Editing and proofreading: why we need to know the difference

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

I am writing this post because of a moment of clarity I had recently regarding some of the ways in which students ask for help with their writing when they come to the Writing Centre. For years we have been telling students that we will not edit or proofread their work for them, but that we will rather guide and advise them on revisions and help them to produce a more acceptable (and accepted) piece of writing. We hope that along the way they will grow in self-confidence, too, and come to believe that they can do this thing called ‘academic writing’. We also tell lecturers that we won’t edit or proofread for their students when they ask us to help with their students’ ‘poor language’. This ‘we don’t edit or proofread’ statement becomes a kind of mantra after a while. And recently I had a moment where I realised quite clearly that there is a big difference between these two things and that it might be important for students, lecturers and the Writing Centre itself to understand the difference.

Proofreading is generally taken to be the act of going through a piece of writing and picking up ‘surface errors’ and correcting these for the writer (often proofreaders are paid to do this task). Errors that are commonly corrected in academic writing might include typographical errors, spelling mistakes, pointing out missing references or mismatches between reference lists and what is in the text itself, as well as formatting inconsistencies. The proofreader needs to be an expert, I believe, in the grammar and syntax of the language the writing is using in order to find and fix these errors, but they don’t necessarily need to be a expert in the subject matter to do a good job.

Editing is something quite different. Editing can be taken to mean helping a writer to polish and revise their work by pointing out different kinds of errors that cannot be fixed by the editor but need, more often than not, to be referred back to the writer. An editor reads with understanding and some depth, and comments on issues like repetition of ideas, paragraphs that are out of order leading to a muddled structure, poor organisation and expression of ideas and concepts, coherence and sense-making in a piece of writing – these are just some of the things they can work on with a writer. Thus, an editor does need to have some knowledge of the subjects the writers are working on in order to comment on whether ideas have been properly construed or arguments persuasively constructed. But all editors are critical readers, and can give useful advice on revisions even if they are not subject experts. I think the level of expertise needed in an editor may also depend on the kind of help the writer needs and perhaps also the subject itself.

I think writing tutors are editors. I think we do the work of an editor when we point out parts of students’ essays that are muddled, or missing, or not quite clear. We don’t correct the mistakes, but we help the writers work out how they might do so. I think what we mean when we say we don’t edit is that we don’t proofread, and also that we won’t do the writing for the students – and this is true. But perhaps we need to consider changing our mantra. How about: ‘We listen, and we read your work with a critical and practised eye, and we help you edit and revise it effectively’. It’s longer, but more accurate.

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