Proofreading is a final check on your work to ensure accuracy, correction of grammatical errors and general presentation are within the specifications you have been given.
Editing is much more than this as it combines proofreading together with revisions that should improve the flow and structure of your work to maximise the impact of the piece.
Some may disagree as Nabakov (he of Lolita fame) once said “By editor I suppose you mean proofreader.” Indeed, editing is often referred to as the “butcher’s trade”.
Editing requires a thorough grasp of English whereas proofreading requires an ability to simply spell. It is also fair to say that editing requires the exercise of the little grey cells to a far greater extent as they will be actively considering the subject matter and how well the piece will communicate with the prospective reader. This contrasts with simple proofreading which is a more mechanical process.
For instance, I try not to proofread a piece immediately after I have completed it. I personally find that if some time elapses between completing the draft and going back to correct the grammar and spelling errors, then I am able to focus my attention on the words rather than the ideas and ensure greater accuracy. If I proof a document as soon as I have finished, I usually end up becoming immersed in the ideas and subject matter which leads to proofreading errors and ultimately, a few spelling mistakes sneaking into otherwise finished product.
Editing courses exist on the internet that will help you deal with the issues involved but for many, editing as a profession is in decline which is technically known as “not a good thing”. Modern day editors simply do not have the time to edit, and the sharp suits have taken over with their eye on the cost and bottom line rather than the quality of the work. This doesn’t simply affect literary pieces but commercial copy as well as editing is the ultimate peer review you can have.
I read a piece in the Guardian which dealt with the decline of editing and relayed a story concerning Tom Wolfe (not the Bonfire of the Vanities author but the other one) and it made me smile.
Our Tom Wolfe was a prolific generator of words – so exceedingly verbiose in fact that I was instantly reminded of the Michael Douglas character in the film, Wonder Boys when he plays an English professor with writers block and a penchant for smoking dope. His editor, Maxwell Perkins advised that he was going to take the book away from Tom and indeed he did so after receiving a manuscript some two feet high containing 450,000 words. Eventually this was whittled down and published; something that would not have happened without an editor though Ernest Hemingway (who also used Perkins as his editor) proclaimed, “It’s 60% shit!”
For many, the editor is a bully boy, larger than life character and their use of the pruning shears on your work can leave it completely altered beyond any recognition. The reality is if you are lucky enough to have someone who will edit your work, build that relationship, devote some time to it and this will pay dividends with your work.
T S Eliot once was asked if editors were simply failed writers to which he replied:
“Perhaps – but so are most writers.”