Sunday, June 04, 2017



Oxford Learning Institute
University of Oxford

Guide to Editing and Proofreading

Editing and proofreading are often neglected, but they are the crucial final stages of the writing process. Even the smallest error can result in embarrassing or even costly outcomes (misspelling a name, transposing digits in a telephone number, mistakes in a prospectus) so taking time and care to check what you have written is essential. This document explains the processes of editing and proofreading, and provides useful tips for doing both effectively.

What is the difference between editing and proofreading?

To many people, editing and proofreading are one and the same thing. There is, however, a distinct difference between the two.

Editing and Proofreading

Editing is the first task that should be undertaken after finishing the first draft of a piece of text. It involves checking the content of the text to ensure that the ideas are expressed clearly and logically, and form a coherent and meaningful whole.
Proofreading involves checking over the text in finer detail after the editing stage, to detect errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and format.

The importance of the two tasks is demonstrated by the fact that the publishing and printing industries employ different people who are specifically responsible for each of them.

Before you start

Editing requires careful analysis and critical thinking, and proofreading requires a great deal of attention to detail. As such, they are not tasks that can be done in a rush or squeezed in between other tasks: it is essential to devote sufficient time and concentration to both, and being in the right frame of mind to do this is very important.

Schedule a period of time in your diary for focusing solely on editing or proofing, and find an environment where you can be alone and free from distractions and interruptions. You may even wish to book a meeting room for yourself. Before you start, ensure that you are in a relaxed mood, with no other conflicting priorities or concerns to sidetrack your thoughts. Sit at a clear, uncluttered desk, which should have on it only the things that you need to help you with your task – pen, ruler, dictionary, thesaurus, grammar/punctuation guide, and your organisation’s style guide, if one exists.

As with all types of work, take regular breaks, as it is not possible to concentrate for long periods. Don’t edit or proofread for more than half an hour at a time without taking a break. Take even just a few moments to give your eyes a rest from the text.


Editing requires focusing on the content of the text. The key goals are to check that the text:
* flows logically
* is coherent and consistent
* forms a meaningful whole
* is clearly expressed
* is accurate in the information it provides
* has an appropriate tone
* is concise
* makes its purpose clear
* is targeted towards the reader

Some key questions to ask yourself when editing a piece of text are:
* Does the opening paragraph provide a clear indication of the purpose of the text and a broad outline of the content?
* Does every part of the text contribute to the key idea in order to form a meaningful whole?
* Does the purpose remain clear throughout the text?
* Is every sentence relevant to the purpose of the text, with no digressions?
* Is there a sentence (preferably the first) in each paragraph that summarises the key point of that paragraph?
* Are the paragraphs unified, i.e. do they contain only one single idea each?
* Has every idea been given sufficient weighting?
* Does the text flow logically from one paragraph to the next?
* Have transitional words or phrases (such as, for example, ‘however’, ‘thus’, ‘therefore’, ‘as a result’, ‘in this way’, ‘furthermore’, ‘above all’ and ‘moreover’) been used, but not overused, to help the reader to make connections between the ideas?
* Are the sentence structure and vocabulary varied, without too much repetition?
* Has the text been worded concisely?
* Have irrelevant and unnecessary ‘filler’ words such as ‘actually’ or ‘basically’ been avoided?
* Is the text free from colloquialisms, slang, jargon and clich├ęs?
* Has evidence been given to back up statements?
* Has consistent terminology been used throughout, or if more than one term has been used to refer to something, is it clear that they are one and the same thing?
* Is a positive and professional tone maintained throughout?
* Is the tone appropriate for the reader?
* Does the text meet the readers’ needs?
* Does the last paragraph neatly and concisely summarise and conclude?

If the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’, the text is likely to be a well-written piece that will not require too many changes. Don’t be alarmed, however, if it seems that a lot of changes are needed – editing a piece of text to ensure that it forms a coherent and meaningful whole can sometimes involve making major changes or even rewriting.

After the adjustments from the editing process have been made, the text is ready for proofreading.


Proofreading is not merely casting a glance over what you have written: it requires concentration to disconnect your mind from the content of the text in order to focus on the language and layout. Errors can be difficult to spot, so it is essential to read the text word by word to ensure that you don’t miss anything. As it involves correcting small errors (some of which can, nevertheless, have a major impact), it does not require major rewriting.

