Editor Versus Proofreader: Which is Right for an Author?

In this vast, new world of the indie publishing, authors are now finding themselves wearing many new hats. No longer are we just the wielder of the pen creating worlds and characters out of words and imagination, we are now finding ourselves also becoming graphic artists, editors, formatters, promoters, and marketing gurus. Many times, however, we either do not have the time or the expertise to fill all these roles, opting instead to hire someone who can polish our work to perfection with just the right flare.

Naturally, this influx of indie authors into the literary and publishing world means more and more people are opening up their own side businesses to try to fill the need the self-publishing boom has created. Freelancers are now offering their expertise as graphic cover artists, formatters, editors, and proofreaders to those authors who are in need of their services.

But what if, as an author, you don’t really know what you need? Unfortunately, in the self-publishing business, not knowing can mean the difference between getting a quality, finished service, and getting parted from your hard-earned money without the polished product you were expecting. In this article, we explore the difference between an editor and a proofreader.


In short, a proofreader goes through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb and corrects any and all typographical, punctuation, and grammatical errors. Think of them as spell checks with fingers. They go beyond what a normal spell-checker program can pick up to ensure capitalization and punctuation are used correctly, correct word  usage (‘two’ versus ‘to’, ‘too’, etc.), subject/verb agreement, and ensures there are no shifting tenses. When a proofreader is done, your manuscript should be free of any typographical, punctuation, and grammatical errors. A proofreader does not necessarily point out inconsistencies in your storyline or plot holes, but are really just there to find the obvious grammatical and punctuation errors.

Proofreaders generally charge by the word, and they can range greatly between freelancers, companies, and individuals with their own sole proprietorship. I’ve seen everything from $0.005 to $0.008 per word with some going as high as $0.14 per word or about $35/hour. It can get expensive very quickly, and this is not for anything other than basic grammar and spell check.


Now let’s discuss editing. This is where I’m seeing a LOT of misuse of the word in the freelance and indie author community. A lot of authors are using the term ‘editor’ and ‘proofreader’ interchangeably, and are hiring freelancers who are calling themselves editors and charging editor pricing, but are actually just delivering proofreader performance.

Some will argue authors actually need to hire both a proofreader AND an editor because they offer separate services. Others will state while an editor can do everything a proofreader can do, a proofreader is not an editor. I tend to agree with the latter. As an author, you need someone who can not only polish out the typographical and grammatical errors, but also someone who can help fine-tune your writing style and syntax to ensure your story is the absolute best it can be. Most editors, however, will not help with proofreading-type duties and will stick to just helping with sentence structure and an overall development of writing style.

So exactly what does an editor do? An editor goes one step beyond proofreading to help a writer ‘find their style.’ They help with the overall flow of the language and often will rewrite portions of the manuscript so the style stays consistent throughout. They help clear up ambiguity and syntax problems. In essence, it takes more than just a strong background in English and goes beyond finding mere typographical errors. An editor also has a measure of intuition and knows what looks and sounds right on the page. A professional editor will not only clean up the grammatical and punctuation errors, but will also use his/her knowledge of English grammar and the literary world to ensure your manuscript sounds its absolute best.

Editing can further be broken out into line edits (or a general editor, as some refer to them) and copy editing. While these types of edits share a lot of similarities, there are also a lot of differences and are handled in different ways, and once again require different skill sets.

LINE EDITS: Line edits address the writing style, the creative content of the work, and the language/syntax used at the sentence, or line-by-line, level. However, the goal is not to look for errors (again, that is technically what a proofreader does) but to help a writer develop his/her writing style, to help with sentence structure, and to ensure the writing flows smoothly. A line editor may call attention to run-on sentences, overused words and sentences, can pin-point words or phrases that are being overused or not needed (for example, I had an editor point out I used the filler word “that” entirely too much in my writing). They help find redundancies in description, help tightened up scenes (show, not tell), and can help with dialogue. In essence, an editor is not just finding mistakes in any given manuscript, but is going to help point out all the things which can be improved in your future manuscripts to help you become a better writer and a better storyteller.

COPY EDITING: A copy editor is more like a very high-end proofreader. They help read out typographical, spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.They also work much like a formatter to ensure font styles and formatting structure. In addition, they help weed out inconsistencies in the storyline, such as a character whose physical traits were mistakenly changed in the manuscript, plot holes, etc.

It is the job of the copy editor to fix your typos, your inconsistencies in your storyline, and your punctuation. It is for this reason that a copy edit should always come after a line edit, once the storyline has been completely finished and is ready for a fine-tuning.

This is where I feel both freelancers and unknowing authors fall into a trap. Authors need someone who can do both, or if they cannot find someone who can do both, they need to learn the difference. If given a choice, an author really needs to hire a line editor and copy editor and skip a proofreader altogether if budget permits. If not, then a line editor followed by a really good proofreader is in order. In the trade publishing industry, publishers hire editors who can not only clean up your typos, but they will also help you develop your writing style. In the land of the indie author, many freelancers are claiming to be ‘editors’ but are actually only offering proofreading services, and some of them are not up to par on the proofreading services either.

As an author, it is your responsibility to not only know the difference, but to be sure you are hiring someone who not only also knows the difference, but who is providing you with the service you are requesting. In the end, you only get one chance to make a good first impression on your reader. As the author, that responsibility ultimately falls on your shoulders. Not ensuring your work is polished to perfection can mean the difference between being a one-book author, and having real staying power with a reputation among your readers as an author who consistently provides the absolutely best quality work possible.


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