Last time, we promised a treatment of editing vs. proofreading. Both involve improving a draft, but there are major differences. There are even two types of editing: macro-editing (reorganizing sections, supplying new text, etc.) and line-editing (making sentence-level improvements, such as enhancing word choices and rewording sentences so that, to the extent possible, each one ends with punch).
Proofreading involves intense concentration to spot and fix errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The spelling of proper names, book titles, and foreign terms must all receive scrutiny. Double-checking the accuracy of dates, quotations, and citations is also vitally important. A good proofreader notices inconsistencies, such as capitalizing Internet on one page but not on the next. Proofreading is more minute than line-editing.
If you’re asked to improve a piece of writing, you should understand the assignment. Are you being asked to rethink structure (macro-editing) as well as everything else? Are you being asked to improve phrasing sentence by sentence (line-editing)? Or are you being asked only to eliminate errors (proofreading)? The answer may well depend on how close you are to the deadline.
If you’re alert to the circumstances, you’ll intuit the extent of your task, as well as the receptivity of the person whose work you’re editing. Then, like a good ER physician, you’ll diagnose what most urgently needs doing, within the confines of your assignment. On a tight deadline, you’ll be involved in triage.
At a minimum, that will always involve eliminating every outright error you find—but not changing stylistic points involving judgment calls. If you’re accused of being nitpicky, your best response is, “But who wants nits?”