Much like the age-old chicken vs. egg mystery, writers continue to debate whether editing should occur before or after proofreading. In fact, I’ve had many people ask me if there’s even a difference between the two, to which I reply, “Of course there is!”
Proofreading and editing have two completely different functions.
Think of proofreading as the smaller stuff: spelling, punctuation, word choice. After you’ve “completed” the initial writing process (I put completed in quotation marks because I truly believe a piece of writing is never complete, it’s always evolving or at least has the potential for evolution), you take a general, first glance at what you’ve written.
This first glance is what some writers consider the “proofreading” phase. It allows you to see if you’ve skipped any words, if you’ve spelled affect with an “e” instead of an “a,” or if you’ve created a run-on sentence, much like the one I wrote above.
Editing, on the other hand, allows you to completely manipulate your document. It analyzes sentence structure, format, placement, and gives the author (or editor) power to evaluate the overall aesthetic, tone, and purpose of the document. Editing is a much deeper exercise than proofreading, which seeks to affirm the strength of your topic, supporting evidence, and ideas.
In general, when I proofread a document I am looking at each individual word first. Is is spelled correctly? Then I narrow in on each individual sentence. Is the sentence a fragment? Does it have proper punctuation? Is it structured properly? I’m not making any large changes to the overall substance of the piece, I’m just giving it a little cosmetic changes.
When I edit a document, my red pen runs out. I cross out entire ideas and phrases, re-write an entire paragraph, insert bullet points and headings, and pretty much turn my masterpiece into a grade school student’s worst nightmare.
For me, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to which should come first, proofreading or editing. In fact, I believe the best pieces of writing come from a combination of proofreading, then editing, then proofreading again.
What is important is to recognize that not all changes to a document should be made into one step. That means you SHOULD NOT consolidate the proofreading and editing phases. When you consolidate these two steps, you tend to lose perspective.
For example, if I’m reading a piece to check specifically for spelling errors, my brain becomes wired to look for mis-spelled words, but it can’t muti-task and also evaluate for content comprehension simultaneously. Thus, while I may think I’m keenly picking out sentence fragments or missed letters in a word, I’m not able to also comprehend an entire paragraph’s importance to the central theme of my document.
Don’t overload your brain! Making sure you separate proofreading and editing into two separate processes will allow you to look at your document from multiple perspectives. If you don’t have anyone to help you with editing, the more times you step away and come back to the piece, the better. It’s like a fresh set of eyes every time!
If the writing process could have it’s own little clothing tag, it would read “Proofread, edit, proofread — repeat.”