes, the competency level of most people starts to decline. Surprisingly though, it is the comma that is more commonly misused than any of these.

Take a look at the following examples and see if you can spot the comma-related issues:

Reviewers accept our apologies for the late submission of this manuscript for peer-review.

In this example, the so-called ‘vocative’ comma is missing after the first word. When directly addressing a reader, a comma must separate your interlocutor from the rest of the sentence.

You’ve likely seen the example “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma” with the caption “Punctuation saves lives” somewhere on the Internet in meme form. In the above sentence, whilst we are not resorting to cannibalism, we are nevertheless presuming that the reviewers have accepted our apologies (Reviewers accept our apologies), rather than asking them to accept our apologies (Reviewers, accept our apologies). When apologising, it’s always best to ask for accepteance rather than presume it’s a given!

Corrected version:

Reviewers, accept our apologies for the late submission of this manuscript for peer-review.

Here’s another example:

Figure 3, a photograph from the Telegraph, depicts the King, Prince Henry and Princess Charlotte holding their baby and the Queen.

Can you spot the error? This example is actually a classic case of one punctuation rule superseding another. We have been taught that when listing items, we don’t need a further comma next to the final ‘and’ – so “This blog post is about editing, proofreading and the difference between them”.

However, this sometimes leads to confusion and a lack of clarity, as in the following silly example: “To the stag do, I invited the strippers, the best man and the groom.” In this case, due to a lack of a comma, I have implied that the best man and groom are the strippers. For cases like these, a new rule is necessary.

In the above, more academic example, the photograph depicts “the king, Prince Henry and Princess Charlotte holding their baby and the queen”. Because of the missing comma, the implication is that the prince and princess are holding not only their baby but the queen, too!

This comma, used for clarity in some lists, is known as the ‘serial comma’, or – more commonly – as the ‘Oxford comma’. It separates the final item in a list from the conjunction if omitting it would cause confusion. Because this is a semantic judgement call, it is not often something that the original author would spot – they know how it’s supposed to be read and so will read it that way, even if a reader would not.

Putting the Oxford comma in, we get a more accurate impression of the arrangement of royals in the photograph:

Figure 3, a photograph from the Telegraph, depicts the King, Prince Henry and Princess Charlotte holding their baby, and the Queen.

Much better! Now look at this sentence:

The primary function of the gluteal musculature is to extend the hip joint, however, it can also abduct the thigh in combination with other muscles.

In this example, the problem is more subtle – and much harder to teach! To understand what the issue is, you need a pretty solid foundation in grammar. What has happened, in simple terms, is that two sentences have been meshed together when they ought to remain separate. In linguistic terms, we cannot use a comma to separate two independent clauses.

It’s called a ‘comma splice’ and it is the bane of English teachers’ lives, up and down the country (and likely across the globe).

Between independent clauses (most simply defined as clauses which could stand on their own as grammatical sentences), we cannot use a comma. We could use a coordinating conjunction, or a semicolon – or, we could make them into two sentences. But we can’t use a comma. So, we need to make an informed decision, as proofreaders.

The proofreader with a sense of style, gained through a lifetime of mindful exposure to elegant English, would opt in this case for a semicolon. The sentences are closely enough bound that a full stop would not be necessary, even if it were entirely valid.

Here’s the corrected version:

The primary function of the gluteal musculature is to extend the hip joint; however, it can also abduct the thigh in combination with other muscles.

Quick punctuation quiz

Commas are more complex, we’re sure you’ll agree, than most people give them credit for! So, how about something a bit more general and manageable?

See if you’ve got what it takes to be your own proofreader and spot the extremely common punctuation errors in the following sentences:

  1. The statistical analysis carried out presented the researchers with three, distinct possibilities; A, B, and C.
  2. The childrens’ utterances ranged from monosyllabic to pre-telegraphic, as dictated by their stage of linguistic development.
  3. In it’s simplest terms, the feedback could be characterised by displeasure.
  4. Since the 1960’s, this practice has been outlawed in the UK.
  5. Galen’s theory – if a theory it may be called – referred to four humours.

