What is the Difference Between Proofreading and Editing?

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If you have invested significant time in an important writing project, you know the feeling of wanting to make your paper its absolute best. You have, perhaps, invested significant time in a university essay, literature review, or graduate school dissertation. 

To complement your own efforts, you may have considered getting the assistance of a professional editor or proofreader.

Conceptually, getting the assistance of a professional sounds great! In fact, most writers (including students, academics and professionals) find significant value in working with a professional proofreader or editor.

Unfortunately, the editorial and proofreading steps of the writing process cause significant confusion for many writers.  You may have been left wondering, “Do I need someone to edit my paper?  Do I need someone to proofread my paper?  Do I need both?”

In this article, we will define “proofreading” and “editing”, before looking at how they differ, and providing you with enough information to conclude whether you require a proofreader, editor or both for your paper.

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is primarily concerned with ensuring that a text adheres to English language rules. Specifically, it focuses on ensuring the accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and grammar.


In relation to spelling, a proofreader ensures that words are spelled correctly as verified against a reputable dictionary such as Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary

One consideration is that the same English word can be spelled differently around the world. It is important that spellings are correct for the given context and audience.

Effective proofreading ensures correct spelling as verified against an appropriate spelling guide.  


There are 14 different punctuation marks in the English language. Five common punctuation marks are periods (full stops), commas, colons, semi-colons, and question marks. 

Proofreading for punctuation is concerned with ensuring these typographically small parts of the English language are used appropriately.

There are times when punctuation usage is very definitive and clearly dictated by an English language rule. For example, the rules for the use of question marks are fairly cut and dried.    

At the same time, the use of punctuation marks is influenced by style preferences of the writer or editor. For this reason, the review of punctuation marks may be said to reflect aspects of both proofreading and editing.  


Grammar is the most complicated aspect of proofreading, and the area where errors are frequently made. 

Grammar is the system and structure of a language. It looks at how the building blocks of the English language (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) are used to form sentences. 

Grammar in the Dictionary
Proofreaders address issues in spelling, punctuation and grammar.

English grammar is notoriously difficult for non-native English speakers. Its complications stem from inconsistent rules and (seemingly) endless exceptions to rules.

Most of these rules are unconsciously known by native English speakers. This is one of the reasons why most writers seek a native English speaker to have their paper proofread or edited.    

Who Makes the English Language Rules?

As explained above, proofreading seeks to ensure writing adheres to English language rules. 

You may be asking yourself, “Where do these rules come from? What do we mean when we refer to English rules?” 

There is no oversight body that that sets the rules of the English language. Rather, the rules are continually changing and evolving based upon the common use of the language. 

“Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.” 
Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way

When an individual refers to English language rules, they are typically referring to the commonly accepted use of the English language. 

Although there is no one oversight body setting the English language rules, various organizations produce style guides (manuals of style). These style guides provide standards for the design, production, and style of a paper.    

The Chicago Manual of Style and Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) Style are two widely-used style guides.  

What is Editing?

Editing is concerned with the overall presentation of a text. It focuses on improving the structure, flow, language style, and clarity of a document.

What is Editing?
Editing is an important part of the writing process.

Caution! - Editing is a very ambiguous term that has different meanings depending upon who you are speaking with. Even within specific genres or publishing industries, the term can be used very casually and have different meanings to different people.

Examples of sub-classifications of editing include: copy-editing, line editing, structural editing, developmental editing, and academic editing. 

The following is a brief explanation of the most common aspects in the editing process:


Structure refers to the way the arguments and ideas in a paper are organised. There are nearly as many ways to structure your paper as there are topics to write about. The way a text is structured can have as much influence on a paper’s success as the words used. 

An editor reviews the structure of a paper and ensures that it is contributing to achieving the writer’s objectives and not detracting from those objectives. If the paper is poorly structured, a good editor will make recommendations on how the structure could be improved.


Flow refers to how the parts of a paper interlink and the ease with which a reader is able to digest the paper’s ideas. Even when a document is well structured, it still may not flow well.  That is, the components of your paper may be logically and intuitively organized, yet not connect gracefully.

Issues with flow can stem from a writer’s poor use of transitions. How are the ideas in one section of the paper related to the overall document? And how are the ideas in one section of a paper introduced and concluded in relation to the sections that proceed and follow?

A good editor looks at how a paper flows and ensures that ideas are presented in a coherent connected manner. The editor seeks to ensure that the flow of the paper feels effortless and natural. 


Complementing their review of structure and flow, editors also seek to improve the clarity of the text. Sometimes the editor can recommend specific changes to help improve clarity. At other times, the editor may bring to the writer’s attention the parts of a paper that are not easily understood by a reader. 

Part of improving clarity is improving word choice and addressing issues such as run-on sentences. Although a piece of text may be correct as it relates to punctuation and grammar, it may not be well written or clear. An English editor can help identify and address these weaknesses in a text.

Editors are in good position to review flow because they can look at the text independently with a fresh set of eyes. The article at this link provides a closer look at the benefits that an editor can bring to the writing process. 

How are Proofreading and Editing Different?

With the above definitions in mind, it is easier to consider how proofreading and editing differ.    

While proofreading is focused on adherence to English language rules, editing is concerned with improving the overall presentation of a text. In this sense, proofreading and editing are two sides of the same coin. Proofreading inclines more towards the science and rules of a language, while editing attends more to the art of writing. 

To use a metaphor: if you were building a house, editing is the process of ensuring that the design of the house makes sense and will be enjoyable to the occupants. Editing will make certain that the house is attractive and “feels” right.

Proofreading would be the process of guaranteeing that the house meets all building codes and regulations, and that nothing about the construction of the house is costly or embarrassing.

Where do Proofreading and Editing Come in the Writing Process?

Another way that proofreading and editing differ is where they belong in the writing process. 

Editing and Proofreading in the Writing Process
Editing usually occurs before proofreading.

Editing usually occurs in the writing process earlier than proofreading. In fact, editing may occur as soon as the first draft of a paper is complete. An editor’s involvement early in the writing process can help identify big picture issues and stop a writer from going down the wrong path.

Proofreading is frequently the very last step in the writing process. The text is nearly finished and there are no further changes intended to the paper.     

Do I Need an Editor, Proofreader, or Both?

Determining whether you require an editor or proofreader largely depends upon the current state of your paper and what you are seeking to achieve.

If you have prepared a solid first draft and are looking for feedback on the structure, flow and clarity of your paper, you are probably looking for someone to edit your paper.

If your paper is nearly finished and you want to make sure that it is free of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, you are looking for someone to proofread your paper. (And remember: after you have your paper professionally proofread, you will want to avoid making significant changes to the paper.)

Although proofreading and editing are frequently treated as separate steps in the writing process, it not uncommon for proofreading and editing to be performed simultaneously.  This requires a higher level of skill from the person performing the proofreading and editing.  

Finding a Proofreader or Editor for Your Paper

Friends and colleagues are a great place to start when you want help proofreading and editing your paper. It can be useful if they are familiar with the subject matter and can apply this expertise to editing the paper. 

It is also important to consider whether you require a native English speaker to review your paper. Individuals are always more attuned to the nuances of their native language. If your paper is written in English, it probably merits having it edited by a native English speaker.

For peace of mind, you may want to engage a professional editor or proofreader to assist you with your paper.    

Online English Editor is one proofreading and editing service that specializes in working with students, academics and professionals. You can learn more by visiting our homepage here.

Post by Online English Editor.  

Online English Editor provides editing and proofreading services to academics, students and professionals.