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.


How Editing Is Like Making a Pizza


A well-deserved, crunchy and delicious pizza.

Learning the proper way to edit is almost as challenging as writing a first draft, especially when you don’t have much experience editing others’ work before trying to proof your own. Any analogy can help a new editor make sense of the steps and layers that go into proofreading and/or editing their own work. Especially analogies involving food.

Unsure of the steps you should take when looking over something you’ve written? Think dinner. Think pizza. 

Start with the Crust

A pizza’s crust, rounded-out dough as flat and thin as you can make it, is the foundation of every “successful” pizza. In the same way, the foundation of every successful piece of writing, its content, is where the editing process begins.

At this point, grammar, spelling, punctuation—do your best to look over it during your first read-through. Focus instead on the words, and whether they convey the message you are trying to get across. Are they accurate? Credible? If an outsider comes in and strips away the other layers (we’ll discuss those in a second), will they find a strong foundation, or just some fluffy dough with no substance?

Once your foundation is set, you’re ready for the next step.

Layer On Sauce

After the crust is set and ready to go, the sauce comes next. Think of sauce as a necessary filling, painting the crust and serving as a healthy barrier between that and its toppings.

This “filling,” in the editing sense, takes one step above the piece’s base content and looks at the way it is presented. This can include things as small as sentence structure and as large as paragraph breaks, order and placement. You’ll also pay closer attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation here. One of the most important ingredients in this step, however, is the use of transitions. Not necessarily outright “firsts,” “nexts” and “lasts,” but smooth segues from one related topic to another.

Having an evenly spread, and okay, flavorful sauce to layer over your crust ensures the content of your piece is well-structured, neat and readable in an orderly, organized sense.

Choose the Right Toppings

Toppings are meant to enhance a pizza, but they’re certainly not required. Some go for simple, plain cheese, and there’s nothing wrong with this style. Some like to get a little fancy, and if you’re able to find the right combination of toppings that fits your desires, and the desires of those who are going to eat it, you’re on your way to winning a Nobel Prize in Pizza Making. Sort of.

What are your piece’s “toppings”? This is where you get to examine your diction, your adjectives (a minimal amount of them, of course) and ultimately decide what should be included in the final product and shouldn’t.

This is probably the toughest step; you’re critiquing your own skill and creativity, which is a pendulum that can swing in two drastically different directions (“I’m the best writer ever, I don’t need to revise anything!” or “I’m the worst, no one will ever want to read this, I’m just going to delete the whole thing and start over”).

It takes time to find the right balance between all the elements we’ve discussed so far. Once you do (and this could take time—and that’s okay), you’re ready for the final step in your pizza making/editing adventure.

Cover with Cheese—and Bake

Cheese is more often than not the final layer of a pizza recipe before sliding the brilliant creation into the oven to bake. You can add as much or as little as you want, but this last step is what makes a pizza a pizza, and not just baked dough with tomato sauce on top.

In this step, you’ll review everything you’ve done up to this point. Is the crust solid, a good enough foundation to support the rest of what goes on top? Is the sauce spread evenly and thick enough that every bite will leave the diner satisfied? Are there enough toppings to keep the experience interesting, without overwhelming the overall taste of each slice? Does it look presentable, even before entering a 400 degree oven?

Once you add the cheese, your pizza—whatever you’ve written, revised and refined—is as good as it’s going to get. Let it rest in the oven of your mind for a bit. Bring it out again, let cool, and admire your (almost) perfect creation. 

Editing is hard, especially when we’re naturally so critical of our own work. Break the process up into steps and let those steps build comfortably on one another. Start with what’s most important and save the tweaking and “spicing up” for last. Then let yourself enjoy what you’ve accomplished, before sharing it with others.

Now if you’ll excuse us. Pizza for breakfast (while simultaneously editing articles) sounds pretty good right now.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.