The misnomer of editing and proofreading in the hands of a freelance academic advisor

“I’m thrilled to have another guest post by Lynda O’Brien here. This post is a sequel to her previous one: Is written feedback a waste of time? University students say they read it, their lecturers think they don’t. You can read this follow-up post without having read the first one, but I strongly recommend both readings. They will make you think about the feedback you give: why you do (or don’t do) certain things, how you react (or don’t react) to your students’ work. Sit back, enjoy, and because we’re talking about feedback, a final note: it would be lovely to see readers’ comments here!”

Denise Santos
Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

I think one of the many good things to have emerged in our now much clichéd digital world must be the blog. Over its many years of existence and different reasons for its use, blogging still remains a place where people can share their interests. So, for me it means not only that I can write about what interests me and then see what others think (or not), as opposed to my academic writing where I must provide some sort of empirical evidence to show others why I think the way I do, but also that I can use words that I wouldn’t use in an academic text. Words like things, sometimes, and interesting. Or think, obviously, and interesting! Finding alternatives for most of these words isn’t too difficult, but what about interesting? I don’t recall who it was who warned me to avoid referring to anything as interesting in an academic text without immediate contextualisation and evidence to support such a subjective notion, but sometimes things are simply interesting, and one interesting thing can lead to another.

Obviously (!), all readers of Denise’s blog have some interest in language/s and its/their use… as teachers, academics, publishers, writers, and of course as users. I have little doubt that for most this interest remains strong even as workplace roles change and limit the number of interests it’s possible to maintain on a professional level. I certainly discovered this to be the case when I began writing this second post for Denise. It was only as I struggled to see an end point to what I was writing that I realised what my point actually was.  I was trying to answer a question which arose from my last post. Readers may recall that in January, in response to an invitation from Denise, I wrote about my research into the written feedback on academic assignments given to university students who are non-native English speakers (NNES).  A question arose from that post and I found that the answer was probably more interesting than having any application in any concrete way. In fact, the answer could vary quite broadly, depending on who does the answering (obviously). But for me the question is interesting because it made me think way beyond the meaning of the words in question and much more about how the cultural and situational contexts in which they are used can, and do, impact on the willingness of individuals, and/or groups, to engage with them. Thus, any answer lies in my background in applied linguistics, rather than in my teaching background. Interested? Read on.

So what’s the question?

What is the difference between proofreading, editing, and providing feedback?

The question surprised me at first and I thought the answer was simple. But, it stirred me to reflect more deeply on my role as an independent academic advisor – especially, on why I use the terms proofreading and editing (as opposed to any reference to feedback) to explain my work and help students realise the limits of what is ethically possible for me to do for them.

Here, some further contextualisation may be useful.  After completing my PhD in the UK and teaching both native (NES) and non-native English speakers (NNES) there for several years, I moved to China where, as part of my role, I introduced the concept of writing groups for PhD students, the majority of whom are NNES. When it came time for me to leave China, I chose to offer similar advice and support to students by becoming a freelancer where my aim is to provide the expertise needed to “get your academic style right” (my attempt at a catchphrase to go with the name of my website Write Academic Style). It’s worth noting that I also worked as my department’s research ethics officer in China where any research undertaken by my colleagues required the university’s ethical approval. This experience means I am also well acquainted with the limits to which I can support students with their writing. I hope that from this brief background readers may understand my sense of justification of what I perceive to be the difference in terms often used as a means to attract students to seek specific help from resources outside of the university, and why I find it interesting.

Facing criticisms and understanding requirements

On reflection, I can see that at the root of criticism of what are often advertised as editing and proofreading services (the heaviest criticism is generally, and fairly, aimed at essay mills), is the concern sometimes expressed by university lecturers that their students rely too heavily on resources outside of the university to help them write their assignments.  These resources may range from a friend who reads their work and offers an opinion, through to companies which offer to actually write students’ assignments for them – usually with little or no effort from the students, except for parting with a great deal of money and risking their academic future. The latter is a practice apparently further impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as seen in this article in Times Higher Education.

My research and teaching background meant that when I began to work independently five years ago, my aim was to help students better understand the requirements of their lecturers, not simply to check their work for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, or for structural issues alone. I certainly have evidence of what it is that lecturers expect of their students, not simply from personal experience and casual chat with colleagues, but from interviews with lecturers conducted during my original research. Although hardly representative of all lecturers, the various responses to the question “what do you perceive to be your role in providing written feedback?” reveal an unsurprising pattern…


One role [of written feedback] is to provide them with ideas or suggestions for improvement; they’re not developing a critical analytical approach to their studies.


I’m trying to get them to show more originality.


I want them to think about how to improve that descriptive work.


I’m trying to help them think better, which is the more transferable skill because subject knowledge is not necessarily transferable. Yes, we’re trying to make them better thinkers.


I want them to demonstrate skills of analysis and a critical assessment of the reading they’ve done.

Clearly, the predominant responsibility these lecturers express is that their written feedback should help their students to think, to apply that thinking in a critical manner, and (although only in example (1)) to improve future work.  This certainly accords with Lea and Street (2000, p. 40) who write of lecturers’ requirements of student writing as needing to “critically analyse… evaluate… reach a synthesis”, and who add that these are “descriptive tools [which] could not be explicated further” by the lecturers. In other words, these are great requirements, but how do you explain them to students for them to be met? So, while the visions expressed by these lecturers about their role is commendable, the desired effect seems to remain problematic.

Teacher first, editor second. What’s in a definition?