The aim of proofreading is to spot and correct errors in:

* spelling
* typography
* grammar, punctuation and use of language
* style and format
* anything missed at the editing stage

When proofreading your own work, you are often so familiar with the text that you see what you think you have written rather than what you actually wrote. For this reason, you will get the best results by asking someone else to proofread your work. Find someone to be your ‘proofreading partner’, with whom you can swap and share proofreading tasks. If this is not possible and you have to proofread your own work, make sure that you take a break of at least an hour (or ideally 24 hours) after writing before you start to proofread. This will help to distance you from the text.

One of the most important principles of proofreading someone else’s work is to never make assumptions. If you are unsure what the writer has intended to write, query it rather than jump to conclusions and amend it wrongly.

Print off the text and proofread on paper – it is much easier to spot errors on paper than on- screen. Before you do this, however, it is a good idea to run the spell check on the computer to catch any obvious errors. Don’t rely on this alone to detect spelling and typographical errors, though, as it cannot always be completely accurate. The grammar check is not worth using at all, as a computer cannot cope with all the complexities of grammar and sentence structure, and often ends up being more confusing than helpful.

Use ink that is a different colour from the print so that your corrections stand out and can be easily spotted. Beware of using red if proofreading for your colleagues, though, as it may remind them of the dreaded red pen wielded mercilessly by their teachers back at school!

Read slowly and deliberately using a ruler so that your eyes focus on only one line at a time. Go through the text several times, each time working on a different aspect. This will help you to retain your focus and concentration.
1. On the first read, it is a good idea to focus only on reading rather than on correcting, to
get an idea of the overall content and meaning, and to spot anything missed at the editing stage.
2. Then, on subsequent reads, focus on correcting different types of errors each time.
3. To spot typographical errors, you may wish to do one read backwards, to disconnect your mind from the content and focus fully on the text word by word. This will not help for grammar, punctuation or some spelling errors, though, which can only be spotted in the context of the sentence.
It is also a good idea to view the whole text from a distance, as some of the errors, especially those in style and format, are difficult to spot close up.

Here are some of the most common mistakes with grammar and language use that you should look out for when proofreading:

* tense agreement: mixing past and present tenses throughout a piece of text
* subject/verb agreement: using plural verb conjugations with single subjects (e.g. ‘one in ten people are …’ instead of ‘one in ten people is …’)
* pronoun/case agreement: confusing the subject and object of the sentence (e.g. ‘He sat between Bob and I’ instead of ‘He sat between Bob and me’, or ‘Me and John are working on that project’ instead of ‘John and I are working on that project’)
* confusing similar words, such as the verbs ‘imply’ and ‘infer’, which describe different angles (‘imply’ is when the speaker/writer suggests something without explicitly stating it, and ‘infer’ is when the listener/reader logically deduces something from the information given by the speaker/writer) – another example is ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ (‘affect’ is normally used as a verb meaning ‘to make a difference to’, and ‘effect’ is used as both a noun and a verb – as a noun, it means ‘a change that results from an action or cause’, and as a verb it means ‘to cause or bring about something’)
* misuse of apostrophe before ‘s’ at the end of a word, which is often incorrectly added before the ‘s’ in plural words, e.g. ‘The report’s are finished’ instead of ‘The reports are finished’ – an apostrophe should only be used before ‘s’ to indicate possession (genitive case), e.g. ‘The minister’s cat is black’ or ‘My friend’s desk is tidy’. However, in the case of the pronoun ‘it’, the possessive form is ‘its’ without an apostrophe. Adding an apostrophe and ‘s’ to ‘it’ indicates the abbreviated form of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. Look at the difference between ‘The dog has lost its collar’ (possessive form, i.e. the collar belongs to the dog) and ‘Look over there – it’s the dog without the collar’ (it is). Apostrophes follow the added ‘s’ when indicating possession by more than one person, e.g. Gents’ toilet, the pupils’ classroom.
* incorrect conjugation of modal verbs, such as ‘should of’ or ‘would of’ instead of ‘should have’ or ‘would have’
* words with similar spelling or pronunciation but different meanings, which cannot always be detected by automatic spelling and grammar checks, such as ‘they’re/‘their’/‘there’, or ‘where’/‘were’/‘we’re’/‘wear’.

