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The Difference Between Editing and Proofreading

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One of the most misunderstood aspects to preparing a book for publication is exactly what kinds of help the book needs. When it comes to editing, proofreading, and self-published authors (you know, the guys who are now going to foot the bill for these services), there is a lot of murkiness out there, mostly due to the fact that a lot of people decided they could make a quick buck by running your book through a spell checker.

I want to illustrate the difference between editing and proofreading…


There you have it.

What, you don’t see it? You don’t see the correlation between a car that was actually stopped next to mine at a red light, and the publishing industry?

That car–which happens to be a new, red, expensive Mercedes–has a license plate that says, “RPSTS,” or more accurately, RAPISTS. Yes, this individual spent about $30,000 on a car, then plastered the word “rapists” on the back of it. I do hope it was a mistake.

Now here’s where publishing comes in. A PROOFREADER will read the word “rapists,” or in this case, “RPSTS,” and make sure it’s spelled correctly (or at least spelled accurately for a license plate, text speak, or some other abbreviated but acceptable form of language), and will go so far as to ensure that your main character wasn’t trying to explain that he performs rap music for a living, thus requiring the use of the word “rapper” instead of “rapist.” That would fall under proofreading because the author has used the wrong word in that sentence.

An EDITOR will look at your car, read that license plate, and give you an entire diatribe in the margin about why in the world you don’t want to slap the word “rapists” on your expensive car without really thinking it through. The editor might point out the word origin, its etymology, the first time that word was used in known written literature, the fact that the term “rape” from its Latin root actually once meant “kidnapping” rather than sexual assault, etc.

The editor says, “Are you sure you want to drive around with the word ‘rapists’ on your car?” while the proofreader says, “Hell, it’s your car and it’s spelled right…okay.”

I’m not saying proofreaders don’t do anything or don’t really give a shit about how your book turns out. But proofreaders don’t undermine your editor. Before your book goes to the proofreader, it HAS TO HAVE BEEN EDITED. Let me say that again for you: your book is edited BEFORE it is proofread. So when the proofreader sees “rapsists,” his job is just to make sure you spelled it right and that you put your comma where it goes. Hopefully, the editor has already tried to talk you out of doing something monumentally stupid to your car (or your book).

Unfortunately, a lot of authors confuse the terms “editor” and “proofreader.”(This isn’t the right place to point out that many authors also confuse the terms “editor” and “best friend from high school who taught eighth grade English for a few years,” but that post is coming.) That’s why your editing phase is so much more expensive than your proofreading phase. Your editor chopped the crap out of your story and sat there beside you while the two of you lovingly glued it back together, and your proofreader made sure you didn’t get any glue on the carpet.

Both people are vital to your book. They have very different jobs, and they are not synonymous nor do they cancel each other out. Please don’t confuse their jobs and think that only one of them is important to your book.


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