How are copy editing and proofreading different?

Over 20 years of proofreading and copy editing, I’ve come to accept that most people outside the publishing industry don’t really know the difference between the two disciplines. Usually, when people don’t grasp the differences between two things, it turns out it’s because there really aren’t that many differences. I think this is the case here.

Proofreading and copy editing are both essential publishing tasks, and they’re both working towards the same end – better quality copy – and they overlap in many ways. So why do they have two different titles? Here’s an explanation.

1. Copy editors have editorial responsibilities

When an author writes a piece of work, be it a book, a pamphlet or a web page, they are using their expertise in the subject to write something useful or interesting. The knowledge behind it has probably been picked up over decades, and that’s priceless. But nobody would expect the author to be a compelling or brilliant writer, or even to fully grasp the rules of punctuation and grammar.

So the first person to start improving the work would be a copy editor. She’ll go through the copy with an editorial mindset, re-drafting sentences, moving paragraphs, adding new material to help clarity, removing parts that don’t carry the story forward and so on. Copy editors have an eye on the finished product, but their edits will have to be individually accepted and rejected by the publisher or author (assuming the copy editor hasn’t been given full editorial control).

2. Copy editors also have to obey style guides

Part of the copy editor’s role will be to ensure that the style of the text as instructed by the designer is applied to the document. Alternatively, if a manuscript is being sent to a typesetter, the instructions need to be in place to make sure the final product looks exactly as it was meant to. Remember, a typical manuscript is double-spaced, A4, probably Times New Roman or Arial (and occasionally Comic Sans), headings will be the same font as the rest of the work, and there will be no pagination or running heads.

Pair of glasses resting on proofreading sheets, or are they editing sheets?

3. Copy editors’ work is open to interpretation

The editorial power described above does come with a caveat – it can be rejected. When you’re changing somebody’s work around to match what you believe is good editorial practice, there’s a chance you’ll overstep the mark and make a change that’s unacceptable to the author. Perhaps you’ve misinterpreted something or taken out a detail that looked like waffle but which the author insists is vital. Or maybe the client just doesn’t like the language you’ve imposed on their work. In other words, it can be “right” or “wrong”, at least in the eyes of the person paying for it.

4. Copy editors tend to charge more

Copy editing is a much trickier skill to master than proofreading. It not only requires a sense of what’s right and wrong, but also that ability to interpret what the author is trying to say when they’re not doing a particularly good job of doing it. It requires sensitivity, nuance and experience, and these are qualities that not everyone has; and it’s very difficult to learn them. Because of this difference in skills, copy editors typically charge 20–30% more per hour, but the most skilled editors can charge much more than that.

5. Proofreading is a quality control task

So that brings us to proofreading. Once the manuscript has been copy edited and all the edits have been given the green light, a sample draft of the final product is made up by a typesetter or designer. This draft is called a proof. It is the proof that the proofreader reads. Note that all editorial considerations have, at this point, been ironed out and accepted. The typographer or designer has now created the work to look like its final version, with all the blocks of text in place, in the right font and with all other design elements in place. (Illustrations and tables might be dropped in last, so placeholders might be inserted or the text could flow from start to finish without any breaks.)

The proofreader’s job is now to make sure the typesetter or designer has produced precisely what the author and copy editor have asked for. Is every letter what was wanted? Are all the paragraphs in the right place? Has that piece of copy been inserted or removed as requested? Are the headings all the right levels? Those questions are answered by the proofreader.

So can a proofreader flag up an error even if the typesetter has followed the instructions perfectly but the editor got it wrong? Yes, they should. But it should be made clear that it’s a query, not a direct correction.

6. Proofreading is one of the copy editor’s skills

Most copy editors will have served time as proofreaders, and many will perform the two tasks simultaneously in their careers. You don’t tend to become a good copy editor without a few years under your belt checking other people’s edited manuscripts. When a copy editor is reading a mansucript when he should be reading a manuscript and inserts a transposition he’s a proofreader, comparing what is written with what is right (in this case the dictionary).

7. There is plenty of overlap

So, should you be hiring a proofreader or a copy editor? If you’re a professional publisher, you’ll already know the difference. But for the public at large, the two are synonymous. Both check work to make sure it reads well and both apply corrections to reach a desirable end. If you’re getting technical about it, the points above illustrate the difference. But outside the professional publishing industry, no proofreader or copy editor will be offended if you get their title wrong. They’ll probably take your first draft and make it engaging, logical and correct.

I offer both copy editing and proofreading, so if you’ve got a project and need an expert eye, please get in touch.



Photo: Mari Helin