I am primarily a teacher. I am not trained to provide editorial instructions to a publisher. Neither am I, nor my students, trained in the use of standard proofreading symbols sometimes used by editors in the publishing industry. So, while I explain (both on my website and in the next paragraph) that the proofreading and editing I undertake differ from each other, it’s inevitable that what I actually provide is more closely aligned with written feedback designed to improve students’ future writing, not only their current piece of writing.

Thus, while I claim (and thus, define) that when I proofread a text it is to ensure the work contains no spelling, grammar, punctuation or typing errors, and also that it uses accurate vocabulary, I add that when I edit a text a deeper level of correction is involved which aims to improve the overall style of the writing, including cohesion and coherence. There are a myriad of such definitions given online, and it’s fair to say that my definitions differ minimally from anyone else’s, see for example definitions in the Cambridge online dictionary for editing and proofreading. However, a publishing editor has a very different role from that of a commentator on student writing, especially in terms of changing, even physically writing, content. Cristina do Vale’s recent post on Denise’s blog site traces her editing role through the process of textbook production, which is in marked contrast to the work I do.

However, for the students who took part in my research the notion of applying the expectations seen above as essential by their lecturers and then demonstrating that application in an essay was not as straightforward as simply responding to the written feedback comments they received, even though their lecturers saw this as the purpose of their feedback. The lecturers involved were passionate about guiding their students through their degree programme but, as they despaired that students didn’t read their feedback, the students despaired that they didn’t know what to do with the feedback, even believing (on rare occasions) that their lecturers had not actually read their work.

For students the connection between the provided feedback (or feedforward), the original writing, and lecturers’ expectations appears to be missing, so that by the time the Taiwanese students in my year-long study completed their master’s programme they expressed disappointment at what they perceived to be a lack of support via a medium they had expected to be very useful. It’s important to note that these students had no previous experience of receiving written feedback before beginning master’s level study in the UK. Their expectations of their lecturers seemed somewhat dependence-driven, perhaps unsurprising given their cultural context of learning in Taiwan. Certainly, it was the students who best adjusted to the new situational context of learning they all faced who gained the most from written feedback.

It is perhaps relevant here to note that Hyland (1998, p. 208) showed, in the multiple-draft setting of an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course, that ‘the teachers were aware of the individual students… and tailored their feedback according to their prediction of the student’s possible response’. However, the anonymous marking systems adopted in the disciplines does not allow lecturers to fashion written feedback to best address the needs and understandings of individual students. Even should the marking system allow lecturers to identify individual student’s work, lecturers have neither the opportunity, nor the time, to build the type of relationship with each student that such personalised feedback content would require.   Also, given the numbers of students for whom module lecturers mark essays, such individual attention is not feasible on university degree courses… the cohort I worked with numbered over 100 students.  This certainly highlights a need for which students turn to outside sources to address. While some lecturers may suggest students have their work proofread, I’m not at all convinced that this is what students need, or that it is what their lecturers actually mean. This is why I explain the difference between proofreading and editing when I receive enquiries, but it doesn’t explain why I don’t call it ‘providing feedback’.

So, it’s just semantics? Yes, but…

Back to the original question: What’s the difference between editing, proofreading, and providing feedack? Perhaps it’s ‘simply semantics’ and I should not hesitate to call my work feedback. But, given the reactions from my small (n.9) research group, added to results over a number of years from the UK’s National Student Survey (NSS) on assessment and feedback, the word feedback may have negative connotations with which many are unwilling to engage. (The NSS provides a national measure of students satisfaction with their courses; in terms of assessment and feedback it is refreshing to see satisfaction continues to rise, in 2019 and 2020 this element achieved a satifaction score of 73%.)

The problem with addressing the original question by claiming ‘it’s simply semantics’, suggests not only that semantics is not interesting (really?) and the argument is purely academic, but also ignores the fact that language has prosody. For many NNES university students its seems that the term ‘feedback’ has negative semantic prosody, and that makes it not only interesting but raises more questions about the little bits of language we use the meaning of which we assume to be the same for all (those readers who are not monolingual have every right to dispute that last bit, but this is a blog post and there’s no need for pedancy, methinks/hopes).

While this is all very interesting, isn’t there a simple answer to the question? Probably. When I was creating my new role as an independent academic advisor, I realised that my own sense of the meaning of the term feedback on student writing, its semantic prosody, is reserved for what those students’ lecturers provide, not something for which they require an outside resource to provide. But, it was probably also influenced by the fact that the word feedback had such clear negative connotations for the students who took part in my research, why would I use it to offer the type of help and advice they believe they’ve already received and not understood? So, I’ll stick with proofreading and editing… and with my form of feedback/forward which is really a mixture of all three.

Isn’t it interesting that a question about definitions has led my thoughts to the concept of semantic prosody and now to consider how I can use that knowledge to better advise my students? Well, if not so interesting for you, perhaps it’s made you think… at the very least about the word interesting. Now it simply remains for me to send this to Denise for her to perform her magic with editing and proofreading for publication. I’m looking forward to her feedback, it will be… interesting.


Hyland, F. (1998). The impact of teacher written feedback on individual writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 7 (3), 255-286.

Lea, M., & Street, B. (2000). Student writing and staff feedback in higher education: an academic literacies approach. In M. Lea & B. Stierer (Eds.), Student writing in higher education. Buckinghamshire: Open University Press, 32-46.

Lynda O’Brien began her work as an independent academic advisor after moving back to her native New Zealand in 2015. Before this she worked most recently at the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China. It was here that she established writing groups for PhD students which proved to be a successful addition to the academic support available for all students at the university. At the University of Reading in the UK, which Lynda first joined in 2004 and where she completed her own PhD, she taught on EAP pre-sessional courses and on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Applied Linguistics. She can be contacted at

Leave a comment