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Why the best proofreaders aren't always the best writers

There's a big difference between drafting and editing, and editing and proofreading. Why then do so many writers try to do all three at the same time?

If you're the kind of writer who plans their work meticulously, knows exactly what they want to say and can bash out a first draft in moments, you don't need to read this article.

If, on the other hand, you ponder long and hard over the first paragraph, and won't move on until every sentence, word and punctuation mark is right, this one is for you.

There are three very different stages of writing, each involving a different set of skills and purposes. And if you try to do all three at once, you'll end up doing none of them terribly well.

Don't get it right, get it written

Loads of writers struggle with a first draft because they want it - expect it - to read well from the start. It is only a first draft. Don't worry if it doesn't sound great.

Silence that annoying little voice in your head that's saying, "That doesn't sound right. The client won't like that. You've used that word twice. You don't know that for certain." The aim is to just write something. Anything. You can tidy it up, find better words, check your facts, and move things around at the editing stage. 

Murder your darlings

Once you've got yourself a half-decent draft, you can start the editing process.

Editing means different things to different people. But, in essence, it's about making the draft copy better. Better in terms of putting paragraphs in the right order, tightening up sentences so they flow more easily, losing unnecessary words, and making sure the message is clear.

Editors are always telling authors to 'murder their darlings'. In other words, lose all the flowery stuff the author loves but which adds nothing to the story. That could include replacing horrible clichés with sincerity, getting rid of unneccessary adjectives, replacing jargon with simple words and losing whole chunks of irrelevant information.

What it doesn't include is looking for typos, inconsistencies and poor grammar. That's proofreading.

Look for mistakes only

The problem with asking a creative writer or an editor to proofread anything is they can't resist making changes. They're too subjective. They change things not because something is wrrong but because it's not how they'd say it themselves.

Proofreading is purely objective. It's either right or it isn't. Any subjective changes should be made at the drafting stage.

Why? Because when you've already spent days/weeks writing a document, getting everyone's feedback, making everyone's changes, and chasing your client/manager for approval, the last thing you want is some proofreader rewriting parts because they wouldn't write it that way themselves!

Draft. Edit. Proofread - to find mistakes only - in that order.

As for proofreading your own work? Avoid it if you can. We're hopeless at spotting our own mistakes. We knew what we meant and we simply see what we want.

If you must edit and proofread your own work, leave as much time as possible between each of the three stages.

How to edit and proofread other people's work

Proofreading and editing other people's work isn't easy. It can often feel like a thankless task. It's difficult, time consuming and few people appreciate being told their work is full of mistakes or that you've had to chop it in half.

That's why the PRCA has introduced a new half-day workshop. You'll learn:

  • The differences between editing and proofreading
  • The role of structure and message in writing good copy
  • How to cut copy and make the mesage stronger
  • How to replace empty words with clichés with useful words and sincerity
  • Why verbs are more important than adjectives
  • Common grammattical errors and how to prevent them
  • The skills required to be an effective proofreader
  • The importance of style guides

You can find out more about Proofing and editing other people's writing here.

Lorraine Forrest-Turner is a writer and communications skills trainer. She runs several training courses for the PRCA, including Proofing and editing other people's writing and Honing your copywriting skills.