This will probably be an exceptionally long post, so be patient and bear with me.
In simple terms, the difference between editing and proofreading is a matter of content. Proofreading is adding commas or taking them away, changing a semicolon to a period where appropriate, fixing a spelling error or correcting a homophone. It can be restructuring a sentence so that it flows better, making the meaning more clear. It can mean subtracting the word 'had', or 'that' if those words are unnecessary. It is bringing the final result to a fine polish.
Editing is deeper. Much deeper. It is altering the content of your work. It is going into a forest with a chain saw as opposed to bringing a pair of shears.
Many people are capable of proofreading, but true editors are much harder to come by and much more expensive when you find one (as CW will attest to).
This topic has come up quite a bit, which is why I'm starting this thread, but in order to understand it completely we have to dig deep. Otherwise, it will be dismissed, the way it has been every other time it has come up. In order to understand what it takes to do a true edit, we have to make sure we understand what becoming an author is.
A pen, paper and the desire to create, does not an author make
My favorite job of all time was as a carpenter. I didn't get hired to build homes, however (at least not in the traditional sense). I got hired to work for a company that built the walls for houses, apartments and condominiums inside of a manufacturing plant. Once the walls were built, they were shipped to the construction site and builders would stand them up and tie them together, thus shortening the time it took to build a house or condo by great amounts of time.
When I got hired to work at this plant, I immediately went out and bought the necessary tools. I bought steel toed work boots, a framing hammer, a belt, box cutter, framing square and everything else my new boss told me to buy. My first day of work, I entered the building, donned my gear and stood among all of the other employees at the plant.
Was I then a carpenter?
No. Of course not. I was a man who possessed the tools it took to become a carpenter. Eventually. I had a lot to learn. And eventually, through trial, error, guidance, many smashed thumbs, many nails shot into my hands from a nail gun, and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of building things, I did eventually get to the point that I considered myself a carpenter.
Most of us who have approached publishing and taken the dive into authorship all look at the idea of traditional publishing in the same way. We feel that the traditional publishers are too exclusive and many of us cite the instance of J. K. Rowling and how long it took her to get 'Harry Potter' published as our justification for skipping that route of publishing.
But let's be clear on something.
Traditional publishers are correct to filter out who they publish and who they don't publish. The publishing industry is harsh. If traditional publishers published everything that came through their doors, they'd be out of business in no time because not everybody who carries a hammer and wears a tool belt is a carpenter. That doesn't mean that they can't eventually learn to be one. It just means that it takes talent, time, knowledge, effort, focus, guidance and desire to learn your craft.
'Harry Potter wasn't rejected so many times because J. K. Rowling wasn't a good enough author, or because her prose wasn't up to snuff. It wasn't because her plot wasn't well developed or because her characters were cardboard, two dimensional and boring. 'Harry Potter' was rejected because the publishers that she submitted to all believed that there was no market for such a story. We all now know that they were wrong.
The 'Harry Potter' story does demonstrate that the traditional publishing industry has its flaws, but so does self publishing. In this era, we can publish anything we want to, regardless of its level of quality.
The good thing about the way that traditional publishers filter who is and who isn't published is that it used to force authors to bring themselves up to a certain skill level before they got their work into the market. Imagine yourself walking onto a plot of land, never before having built a house and having no idea how to do it properly but building one anyway. Even if your common sense was solid enough to get the end product to look like a house, could you really genuinely say that it met all of the necessary codes?
Of course not.
Furthermore, it's important to understand that learning to build a house without the guidance of others, whether that be through schooling, mentoring, or whatever approach you used to learn, would take much, much longer because you wouldn't know when you made mistakes until the wall you built fell down.
So what does all this have to do with editing.
It's the same principal. I've stated in the past that an author needs to learn to become an expert editor. The typical reply is, 'Or hire a free amateur editor'.
It's not the same.
No offense to the amateur editors out there. SOL is a wonderful site and one of the greatest benefits to using this site is that there are a lot of volunteer editors on it. Many of these editors are really good at what they do, but the biggest benefit that they tend to offer is that they are really good in a grammatical sense. Unfortunately, that isn't editing.
How does one become an expert editor?
The same way one becomes a carpenter. Sure, it is feasible to grab a hammer, a tool-belt and all of the other tools associated with building a house. It is possible to cut enough lumber, hammer enough pieces together, make enough mistakes on your own, to eventually learn how to become a really good carpenter. But getting help cuts your time down.
If you want to become an expert editor, you have to learn the craft of writing. You have to know it inside and out. You have to assess what your weakest points are, and then find resources to help you strengthen that portion of your skill.
I strongly suggest (as I have multiple times before) limiting yourself to novellas in the beginning. The reason I think this is a good idea is because it is so much easier to wrap your head around a shorter work than it is a behemoth. Get your hands on some books that teach things like plot, character development, dialog, scene, style etc. Study them and apply the things that you learn to the shorter stories that you are writing. Keep them below twenty thousands words to start. Force yourself to write these rough drafts and then make yourself utilize the new skills you are learning to edit these stories into something much more special than they were when you finished the rough draft. Do it over and over and over again. The beautiful thing about limiting yourself to novellas in the beginning, is that because they are small, you get new and fresh starts more often. You get new characters to work with that have new personalities and offer new editing challenges. Also, because you are self publishing, you get more opportunities to offer these works to readers at a much faster rate. Therefore, you can keep momentum and as you improve as an author, you will keep more interest in your work and develop momentum.