The Difference Between a “Proofreader” and an Editor


I recently applied for a part-time job proofreading academic papers. It would not help me pay off my student loans any faster (sigh), and the position does not extend beyond turning on Word’s TrackChanges feature to make anonymous suggestions in a vibrant color of my choosing (pink is preferable, obviously).

The opportunity intrigued me, enough to spend three hours on a Sunday completing a test proof, for two reasons.

One, because I would not mind doing my own research and/or becoming a professor someday, both of which involve familiarity with academic writing style, format and the ability to critique in something other than red pen.

Two, I am, when I am not working or sleeping on trains or tossing and turning trying to come up with new topics to post here, an editor; sometimes the “art of proofreading” gets lost in the shuffle. I need balance. I need to exercise my hypersensitive grammar-correcting muscles.

If you’re not an editor already, you might not know the difference between someone who proofreads in their spare time and someone who bears the title of Editor on their bottom-of-the-wallet business cards (no judgment: I don’t even have any, and not because potential colleagues have taken them all). There is, in fact, a difference.

The biggest variance: it takes a degree in English and the ability to flip through a style guide to proofread a paper. It takes a lot more than that to be an editor.

A lot more.

A Proofreader Reads; an Editor Analyzes

This is not to say a proofreader doesn’t critique content for understanding and flow. I’ll keep using an academic paper as an example. If a paper doesn’t make sense to a random grammar guru, it won’t make sense to a professor or committee or another random specimen on the Internet.

Simply, an editor takes this process a step further by examining what, for example, an article is saying, what it means, what it means to the person writing it, and what it should mean to the audience it is intended for. This takes breaking a larger piece up into smaller parts (think of it in terms of cooking). A proofreader hovers on the surface of this process; an editor dives in headfirst, with no life jacket.

A Proofreader Makes Suggestions; an Editor Sets Goals

Something I struggled with when I first started out as an editor with College Lifestyles was giving consistent feedback to the same writers over an extended period of time. At that point I was hardly used to critiquing my roommate’s papers without ripping them apart insensibly, let alone helping someone improve their writing skills from week to week. An editor can’t just crank out a string of TrackChanges and expect that to make a difference on its own.

I am probably a bit obsessed with setting goals (yes, there used to be a Bucket List here; yes, it started getting a little personal and is now tucked away safely in a more secure location, insert sad violin music), and I probably drive my writers deeper into insanity by making them set their own, but being that motivator is what makes the change. It’s not in a proofreader’s job description to do that. There’s just not room. 

A Proofreader Keeps It Professional; an Editor Gets Personal

Read the rest of this section before you start freaking out. “Getting personal” does not imply breaking the barrier of a professional relationship between editor and writer. Working with people my age, sometimes it gets hard not to break down that wall, but for the sake of productivity, you have to keep it there.

By “getting personal,” I am of course referring to the art of seeing a piece as the product of someone else’s extended thought and effort. Through the eyes of a proofreader, a paper is a piece of academic thought written for academic minds to process. To an editor, a piece breathes. It has substance beyond black-and-white content. Because you’re bound to have even if only a slightly closer connection with a writer than a proofreader does with a client, you can, and should, recognize and highlight the traits of the writer that come alive in their work. This is beneificial for all sorts of reasons, which I’ll have to touch on in another post because I’m nearing PTL (post too long) status here. Sorry.

I’m promising here an upcoming post on how editing others’ work improves our own ability to write and critique ourselves. In the meantime, if you see an opportunity to edit—even if it’s just a friend saying, “Hey, can you look at this? It’s a mess”—grab that opportunity like it’s the only one you’ll ever have.

Your first “gig” doesn’t have to be paid or even official. As of this moment, I have only ever been paid to copyedit for a student paper. I have not been paid a cent for my work as en editor. Yet I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything vital to my future success as a professional (maybe?).

Get into the habit of moving beyond marking up a page with a pen, no matter how small the task.

Editing goes deeper than catching spelling and grammar mistakes. In my opinion, it is one of the toughest, most well-rounded, most rewarding jobs you can score as a young adult. Insert idea for another post here.

Stop this madness. Go edit something. Edit the heart and soul out of this post, if you want. Do it. Do it.

Do it.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.


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