What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

Sometimes these words are used interchangeably, but there is a very clear difference, especially in the publishing world.

Here’s the short answer:

Editing is finessing the writing.

Proofreading is a calamity check.

Proofreading is the absolute last check to make sure everything is present and correct. In publishing, proofreading is done after the manuscript has been typeset – it’s literally reading the proof. In your writing life, you would proofread before submitting a piece or publishing a post, to make sure no mistakes have slipped through. This is not the time to rewrite a sentence to improve the rhythm, or reconsider a character motivation, that’s editing, and hopefully you’ve already spent some time doing that.

So when it comes time for proofreading, here are some tips and tricks the professionals use.

Print it out

Yes, even if it’s hundreds of pages. In fact ESPECIALLY if it’s hundreds of pages, you need to give your brain and eyeballs the best chance of spotting the errors.

Hold a ruler under each line

This simple trick stops your eye skipping ahead, which it naturally wants to do. This in turn helps you stay on the task longer because you are not straining to stop your eye skipping ahead – the ruler is doing that work for you.

Read it out aloud

I don’t do this for big jobs, but it’s helpful for small ones. I’m not going to print this before I post it, but I am going to read it aloud – slowly.

Use a bright coloured pen

Red is good, but any bright colour will make your corrections stand out. You’ll thank yourself when you are entering them later.

Take regular breaks

You may be keen to power through it, but even a five-minute break can refresh you (get a glass of water, pat the cat/dog, stick your head out the window and see what the weather’s doing). I take a break at least every hour, sometimes more often if it’s heavy going or I’ve been at it for a while.

Give yourself time

I never schedule more than four hours proofreading a day, which can take me about six hours to get through. And then I’m pooped.

Hope this is helpful. Feel free to share.


Is your manuscript ready for a copyedit? Check this handy flowchart to see.

Getting to the end of your first draft is a momentous achievement – definitely one that deserves celebration. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that your work here is done and it’s time to send it off to an editor.

I often receive very raw drafts from writers asking for a  copyedit. So I’ve created this super professional flowchart to give an idea of the level of work that needs to go into a manuscript before it’s ready to copyedit.

This is not a definitive process, but it’s indicative. If you’re not sure what to do next once you’ve typed ‘the end’ for the first time, this could be a handy guide.


Good luck intrepid writer.

Please feel free to share if you found this useful or know someone who might.



Getting to first draft of your business book

You’d be surprised how many ‘first drafts’ I receive that are not first drafts at all. They are what we in the business call brain dumps.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a brain dump. If you prefer to write in flow rather than with a structure, it’s a great way to get raw material down. After all, no writing is wasted writing, it all contributes to the process of expressing your ideas. But those ideas will need to be organised into a logical flow that will take the reader on a journey. In other words ­– they need to be turned into a story. And that’s going to take some time.

A great first step for reviewing a brain dump (or any bit of new writing) is to read it a few days later with highlighter in hand or highlight tool at the ready. Highlight the topic sentence of each paragraph (the topic sentence identifies the central idea ­of the paragraph) then read through the highlighted topic sentences. This will help you see how the ideas are flowing, where you’ve gone off track, where there’s repetition and what needs developing, without getting bogged down in the line-by-line detail (plenty of time for that later).

Don’t worry if your ideas are all over the shop at this stage, that’s standard for a first draft. It’s like when you’re telling an anecdote, you don’t always get the bits in the right order, so you backfill a bit of detail as you go along. The important thing is to identify where your ideas have gone astray so you can start corralling them into some kind of order.

Reviewing your draft like this will help you work out what you are trying to say and what order you want to say it in. It’s a first step in a long journey of writing and reviewing, writing reviewing, writing reviewing … but you know what they say about long journeys.

Good luck intrepid writer.

PS. If you’re writing a business book, you might also find this post handy – Three essential questions to ask before you start writing that business document


Three essential questions to ask before you start writing that business document

Have you ever found yourself totally stumped halfway through writing a paper, briefing or report?

Perhaps you’ve covered all the background and context, made some notes about what you want to say next, but you’re not sure how to proceed. Or worse, you keep going round in circles.