Some other common errors relating to typography, style and format are:

* double spaces between characters, especially after a full stop
* wrong or missing headings or titles in a table, or captions
* misaligned columns or rows in a table
* misaligned margins
* incorrect text references
* inconsistent bullet formatting
* incorrect fonts/font sizes
* incorrect capitalisation
* footnotes or endnotes not matching references
* interchanging small words such as: of/off/on, and/an/as, or it/is/if
* incorrect use of trademarks
* missing numbers in a numbered sequence/list
* incorrect dates
* inconsistent use of abbreviations

Also look out for dashes. There are three types:

1. (-) hyphen: smallest dash, normally used to join words that combine together to form a single meaning or that are linked together as an expression, such as ‘decision-making’ or ‘problem-solving’
2. (–) en dash: in typesetting, approximately equal to the width of the type size being used
– normally used to join two words that are separate but related (en dash can be thought of as substitutes for ‘and’ or ‘to’), for example ‘work–life balance’
3. (—) em dash: in typesetting, approximately equal to the height of the type size being used – the least common type of dash, normally used to form parenthetic phrases, for example: ‘parenthetic phrases — such as this one — are separated from the main clause by dashes’, although the en dash is often used instead

It is a good idea to use standard proofreading marks, as they will enable you make corrections neatly and concisely. This is especially useful if you are proofreading for a colleague. Try to avoid squeezing too many marks into a small space, as it will become difficult to interpret. For example, if a word/sentence needs several corrections, score it out and rewrite it completely rather than amending each individual error. Also, try to keep the original text visible, so that the writer can clearly see the error and why it needs to be changed.

Finally, never take for granted that anything in a piece of text will be correct – be sure to check everything. This includes any parts that have originated from templates, as well as marginal parts of the text such as headers and footers, titles, subtitles and footnotes.

The Writer's Handbook
How to Proofread


Proofreading means examining your text carefully to find and correct typographical errors and mistakes in grammar, style, and spelling. Here are some tips.

Before You Proofread

  • Be sure you've revised the larger aspects of your text. Don't make corrections at the sentence and word level if you still need to work on the focus, organization, and development of the whole paper, of sections, or of paragraphs.
  • Set your text aside for a while (15 minutes, a day, a week) between writing and proofing. Some distance from the text will help you see mistakes more easily.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words before looking for mistakes. See the writing center handout how to write clear, concise, direct sentences.
  • Know what to look for. From the comments of your professors or a writing center instructor on past papers, make a list of mistakes you need to watch for.

When You Proofread

  • Work from a printout, not the computer screen. (But see below for computer functions that can help you find some kinds of mistakes.)
  • Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not see when reading silently.
  • Use a blank sheet of paper to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping ahead of possible mistakes.
  • Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you're likely to make. Search for "it," for instance, if you confuse "its" and "it's;" for "-ing" if dangling modifiers are a problem; for opening parentheses or quote marks if you tend to leave out the closing ones.

  • If you tend to make many mistakes, check separately for each kind of error, moving from the most to the least important, and following whatever technique works best for you to identify that kind of mistake.
    For instance, read through once (backwards, sentence by sentence) to check for fragments; read through again (forward) to be sure subjects and verbs agree, and again (perhaps using a computer search for "this," "it," and "they") to trace pronouns to antecedents.
  • End with a spelling check, using a computer spelling checker or reading backwards word by word.
    But remember that a spelling checker won't catch mistakes with homonyms (e.g., "they're," "their," "there") or certain typos (like "he" for "the").

When You Want to Learn More

  • Take a class.
    The Writing Center offers many workshops, including a number of grammar workshops.
  • Use a handbook.
    A number of handbooks are available to consult in the Writing Center, and each Writing Center computer has an online handbook.
  • Consult a Writing Center instructor.
    Writing Center instructors won't proofread your papers, but they'll be glad to explain mistakes, help you find ways to identify and fix them, and share Writing Center handouts that focus on particular problems.

Check for information on how to make an appointment with a Writing Center instructor.

For further information see our handout on Peer Reviews



The following list is taken from figure 2.6 of the 16th edition of the Manual.

Proofreaders' marks

Wannabe Editors: Can You Pass a Proofreading Test? By Carol Fisher Saller


March 4, 2013

Marked copy
                                                                           Photo: Seth Sawyers

When my office hires at the entry level, there’s a proofreading and copyediting test. My preference has been to give the test in person, on paper. That levels the playing field by eliminating access to e-mail and online sources. It shows how a person will mark up copy on the job (a frequent chore for the new kid). It isolates proofing and editing skills from word-processing skills.

