“Proofreading is the last stage of the editing process; writing must be PROFESSIONALLY EDITED before it can be proofread.”

Imagine your car needs a service. You call a (reputable) mechanic. “How much for a service?”

“What year and model?” the mechanic asks.

Based on the information you provide, the quote is $250. The price includes an oil and filter change, checking the lights, topping up fluids, and checking the brakes and tyre treads. But what if he discovers the head gasket needs changing? Your $250 service is now going to cost over $1000. That’s non-negotiable if you want your car to remain roadworthy. You may decide to go ahead with the additional work, or not. If you want your car to keep running, you really have no choice. The point is you wouldn’t expect the extra work to be included in the service price.

Every day, I receive emails and calls asking me how much I charge for ‘proofreading’. But nine times out of 10 when I see the work, I have to inform the client it is at least a copyediting job – sometimes with structural editing or even a little writing work thrown in.

That’s why I think it’s important to explain what ‘proofreading’ is, or more importantly, what it is not.

The Oxford Dictionary defines proofreading as to “Read (printer’s proofs or other written or printed material) and mark any errors.”( Marking errors could mean anything from noting a missing full-stop to checking for misaligned margins, inconsistent line spacing or imperceptible spelling mistakes the copy editor has missed (we’re all human). But what if your work has many errors and needs much more work than you realise? Perhaps your story doesn’t make sense, or the grammar is back to front (and inside out)? Perhaps English is not your first language and you struggle with its structure and nuances.

IPEd (Institute of Professional Editors Limited) states proofreading “…involves checking that the document is ready to be published…” (

In short, proofreading is a final check of a document that has already been edited. It’s the last of three stages of editing. These are the first two:

Structural or substantive editing: Checking structure, content, continuity, style, voice, language – including the correct form of English has been used throughout. Many people confuse Australian English with US English and use the wrong version, or a curious mix of both!

Copyediting: Ensuring grammar and spelling is consistent and correct throughout the document.

Writers, students, businesses and NGOs, before you jump on the phone or email an editor or proofreader to ask for a ‘proofreading’ quote, consider the following:

  1. Don’t assume it just needs a proofread. I wish I had a dollar for every person who told me his or her work has “already been edited” and just needs a “final polish” – only to discover the work actually needs a substantial edit.
  2. Ask yourself, “Has my document already been edited?” Don’t count the read-through done by your friend/neighbour/colleague/partner unless he/she is a professional editor! If not, it’s likely to need at least a copyedit.
  3. If you’re unsure – ask a professional! Email the work or an excerpt of it for assessment. Editors and proofreaders are inherently helpful; it’s our business (and passion) to improve people’s writing! Email it to the prospective editor/proofreader so they can ascertain what level of editing it needs: structural, copyedit, or proofread. Depending on the answer, for example, if you send it to a proofreader and it needs a structural edit, you may be told he/she cannot provide this service. They should be able to refer you to someone who can.
  4. Does what you’re prepared to pay equate to what you want to achieve? One reason people say their work only needs ‘proofreading’ is because they assume (or hope) it will be much cheaper than editing. Naturally, proofreading rates are less than other levels of editing, but what outcome do you wish to achieve? You can send a badly written manuscript or thesis to an editor or proofreader and insist you only want it proofread. But what happens when you submit your manuscript to a publisher or agent? Will it impress? No! Perhaps you’re self-publishing and don’t think it really matters. But if people buy your book and it’s riddled with plot-holes — will they recommend it? No! Will they buy your next story? No! All your hard work writing the book will have been for nothing – or at least, a lot less than your effort was worth. What about submitting a poorly written thesis*? Will you lose marks? Of course!

*Editorial assistance with academic work is limited to copyediting and proofreading. For more information on academic editing, see

In summary:

  • Be realistic about how good your writing is (and don’t rely on family and friends for an honest, objective opinion). How much writing experience do you have? How good are your English skills, really?
  • Perfection cannot be rushed. A PhD thesis or a novel cannot be proofread let alone edited in the blink of an eye – even a professional one. Think how long it takes you to read a page of a novel. Then imagine reading it whilst searching for errors and making sense of the story. Editors and proofreaders are used to working to exacting deadlines, but we are human: we need to sleep, we need to eat, we have families, there are interruptions, and we have other clients! If you want a job well done, give as much notice as possible.
  • Put money aside. Don’t expect your first 300-page novel to be ‘proofread’ for $200. Start thinking about editorial services early on. Do you want someone you can meet in person, or are you happy to use an editor who is interstate or overseas? Either way, it’s important you feel a good rapport and are comfortable with them.Note: If you are considering using ‘cheap’ overseas services – particularly in countries where English is not the first language — don’t expect the same quality of work or level of service – you get what you pay for.

Remember – Proofreading is the last stage of the editing process; writing must be PROFESSIONALLY EDITED before it can be proofread. Happy writing!

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