Chances are you’ve not asked yourself these essential questions:

  1. Who is the reader?
  2. What do they already know?
  3. What do they need to know?

Here’s an example:

I had a client who had ground to a halt writing a white paper for her new product. She had plenty of notes on the current state of play and how her training program would address it, but she couldn’t find the right angle. The problem was she was trying to write it for two readers – she was pitching her program at a high level and drilling down to detail in the same document.

Once we worked through the three essential questions, we established that she didn’t need the introduction about the current state of play because the reader was aware of it – in fact that was why they were reading her paper in the first place. We also established that it wasn’t necessary to delve into the machinations of her program; those details belonged in a complementary document.  With those three simple questions, the brief became clear:

Her reader was a high-level busy person such as a CEO (who doesn’t have a lot of reading time).

They already knew they had an issue with staff turnover (so she didn’t need to go into all the stats and facts about how this is an issue for many organisations).

They needed to know that she had a unique way to address this (but they didn’t need to know the details of how that worked).

Here’s another example:

When I ask local government clients whether their document is for councillors or the community, they invariably say ‘both’. But how can that be? Councillors and community members have totally different levels of understanding about the workings of their council. Trying to pitch a document to both is going to get you tied up in knots, and the finished product will possibly bore the pants off both of them.

So if you want your writing to be concise and compelling, try asking the three essential questions before you start (and don’t try to pitch to disparate readers). I guarantee it will help you get to the point (and stick to it) without too much writerly angst.

Happy wordsmithing.

Please feel free to share if you found this useful or know someone who might.


Smooth transitions can help your story flow

Do you feel you need to account for every moment and movement in a scene? I’ve found a lot of new writers do.

But look at this extract from Emily Bitto’s beautiful novel The Strays. The young protagonist has just moved back into her parents’ house after a traumatic experience. She wakes after a deep sleep:

I saw that my suitcase had been brought into my room, and I got up, my head throbbing, and changed my clothes.

My mother was in the kitchen.

‘You slept a long time. You must have needed it.’

What an elegant transition. The writer doesn’t need to tell us that she goes into the kitchen after she dresses, it’s clear – and cleaner – without it.

Here’s the rest of the scene:

‘Where is everyone?’

‘Gone to church.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Almost eleven. Are you hungry?’

I nodded and found myself abruptly in my new life.


In early drafts it’s likely that you will include more detail than is needed. This is perfectly understandable; you are still working out what’s going on and what’s important. But as you review your work, keep an eye out for where you can pare back information to allow the key elements to shine, and to let the story flow.

Good luck intrepid writer, and enjoy the adventure.



The magic of reading and how head hopping can break the spell

I’ve just finished reading a book in which about 90% of the story was from the point of view of the central character, Jo, (limited third person narrator) then every now and then it would slip into the mind of someone else (omniscient narrator).

I’d be right there with Jo as she was struggling to navigate her relationships with her moody teenage daughter or her new man, then the narrator would tell me what her daughter or lover, or even a minor character, was thinking, and the spell was broken. I became aware of the writer’s presence and Jo became a character rather than a person whose journey I was sharing.

If I were the editor of this book, first I would lavish it with praise for its fresh energetic voice, its rounded characters and its magnificent sense of place, then I would gently ask the author why she chose to tell us what was going on in other characters’ minds, rather than hinting at it through their actions.

The contract a writer enters into with a reader is a delicate one. Your reader agrees to believe in the characters you have invented, and you promise to take them on a journey with those characters. For the magic to happen, you need to trust your reader (and the power of your writing) to find their way and make the connections, just as the reader has trusted you to tell them the story in the first place.

It’s tempting to direct your readers every step of the way, but the reading experience can be so much more powerful if you melt into the background and allow your reader to become fully immersed in the story and the characters’ experiences.

Good luck intrepid writer, keep making the magic.


Same sex marriage survey and the semicolon

When I posted this on facebook the night of the marriage survey results, I got a number of responses from friends agreeing with the sentiment (we have the lefty gen X ambivalence to marriage) but my favourite comment was ‘nice use of the semicolon’.

I thought so too, so I was secretly glad he noticed.

I could have separated the two statements with a comma, or made them two separate sentences, but neither of these were quite right, I needed the subtle power of the semicolon to show the relationship of these two observations. This is when a semicolon is at the height of its powers, separating and joining at the same time. It keeps things close, but not too close.

