Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing


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.

Editing v Proofreading 4

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!Cryptic clothing label

If the writing process could have it’s own little clothing tag, it would read “Proofread, edit, proofread — repeat.”

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22 thoughts on “Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing

  1. Paul M. says:

    Good morning, I’m assuming the “Is is” typo in par 6 is a tongue-in-cheek reader test.

    • Ding ding ding! I was wondering how long it would take for one of my savvy readers to pick up on this little test. If there were prizes, you would be the winner 🙂

      Thanks for reading my blog!

      • Paul M. says:

        Very cute, Stacey. And mischievous.

        It’s amazing to me how it’s so much easier to spot others’ typos than to catch my own. I can’t count the number of face-into-hands moments I’ve had when a client returns a draft with the most horrifyingly amateurish typo circled. Makes me want to hurl. Then they tease me about it constantly.

        It’s also amazing that it took 18 months or so to highlight your “Is is.” I’ve got to think that we all notice it but didn’t want to insult you with the irony. I’m just not sharp enough to have been the first one. The first time I read it, I broke out laughing; I couldn’t believe that you would let something like that slip through.

        Now, about that non-existent prize. I would like to have been awarded a 2-wk trip to LaPaz, Mexico. Really nice there.

        Oh, and that naughty toon at the top is fun too. Lots of good stuff in your posts.


  2. You could certainly see your skills iin the work you write.
    The arena hopes for even more passionate writers such
    as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the
    time go after your heart.

  3. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  5. graham64 says:


    Seeing some of the terrible punctuation, grammar and spelling that abounds today, I think editing comes first, and daylight second!

  6. Stacey,
    A very pertinent article. Looking at some of the poor grammar and spelling that you see today, it seems that editing comes first, and daylight second!

  7. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  8. OmaOrBubby says:

    I enjoyed your article. I think the the process is fluid. I am constantly editing and proofreading, and proofreading and editing. Then again, some people just put it all down and then do the editing late. I guess each person has a unique process that works. Great post. Thanks.

  9. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  11. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing (rhetoricallyurs.wordpress.com) […]

  12. Great article! I just realized that I try to do both functions (proofreading and editing) at the same time. My new plan will be to do a first pass as a proofread – looking for spelling and grammatical errors. My second pass will be editing – tightening the sentence and paragraph structure.

    • Laura,

      It’s difficult to train your mind to only look for one specific aspect during the first pass of editing a piece, but once you get used to it, you’ll find your editing skills greatly improved. Thanks for the comment. Happy editing!

      Rhetorically Urs,

  13. […] Which Comes First? Proofreading vs. Editing […]

  14. Great post! Thank goodness someone has finally said editing and proofreading aren’t the same! Most people never actually do much editing, in my experience. I presonally would say, “edit before proofreading.” But you can stil get into trouble. I had one place I worked where I’d edit and proofread with a fine tooth comb, then the person inputting the info in a newsletter insisted on typing in changes by hand, instead of flowing in the file. Drove me nuts! You can imagine the problem – no way to ever reach proofreading Nirvana!

    • Chanda, how irritating! I don’t think everyone truly grasps that the editing and proofreading phases are equally as important as the creation itself! Thanks for your comment!

  15. Maryanne says:

    I’ve worked in house at so many newspapers, and it was indeed a process that usually went: writer to editor to copy editor to proofreader back to editor to sign off on. But some of the writers would check each others work before it went to the editor to begin with.

    • Thanks for your comment Maryanne… Amazing to think that many newspapers and other publishers are on board with an intensive editing and proofreading process, yet there are still a few errors that squeak by from time to time. Why do think that is? Is there a lapse in the process or is someone not pulling their weight?

      • Maryanne says:

        Oh definitely not someone pulling their weight! It was always amazing to watch people goof off all day long and then get their stories together minutes before deadline. One time this girl posted the wrong website in her article, mistakenly put a porn site! I was able to change it online, but it’s now forever in the newspaper — a family newspaper no less! It was brought to my attention by a reader. I never told the editor, and he never figured it out. But if he did that girl would have been fired on the spot!

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