How did you do? Answers are below:

  1. This example tries to use a semicolon to do a colon’s job. This is astoundingly common. Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses that are in some way linked. They are not used to introduce something, like a colon does. So, the amended sentence would read:

    The statistical analysis carried out presented the researchers with three, distinct possibilities: A, B, and C.

  2. This is a confusing one for many. We know that for singular nouns, the apostrophe comes before the S, and for plural nouns, the apostrophe should come after the S. What makes this different is that the word “children” is already a plural without needing an S, so the apostrophe comes between it and the S. Here is the corrected version:

    The children’s utterances ranged from monosyllabic to pre-telegraphic, as dictated by their stage of linguistic development.

  3. Another remarkably common case is the confusion of “its” and “it’s”. Because we are so accustomed to using apostrophes to show possession, it seems frustrating that the possessive form is “its” and not “it’s”. The “it’s” with an apostrophe in this case is not showing possession but contraction: from “it is” or “it has” to “it’s”. The reason the possessive form doesn’t take an apostrophe too is because it is a determiner, and these words don’t take apostrophes – you wouldn’t say this work is “some of hi’s best” and the same applies to “its”. So the sentence should read:

    In its simplest terms, the feedback could be characterised by displeasure.

  4. People like using apostrophes to make plurals. Because of their frequency on grocers’ market stall signs (“Apple’s and orange’s – £2 a kg”), they are often referred to as ‘The Grocers’ Apostrophe’. However, we pretty much never use apostrophes to make plural (some would argue that we absolutely never do, but that’s not quite true). It is particularly common with dates, largely because we do use apostrophes in dates – but only at the start, to show omission of the century: the ‘60s. We don’t use them at the end. So, the above sentence becomes:

    Since the 1960s, this practice has been outlawed in the UK.

  5. As we mentioned earlier, once you’ve learnt to distinguish between hyphens and dashes, you’re pretty much sorted when it comes to using them. Unfortunately, most people don’t know this distinction. A hyphen, the shorter one (-), is used to join morphemes together, such as in “pro-life” or “anti-Brexit” – or, to show that a word has been cut off at the end of a line. A dash, the longer one (–), can be used parenthetically – like this – or to add additional content to the end of an already complete sentence – like this. In the above example, the writer means to use parenthetical dashes, but instead has used hyphens. In its Standard English form, it would read:

    Galen’s theory – if a theory it may be called – referred to four humours.

The difference between editing and proofreading – a summary

The editor takes on an early draft of a piece of writing and gives it direction. The editor disentangles what is often a particularly diffused box of snakes and gives it some semblance of order. Editing a piece of work therefore often depends on an outside eye – one which is not so familiar with the piece of work that the eye simply slips over the errors in a bid for sense. An expert eye is discerning and scrutinising and will use years of experience to deconstruct and reconstruct an essay in the image of the academic standard.

For that reason, an editor is necessarily more qualified and specialised than a proofreader. An editor will take longer with your essay and make more significant changes than a proofreader will. As a result, a full academic edit on a piece of work inevitably has a longer turnaround time and a higher cost than a proofread does.

An academic edit takes place ideally on a first draft (or a later draft if English is not your first language), whilst a proofread should be saved for the final draft before submission.

So, whilst editing is the more heavy-handed approach, it is also the harder to demonstrate in action. It really is the work of an individual expert. Proofreading, as you have seen, is more quantifiable but seemingly infinite, given its preoccupation with the nitty gritty of English.

So, what do you need?

Do I need proofreading or editing help?

Looking at the examples throughout this blog post, you hopefully have found yourself in one of two camps:

  1. The confident camp: You read this blog post and thought, I spotted that issue before the writer did – and others, besides!
  2. The cautious camp: You’re looking back now thinking, I didn’t notice half the issues, even when I was looking for them.

If you’re in camp 1, good for you. You probably don’t need to employ outside help to make your writing shine before you submit it. Your eye is already trained to find, diagnose and remediate issues.

If, however, you’re like most people and are in the cautious camp, then worry not: help is at hand. Whether you’re early on in your thesis write-up and need the skilled eye of an editor, you’ve completed your manuscript and need a professional proofreader with expertise in your field, or you want a skilled eye to cast over your CV, there are people who can help you.

Contact the Oxbridge Editing team today if you’d like to find out more about our pool of editors and proofreaders and how they can assist you.