As The Style Manual says:

… although the semicolon is often neglected, it is a very useful punctuation mark and, properly employed, can bring elegance and variety to your writing.

‘Properly employed’ in this context means that:

  1. it’s used to separate clauses, not phrases or single words
  2. the clauses on either side are of equal weight, maybe even symbiotic.

Even though writing fashion is shifting towards lighter punctuation, I think there will always be a place for this lovely little mark that does so much with so little.

Of all the things to come out of Wednesday’s postal vote survey result, I bet you never thought one of them would be an ode to the semicolon.

Two-minute tip: check your spell check settings

If your document has uppercase headings, check they are not going to be overlooked by spell check (which happened to me this week … eek!).

Here’s an example (strangely close to my real-life experience, but words have been changed to protect the innocent).


Settings are found in the spelling and grammar dialogue box under options.


And here’s the culprit.


As you probably know, spell check is a handy but fickle friend – useful for a final sweep but not to be totally relied upon, especially if the settings are not quite right.


Journey of a book

Every book has a different journey from idea to shelf, but I’m sure there are some commonalities.

When Nichola Scurry, an author I worked with over a couple of years,  asked me to speak at the launch of her debut novel, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew a lot about her book but not much about her journey writing it, except that it had started off as a sort of memoir, and that she wanted to self publish. So I took that idea and made up the rest.

Here’s what I said (with the preface that it was an imagined journey). I wonder if some of it resonates with you.

A woman sits at her writing desk, looking through what she’s written over the last few months, heart hammering. She’s just had a little thrill of an idea. She wonders if what started as a sort of memoir to share with family, could actually become a novel.

She’s never written a novel before, but she’s read plenty. How hard can it be?

A woman sits with her writing group, heart hammering. She’s about to workshop for the first time. Maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll say it’s rubbish. It probably is rubbish. Yesterday she thought it was quite good, but today she’s almost definitely certain it’s rubbish.

They don’t hate it. They like bits, offer ideas, see potential that she hadn’t noticed. She gets a little thrill, maybe this is going to work out after all.

So… many more workshops, quite a few drafts and an unspecified number of years later, it’s done. It’s a novel.

Time for an editor. She sends it off, heart hammering. Maybe it’s rubbish. It probably is rubbish. Yesterday she thought it was quite good, but today she’s almost definitely certain it’s rubbish.

The editor doesn’t think it’s rubbish. But she does think it needs work. There’s more work? My god, will this ever end?

So… she works her way through the editor’s assessment, slashing and burning precious scenes that apparently ‘aren’t adding to the story’ (editors are such sadists), reworking story lines, rewriting chapters.

She workshops new material with the editor, writes some more, edits some more, writes edits writes edits writes edits. My god will this ever end?

Well apparently it does end. Because here we are. After a round of copyediting and reviewing the editor’s suggestions,

a round of proofreading,


cover design,

getting an ISBN and CIP,

finding a printer,

setting up online distribution,

developing a social media author profile,

arranging a book launch,

publicising the book launch,

making sure that she doesn’t forget to invite anyone to the book launch,

getting weary self and boxes of books to the book launch…

well actually… it’s not the end at all.

It’s the beginning.

The beginning of Dot’s story being out there, on bedside tables, on trams and trains, at cafés, on the beach, in holiday suitcases.

It’s been a long journey, no doubt with its ups and downs, but she made it.

Dot’s out of your hands now Nic, and she’s about to make her way into people’s hearts. She’s a great character with a funny and poignant story, and I know people are going to enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it.


It’s an exciting journey, with ups and downs and downs and ups, but ultimately ups. Keep writing, scheming and dreaming intrepid writer, and may your book find its rightful place on many people’s bookshelves and bedside tables.


This week I’m in love with … this passage about memory by Hannah Kent

It’s a silent memory, and one, like the others, I can’t quite trust. Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts talking over one another.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rights

No wonder this book won so many hearts as well as awards. What an astonishing debut novel. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve not, put it on your list.

Fancy reading a sample chapter of her new book The Good People? (Yes please!) Here’s a link.