Results vary.

So in the interests of helping young editors in search of employment, I’d like to talk about the second-most common* fatal error that candidates make on the test: that is, their failure to understand the concept of proofreading. Every time we hire, I rewrite the test instructions in the hopes of making them flunk-proof, but there is inevitably at least one smart, promising candidate who in spite of alleged experience proofreading and copyediting still manages to miss the point of the exercise.

In the proofreading test, the candidate is given two versions of a document: The first is a typed page, double-spaced and covered with corrections handwritten by a copyeditor. This is typically called the manuscript. The second is a typeset page—it looks like a photocopy of a page of a published book. The second was typeset from the first, and if all has gone well, the hand-marked corrections will have been incorporated into the typeset (final) version.

The test instructions say to proofread the typeset version, not to mark on the manuscript, and to query anything that isn’t clear. Experienced proofreaders know to read the typeset version against the manuscript very closely, comparing the two, looking at every letter and space and punctuation mark to make sure that the two versions are identical and that no text has been added or deleted by accident. In the olden days, two people would share the task: one would read the original aloud, including punctuation and corrections, while the other followed along in the typeset version.

Naturally, the typeset version has errors in it—after all, it’s a test. The errors are of three main types: (1) the typesetters failed to make a requested correction, (2) the typesetters introduced a new error in a place where no correction was marked, and (3) the typesetters followed the editor’s marking accurately, but the editor’s marking was incorrect. The third type should be rare.

The idea is to correct the first two kinds of errors without querying, and query the third kind.** Here is a table demonstrating the idea behind proofreading. The first column shows what is on the original manuscript; the second column shows how the manuscript was typeset; the third column shows what the proofreader should do.

Simple enough? Evidently not quite, for job candidates go wrong in two ways. First, they fail to compare closely enough, so in passages where all seems well in the typeset version, they miss the second type of error.

Worse, they query all three types of errors, instead of only the third. This is profoundly unhelpful in real life. It virtually defeats the purpose of proofreading, which is to flag unresolved issues—and only unresolved issues. Flagging nearly everything the editor marked for correction is tantamount to asking “Did you really mean to correct this?” when it is obvious that she did. It makes extra work, since she will have to check in each case. She might as well have proofread the thing herself.

Perhaps the concept of proofreading is trickier for a generation brought up in the digital age of typesetting, but fortunately, once it is understood, proofreading is the easiest of all editing tasks. And fortunately for proofreaders seeking work, there are still plenty of ways typesetting can go wrong.


*The most common error is sloppy handwriting. I feel hypocritical mentioning this, because I know I would never hire myself for a job that required neat writing. But even so, when I write something that I know must be read by colleagues, I take care over it. I make a habit of writing in pencil, and I often erase and rewrite. Bottom line: if a potential employer can’t read your test, and part of the job involves marking up copy for typesetters, you’re toast. So if you are going to be tested, and if you know your usual markings look like the paper in your gerbil’s cage after a week, take a couple of sharpened pencils and an eraser with you. If you forget, ask for them. (Yes, you’ll look like a loser in the moment, but it’s better than making a mess in ink. And depending on the competition, you might still have a chance.)

**In real life, proofreaders are not always charged with querying anomalies, and excessive querying that amounts to second-guessing the copyeditor is not the goal.

What’s the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading?


May 2016

One of the most confusing parts of the editing process is simply understanding the different types of edits. There are line edits and copyedits, proofreading and manuscript critiques, and that’s just the beginning. For the new author, the whole editing process can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re not sure which one to choose for your manuscript.

Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, we’re going to break down the differences between copyediting and proofreading in order to help you understand the editing process better. You can also use this post to decide which one you’ll need for your manuscript. Let’s get started.

Are you ready for copyediting? Subscribe to receive a free “ready for copyediting” checklist.

What is Copyediting?

Copyediting is the process of checking for mistakes, inconsistencies, and repetition. During this process, your manuscript is polished for publication.

Contrary to popular belief, the copyeditor is not a glorified spell checker.

The copyeditor is your partner in publication. He or she makes sure that your manuscript tells the best story possible. The copyeditor focuses on both the small details and the big picture. He or she must be meticulous and highly technical, while still aware of the overarching themes at work within your manuscript.

