The Pros Do the Finish Work – Guest post by Jenny Hansen

Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: annotationseditorial@gmail.com).

This week we have a special guest, Jenny Hansen, humourist extrodinare, techy genious and Rockin ROW80 Twitter Party co-host. Today she is writing about one of my favorite topics the differences between editing and proofreading. And there IS a difference, trust me I do it for a living and Jenny knows what she’s talking about. So on to the education and cartoons, take it away Jenny. 

I read a great article a few months back discussing the differences between editing and proofreading and I got to thinking about analogies that could relate to writing. The rules in this blog post apply whether you’re dealing with business documents, such as white papers, articles or novels.

Like most writers, I hang out with a boatload of other writers. That doesn’t mean that I saw much of other peoples’ works in progress until I coordinated a contest several years ago. That experience changed the way I see writing.

Working as a contest coordinator showed me firsthand what separates the amateurs from the professionals on the fiction writing front lines. In large part, it is the ability to both edit and proofread. In business, as in novel writing, editing is King and proofreading is Queen.

Note: The pro. vs. amateur reference above is not referencing the difference between published and unpublished writers – there are many writers that are pre-published simply because they haven’t gotten their work in front of the right person. They’re still consummate professionals who put in the time to make all aspects of their work shine. They know that old, but apt, cliché: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. And they work hard to make a good one.

As a contest coordinator, I had to read ALL the contestant score sheets that were returned from the judges, as well as the thank you notes that were sent from the contestants to the judges. These rules are in place to ensure that everyone plays nice with one another. (It should be noted that nearly everyone does).

Still, there are those rare occasions when the coordinator gets the fun job of asking a judge to find a nice way to say that a contestant’s heroine is “Too Stupid to Live” or that the hero is “a pansy.” It is also the coordinator’s job to ensure that a contestant doesn’t send a nasty-gram for a low score. I mean, really, the ONLY thing to say when someone takes time from their own work to volunteer to look at yours is, “thank you.”

Getting back to the editing and proofreading…there was an area on the contest score sheet called “Mechanics” that was worth a whopping twenty points. One (extremely well-known) author gave a contestant FIVE points, along with an amazing gift: she chastised the writer about how these twenty points were the easiest points to ace in the entire contest. She told the contestant that “there is no excuse for not taking the time to get all twenty points EVERY time.”

Spelling, grammar, punctuation and neatness are nearly the only thing you can be completely confident of when you start writing because things like voice and pacing take a while to get the hang of. Punctuation and font almost never change and can be learned with a thorough read of Strunk and White.

I let this (very blunt) comment stand because I knew it might save that contestant’s career. I think many writers, especially new ones, see editing and proofreading as the same thing. In reality, these two techniques employ very different parts of your writing brain.

Think of it like building a house. You can lay a solid foundation, frame the house correctly, hang the drywall, slap on some paint and that house is structurally sound, sealed and dry. It is a well-edited house and the floor plan is amazing.

BUT, if you don’t take some extra time on the finish work: painting the trim, adding some lovely scrollwork or lining up the crown molding, fewer people will want to buy it. Worse, if they do buy it (for a much lower rate) they’ll walk away from the exchange thinking you did half-hearted work because now they have take time to fix it.

Imagine your boss having these thoughts about a project you turned in or, worse to a writer, an editor thinking this about your precious novel. Yikes!

How is editing different than proofreading?

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, editing and proofreading are two different stages of the revision process. Both demand close and careful reading, but they focus on different aspects of the writing and employ different techniques.

Editing

Editing is what you begin doing as soon as you finish your first draft. You reread your draft to see, for example, whether your work is well-organized, your point of view correct, whether all the scenes support your plot and the transitions between these scenes are smooth.

Have you varied the length and structure of your sentences? Do you tend to use the passive voice too often? Do you use an excessive amount of clichés, or weak verbs? What about the more subtle editing techniques like deleting your echoes? My critique partner, Sharla Rae, wrote an amazing blog on this called Echoes – Repeat Offenders that I highly recommend.

Proofreading

Proofreading is the final stage of the editing process, focused on errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. It’s recommended that you proofread only after you have finished all of your other editing revisions (so you only have to do it once) but most writers do it as they go along. The danger in this habit is that familiarity can make you blind.

