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Advice for New Writers: Don’t Proofread Before You Edit

This is the first entry in what might become a series of advice articles aimed at newbie authors and indie publishing startups. Today, I’m talking about why you shouldn’t proofread a manuscript before you edit it.

If anything’s a dead giveaway that you’re new to this business, it’s a sentence like one of these:

  • Looking for someone to proofread my book and give feedback on plot, characters, and pacing.
  • I need someone to proofread and edit my book.
  • I need a copyeditor, but I’ve already run this through Grammarly, so it should be a quick job.

Every single one of the messages above tells me the exact same thing: that the person who wrote it doesn’t understand what proofreading is or how the editing process works. That’s a huge problem for the potential client, because it can lead to one of two terrible outcomes:

  1. A good, experienced editor passes over the client’s request.
  2. An unscrupulous editor decides to gouge the hell out of an unsuspecting newbie.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen both of these happen — and to people who care, deeply, about their work.

Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

Is Not Knowing How to Proofread a Problem?

Yes and no.

If you don’t know what proofreading is, or how it differs from another type of editing, you’re certainly not alone. I read messages like the ones above every week.

I think the problem stems largely from the way we teach composition. Too many instructors will tell students to “proofread” when what they really mean is “self-edit.” When those students grow up, they think proofreading and editing are one and the same.

And that’s the way it goes sometimes, right? I don’t understand exactly what I’m hiring a plumber to do; I just know the results I want. Likewise, you know you want a polished manuscript you can query or self-publish.

As a freelance editor, it’s anxiety-inducing to take on a client — or respond to their job posting — when I know they don’t understand what they’re hiring me to do. When I read a message that equates proofreading with beta reading or suggests it comes before other types of editing, I know I’ll have to educate this person in order to work with them.

To do that, I have to explain…

What Proofreading Is & What It Isn’t

The editing process consists of four broad stages. They are:

  1. Developmental editing
  2. Line editing
  3. Copyediting*
  4. Proofreading

* In some places, copyediting is used to refer to line editing.

Most manuscripts will need multiple rounds of any or all of the first three stages to make them the best they can be. We begin with developmental editing, which handles the manuscript’s deepest issues — plot structure, character arcs, etc. After those problems are fixed, we move on to line editing, which deals largely with artistic flair: Are we saying things in a way that is both true to the author’s voice and enjoyable to read? Then come the copyedits, which bring the manuscript in line with a chosen style guide — often The Chicago Manual of Style in the U.S. — and make sure spelling, grammar, etc. is clear and consistent. Copyedits may also include formatting for print or e-distribution.

Proofreading happens after all these other edits have been completed. Its purpose is to find and fix any remaining errors — in spelling, grammar, punctuation, spacing, etc. — that have slipped through the cracks. To that end, proofreading deals with surface-level issues and surface-level issues only.

Why You Shouldn’t Proofread Before Editing

Typically speaking, the point of editing is to refine. When performed with care, each round should result in a net positive. But improvement does not equal perfection.

Working side-by-side with an editor doesn’t magically protect you from making further mistakes, however. If editors were perfect, no book would ever need more than one editing pass. We’d catch and correct every error, from massive plotholes to missing commas, on the first readthrough. You’d have a perfect book without ever having to touch your manuscript again.

As much as many writers would love to wash their hands of their work when it comes time for revisions, that’s just not how this whole thing works. After your book goes through a round of editing, it’s passed back to you to approve or stet the changes. Sometimes this looks like clicking “Accept” or “Reject” in MS Word. Easy peasy.

More often than not, however, following your editor’s advice will mean digging back into your manuscript to perform rewrites. And even though those reworked passages should improve upon the book as a whole, they’re not guaranteed to be problem-free; every single time someone fiddles with a text, they risk inserting new typos and grammatical errors.

This is why proofreading exists: to clean up those little mistakes everyone overlooked along the way. There’s not much point in doing it when you’re planning to pursue other, more in-depth editing services afterward.

The One Time You Should Proofread Before Editing

As with most great rules, this one comes with one major exception.

The only time you should proofread before you edit your work is when you plan to show it to another person. Before handing your story off to a workshop classmate, instructor, beta reader, or critique partner, proofread it, for the love of God. Otherwise, corrections to spelling and punctuation — rather than comments on the real meat of the piece — will make up the bulk of the feedback you’ll receive.

Bear in mind, however, that you’ll have to proofread that same story again if you make any changes to it. Just because you did it once, three weeks ago, doesn’t mean it never has to be done again. It just means you took the time to polish your work up before putting it on display.