Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Editing and Proofreading

Chapter 4: Lesson 3

Editing. Proofreading. What are they exactly—and what's the difference? Some people use the terms interchangeably, but the two actions differ in their focus. Editing focuses on making sentences and phrases more understandable and accessible whileproofreading focuses on searching for typos, missing words, misspellings, and other small errors. Editing and proofreading are separate but equally important parts of the writing process; both help you improve the clarity and presentation of your writing.

Common Editing and Clarity Issues
The following are common editing and clarity issues many writers have. You may recognize some of these from your own past writing—most writers do.

Passive Voice
One common clarity issue is overusing the passive voice. Occasionally, you’ll need to use passive voice, which consists of a to be verb (is, am, was, are, will, be, etc.) and the past participle of a main verb. This form often isn’t necessary, however, and, since it can be wordy, avoid it when possible. Whenever you can, use active verbs alone to paint the picture for your readers. Compare these two sentences as an example:

  • With passive verb: Baking chocolate is needed to make these cookies.
  • With active verb: A pastry chef needs baking chocolate to make these cookies.

For more on these kinds of verbs, see Active and Passive Voice.

Relying on To Be Verbs
Using various forms of to be can make your writing less active. Although to be by itself isn’t passive, it doesn’t have the same action or energy as most other verbs, so look for other options when possible. You might need to be creative! For example:

  • To be verb:  I’m hot
  • Active verb: I’m melting in the Florida heat
  • To be verb:  Mom will be excited to see us
  • Active verb:  Mom will turn flips when she sees us!

For more on verbs of being, see Being and Linking Verbs.

Padded Sentences
A “padded” sentence is the written equivalent of talking a lot but not saying much. Here's an example:

As one continues on with the reading of the novel, due to the fact that the author may be using some symbolism, one could or could not begin to notice that the main character's house at least somewhat symbolizes the world in which we live.

This sentence is confusing and convoluted, possibly because the writer isn't sure what to say about the novel's symbolism. If the writer avoids padding the sentence, it might read like this:

In the novel, the main character's house symbolizes the world.

You’ll often see “hedge words” and phrases as padding, too:

Padded: I think that this author is encouraging readers to perform a nightly rain dance.
Revised:  This author is encouraging readers to perform a nightly rain dance.

Padded:  In my essay, I’m going to argue that cats are better pets than frogs.
Revised:  Cats are better pets than frogs.

Big or Fancy Words
Writers sometimes believe using fancier or more complex words will make their writing more academic or formal, but this usually isn't the case: readers are more interested in discussion than vocabulary. You can write The students conversed with their instructor, but it's more effective to write, The students talked to their instructor. Whenever a simple word will work, use the simple word. It's often the more effective choice!

Common Proofreading Issues
The following are common proofreading issues that all writers—even professionals—watch for as they work toward their final drafts.

Missing Words
Many times, ideas flow quickly when you’re composing a first draft. During that phase, it's easy to leave out a word, such as in this sentence:

The students realized teacher appreciated talking to them.

The sentence is missing the word the between realized and teacher. Since the is a short word and doesn't affect the sentence's main idea, readers often automatically insert the word as they skim the sentence, even if the word isn’t actually there.

Errors a Spellchecker Won't Catch
Many people have seen the poem that explains how a spellchecker works, which includes the following play on words: “To rite with care is quite a feet / Of witch won should bee proud.” Since a spellchecker only marks misspelled words, it won't mark misused words, such as rite instead of write or witch instead of which. Rite and witch are both spelled correctly, even though the words are incorrectly used in the poem. For more help in this area, check out Spelling Strategies or Common Homophones and Homonyms.

Personal Patterns of Grammatical Error
Even seasoned writers have certain writing hang-ups. Some writers have trouble with fragments while others overuse commas. For examples on correcting errors like these, refer to Top 10 Writing Concerns. Knowing your personal patterns of error will help you learn which issues you need to focus on more closely as you proofread.

Strategies for Editing and Proofreading
Try the following strategies, noting which option(s) work(s) most effectively and efficiently for your writing process. Most writers follow this order when proofreading, saving the last few strategies as a last resort You might want to experiment with using multiple strategies since every writer—and every writing assignment—is different!

Have a Friend Read Your Work Aloud While You Follow Along With a Printed Copy
This technique is a valuable way to hear how the work sounds to a reader who may not be familiar with the material or your writing style. Mark places where your friend has trouble smoothly reading sentences so that you know where to revise for clarity. As you listen to your friend and read along, you're also more likely to notice proofreading errors.

Read the Paper in Reverse Order
Print out a copy of your essay, and grab a blank sheet of paper for this exercise. Cover everything but the last sentence of your essay with the blank sheet of paper; then, read just the last sentence of your paper. Note any errors or confusing phrases you want to revise. Move the blank paper up so the second-to-last sentence is visible, and read that sentence. Reading in reverse order takes the sentences out of context, so it's easier to spot editing or proofreading errors.

Keep a Dictionary Handy
Refer to the dictionary—or a dictionary app—whenever you need to double-check the meaning or usage of a word. Having the dictionary nearby, either in book-form or online, allows you to access it as you're editing. For more information, refer to Using a Dictionary or Thesaurus.

Revisit the Work Later
Coming back to your essay after 24 hours—or 24 minutes—can be a great way to gain a fresh perspective. Writers are more likely to notice typos or awkward sentences after taking a break from the writing process.

Proofread a Printed Version
Reading a printed version allows you to mark errors as you read. Try placing a ruler under each line to maintain focus on only a single line or sentence. This approach also gives you a “new” perspective since the computer screen is removed.

Highlight or Darken the Text Background on a Computer Screen
When proofreading on a computer screen, highlight each sentence or darken the sentence’s background as you read. Use the Text Highlighter tool in your word-processing program to change the color of the document’s background for a single sentence. Changing the background helps maintain focus on just that single sentence.

Keep an Error Log
Noting which errors occur most often in your writing will help you to improve your proofreading. You'll learn your personal patterns of error so you can devote more attention to those patterns during the editing and proofreading stages. See Keeping a Writer’s Error Log for a sample.

Read the Work Aloud
Reading the essay aloud may help you focus on each sentence so that you can hear awkward phrasing or other issues. Since you’re reading aloud, you’ll also read more slowly, which may help you catch proofreading errors.

Think About It

  • Which elements should you focus on during the editing stage?
  • Which elements need attention during proofreading?
  • Which writing issue(s) should you regularly check for?
  • Which editing and proofreading techniques benefit you most?

Editing and proofreading helps you to polish your writing assignments to improve your clarity and presentation. Every reader appreciates clear, error-free writing!