Some tips to help you to search out (and find) your errors:

  • Don’t rely entirely on spelling or grammar checkers. These programs work with a limited number of rules, so they can’t identify every error and often make mistakes.
  • Proofread for only one kind of error at a time. If you try to identify and revise too many things at once, you risk losing focus, and your proofreading will be less effective.
  • Read slow, and read every word. Try reading out loud, which forces you to say each word and also lets you hear how the words sound together.
  • Circle every punctuation mark. This forces you to look at each one. As you circle, ask yourself if the punctuation is correct.
  • Proofreading is a learning process. You’re not just looking for errors that you recognize; you’re also learning to recognize and correct new errors. This is where handbooks and dictionaries come in. Keep the ones you find helpful close at hand as you proofread.
  • Ignorance may be bliss, but it won’t make you a better proofreader. You’ll often find things that don’t seem quite right to you, but you may not be quite sure what’s wrong either. If you’re not sure about something, look it up, and don’t be shy about asking others to proofread your work.

Some tips that apply to both editing and proofreading

Get some distance from the text! It’s hard to edit or proofread a work in progress that you’ve just finished writing—it’s still too familiar, and you tend to skip over a lot of errors. Put the paper aside for a few hours, days, or weeks. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King recommends a minimum of 2-3 weeks.

Do something else. Clear your head of what you’ve written so you can take a fresh look at the paper and see what is really on the page. Better yet, give the paper to a friend—you can’t get much more distance than that. Someone who is reading the paper for the first time, comes to it with completely fresh eyes.

Below are some techniques from the University of North Carolina article I reference up top – I highly recommend reading the entire article if you have time.

  • Decide what medium lets you proofread most carefully. Some people like to work on the computer, while others like to sit back with a printed copy that they can mark up as they read.
  • Try changing the look of your document. Altering the size, spacing, color, or style of the text may trick your brain into thinking it’s seeing an unfamiliar document, and that can help you get a different perspective on what you’ve written.
  • Find a quiet place to work. Don’t try to do your proofreading in front of the TV or while you’re chugging away on the treadmill. Find a place where you can concentrate and avoid distractions.
  • If possible, do your editing and proofreading in several short blocks of time, rather than all at once—otherwise, your concentration is likely to wane.
  • If you’re short on time, you may wish to prioritize your editing and proofreading tasks to be sure that the most important ones are completed first.

Whew! Writing this made me feel like I’ve run a marathon already…how about you?

What editing and proofreading techniques have you found the most helpful?

Jenny Hansen fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing. When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter @jhansenwrites and at her group blog, Writers In The Storm.

Thanks so much Jenny for the clear differentiation between editing and proofreading. So many people don’t know these and every piece of writing should go through both processes to create a polished product.

Did you know the differences between editing and proofreading? If not, is it more clear now? What’s the most helpful tip you’ve heard for these two tasks?

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About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Pros Do the Finish Work – Guest post by Jenny Hansen

  1. Hartford says:

    Fantabulous post Jenny (thanks for hosting Nicole…isn’t Jenny like THE best guest poster…love her)! 🙂
    Ah – the joys of editing and proofreading. I always look at them this way. Editing involves a certain amount of rewriting – it’s all about context! While proofreading is straight up grammar, spelling and punctuation without context.
    In journalism school (don’t laugh…), we were taught to actually read all our stories backwards when proofreading. This technique helped us avoid having our brain read it the way it knows it should be even when that’s not the way it’s written. For example, by reading text backwards, one might avoid using the word pubic when one means public (which I did…once…in an organization’s ANNUAL report…a heading no less…yip…not cool)! Time consuming, yes. Effective, yes! 🙂
    Fantastic post and got a lot out of it! Woot woot!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      LOL on the “pubic,” Natalie!! Don’t you just HATE it when you do something like that. I always just want to cringe. Thank God for blogs where we can update them every time we spy and error that our tired eyes missed.