Let’s take a closer look at what a copyeditor does. A copyeditor:

  • Checks for and corrects errors in grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation.
  • Checks for technical consistency in spelling, capitalization, font usage, numerals, hyphenation. For example, is it e-mail on page 26 and email on page 143? Or do you use both British and American English spelling variations interchangeably, such as favourite vs. favorite?
  • Checks for continuity errors and makes sure that all loose ends are tied.
  • Checks for factually incorrect statements. This is a necessary part of the copyediting process for non-fiction manuscripts, such as historical pieces and memoirs. The copyeditor must check if the facts in your manuscript are accurate and if the names and dates are correct.
  • Checks for potential legal liability. The copyeditor verifies that your manuscript does not libel others.
  • Checks for inconsistency within the story. This includes character description, plot points, and setting. Does each character stay true to his own description throughout the story? Are there conflicting descriptions of the house? For example, have you described the setting as “a yellow brick home” on one page but “a weathered wooden home” on another page?

As you see, the copyeditor’s job is not just to check grammar and spelling. He or she must make sure that every element of your story is consistent, cohesive, and complete.

Your copyeditor will be different than your general editor. The copyeditor comes with a unique skillset. He or she must be precise, detail-oriented, and adroit in grammar and word usage. The copyeditor is also up to date with the standard practices in book publishing.

Am I Ready for Copyediting?

Copyediting is the final step before production. It should be done after all other edits take place. In a standard timeline, here’s how the copyedit fits in:

Manuscript Critique – An editor reads your manuscript and prepares a broad, comprehensive assessment. You receive specific advice on how to develop a stronger narrative, better pacing, and more engaging characters.

Because the manuscript critique is a big picture analysis of your manuscript, it should be done first before getting into the nuts and bolts of a comprehensive edit.

Comprehensive Edit – In-depth, intense, thorough, a comprehensive edit tackles a manuscript line by line. The editor cuts down on wordiness and tightens the language to create a more enjoyable read. This type of edit hunts down clumsy or awkward sentences that take away from the rhythm of your prose. For more information on a comprehensive edit, especially a line edit, click here.

If you plan to go with a traditional publisher, these are the only two types of edits you’ll need. After your comprehensive edit, you can start querying agents (we can help with that, too). Once your manuscript is accepted, the publisher will perform copyedit prior to production.

However, if you plan to self-publish, we highly recommend that you hire a professional copyeditor to prepare your manuscript for publication.


As a writer, you’re probably very familiar with the concept of typo blindness. Nick Stockton over at Wired explained it best in his post: What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos. Brilliant read.

The basic idea is that you’re unable to see your own mistakes because you already know what you’re trying to convey. You need a second pair of eyes—preferably from someone who knows the rules of grammar—to look over your manuscript and correct glaring errors that you’ve gone blind to.

In traditional publishing, copyediting is a required step. Who wants to print off a thousand books only to find that there’s a typo on page two, or a discrepancy in character description from one chapter to the next? Not you, and definitely not your reader.

Unfortunately, many self-published writers skip this crucial step and end up with those exact results. When the flow of the story is interrupted by inconsistencies in the narrative or errors in grammar, not only is it embarrassing for the writer, it can also be confusing to the reader.

As a necessary last step before printing your manuscript, always hire a professional copyeditor to inspect your work with a fine tooth comb. You’ll feel much better knowing that your typo blindness hasn’t negatively impacted your final work.

Remember, copyediting is only available to authors who’ve completed a comprehensive edit. This ensures that the copyeditor isn’t spending time editing content that may be deleted or rearranged after a line edit. The copyedit should always be the last step.

How Long Does a Copyedit Take?

A copyedit of your manuscript takes anywhere from three to five weeks.

What is Proofreading?

In publishing, proofreading happens after the manuscript has been printed. A final copy of the manuscript, or proof, is then examined by a professional proofreader.

The proofreader’s job is to check for quality before the book goes into mass production. He or she takes the original edited copy and compares it to the proof, making sure that there are no omissions or missing pages. The proofreader corrects awkward word or page breaks.

While he or she may do light editing (such as correcting inconsistent spelling or hyphenations), the professional proofreader is not a copyeditor. If too many errors are cited, he or she may return the proof for further copyediting.

Professional proofreading is required by traditional publishers as a quality assurance measure before printing off a mass quantity of books. Many self-publishing authors who have had their manuscript professionally copyedited skip the proofread. If you’re on a budget, you might try to proofread your own work, since there won’t be as many errors to contend with at that stage.

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