    • Ha ha, He he he – journalism. *snicker*. sorry. I’ll stop now. I’m just kidding. I was taught the read backwards technique in uni too. The “pubic” one is a good catch. 🙂 How embarrassing on an annual report. Woot woot for your great tip and enthusiasm! Thanks Natalie.

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    Thanks for hosing me at WUVC, Nicole!! I feel soooo snazzy and collegiate. 🙂

    I feel like I should go sniff out an online keg party now…

  3. You are EVERYWHERE, Jenny Hansen! Waving HI! to Nicole — who lives in my idea of paradise. Thanks for the link to Sharla Rae’s post, Jenny. I set up a new document with the two sites she recommends and copied/pasted her list of echo words.

    Until I read this post, I considered editing and proofreading synonymous. You covered many of the tricks I use to catch typos. Reading your work aloud is (IMHO) a MUST. The words that flowed gloriously across the written page often sound awkward when read aloud. I catch most cadence errors that way. I also word search you’re and your, its and it’s. I intuitively KNOW correct usage, and have no clue why I often type them incorrectly. Perhaps because my right pinky finger has so little to do? Wants in on the action? Who knows…

    I do have several questions.

    I read everywhere that the semi-colon is a dinosaur and an em dash should be used in its place. But, others caution against the use of em dashes. I know “everything in moderation,” but what’s the scoop on how editors look at these?

    I had concerns when I began my first and only spring contest circuit . I use a variety of rhetorical devices that don’t fit proper English punctuation, paragraphing and sentence structure. Surprisingly, I didn’t get dinged for those. Is the publishing world tolerant of devices used to maintain cadence and tension?

    GREAT post. Back to writing…

    • Hi Gloria,

      Thanks for the comment. You made me laugh with the pinky finger wanting in on the action. Funny.

      Being an editor and proofreader, I can only speak for myself but each person doing these jobs has their own pet peeves. Me for the example, I get crazy with over usage of the comma, but em dashes are alright and the infamous semi-colon has probably been deemed a dinosaur because nobody knows how to use it properly.

      I think if you know how to you use it go for it.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Not EVERYWHERE (thank God!) but in some very fun places. I always love your comments, Gloria. That’s awesome that you do these things naturally…lucky girl. Me? I had to learn them.

      Happy writing!

  4. Pingback: Last Stop Before “Literary Abandon” — ROW80 Check-in | Jenny Hansen's Blog

  5. Love the insider’s view of the contest, Jenny. Always a helpful reminder!!!

    I think I learned the difference b/w proofreading and editing while working as a proofreader in graduate school. I thought I had been hired to proofread dissertation papers before the papers were accepted. However, I learned that many of the graduates believed I was there to edit (or write!) their papers. Oh my word! That was a nightmare.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hey Bridgette! Thanks for popping over to visit. Wow, your proofreader position sounds like the nightmare stuff that great blogs are made from! Please tag me if you decide to write about it, because I want to read it. 🙂

    • Oh I remember being a writing coach for university students. They thought I was there to edit the thing to perfection. Or like you said even give then the ideas to write the paper. They learned what the coaching was about eventually and ended up liking the idea more.

  6. Rose says:

    Really enjoyed this post, it is amazingly written and hearing things from a professional is excellent!

  7. Pingback: Links out loud: blogging, writing, laughing and life – Natalie Hartford

  8. I like your suggestion of changing the look of the document. I switched to “full view” recently and it’s made a big, positive difference–reads more like a page than a screen. Odd as it may sound, I proofread best while moving (a particular learning style, according to a former therapist ;))…so taking printed pages to the gym works well. Thanks for this insightful post!

  9. Tanya Reimer says:

    Yup, this post is dead on. Only thing I do differently is I highlight my punctuation (or I cheat and ask my computer to do it for me.) The punctuation jumps out at me while I read it.

    Will pass this on! A must read.

  10. Nancy Sima says:

    This post is a keeper – thank you! I’m still involved in revisions for my novel but I will definitely keep this post for the editing and proofreading rounds.

  11. Pingback: Writers’ Uni-Verse-City – A semester in review | Nicole Basaraba's Uni-Verse-City

  12. Pingback: Give Your Writing Some Physical Therapy | Jenny Hansen's Blog

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