When does proofreading become copy editing, and editing copywriting?

All proofreaders have been asked to perform a quick proof, only to realise the job is more than correcting apostrophes. And all editors will have edited a job so much that a re-write would have been better. I’ve already covered the differences between proofreading and copy editing, but what happens in those grey areas?

When proofreading is actually copy editing

We established in the linked article that proofreading and copy editing are similar but different.

  1. Proofreading is quality assurance, whether that’s with reference to a style sheet or to a general sense of “rightness”.
  2. Copy editing allows for more flexibility, interpretation and re-drafting, while keeping the essence of the work intact.
  3. There’s a bit of editing in proofreading; and there’s a lot of proofreading in editing.
  4. Proofreading should be one of the last jobs before publishing; editing should be one of the first.

Difference number 3 is pertinent here. When you’re proofreading, you might find yourself doing a bit of editing. That is, you might see something that would look better written another way and change it (or query it). If the owner of the work says that’s OK, everyone’s happy. But if this happens more than once a paragraph, you could be getting close to copy editing territory.

If you’re finding yourself changing every sentence – not just correcting, but changing – then you are definitely doing the work of a copy editor. There are some proofreaders who will happily make sure all the full stops and possessive plurals are correct and be relaxed about the fact that the copy is not very readable. By the letter of the job description, nobody can complain. But if you’re one of those who simply can’t let confusing, inefficient copy get the green light, you should be prepared to upgrade your service.

When editing is actually copywriting

The difference between writing and editing is much starker. Copywriting takes ideas and concepts and makes fresh copy out of them. Editing might involve re-writing and re-ordering, but the ideas and concepts should already be formed into a logical story.

But what happens if you are given a job to copy edit, and after the first few paragraphs you realise it’s not really making sense, no matter how much you re-work it? That’s when it might be best tackled by a copywriter.

All might not be lost with the original work. It is no doubt the fruit of much knowledge, understanding and research, and will be an important resource for the re-write. But if it’s difficult to follow for its intended readers, no amount of swapping sentences around will help – it’s a copywriting job.

Why it matters

The main reason it matters is down to time. Copywriting 1,000 words might take 3 hours (or a week – it depends on the subject). Copy editing the first draft might take an hour, possibly two, depending on how much it needs changing. But to proofread 1,000 words should take no more than 20 minutes.

Time and money

Time taken has cost implications, in two ways.

First, whatever you’re charging per hour, if the job takes longer than you expected when you first accepted it, you’re either going to have to raise your fee or leave yourself out of pocket. Of course, some clients are happy to pay more if you take longer than quoted; but others aren’t.

Second, the rates for copywriting, editing and proofreading are all different. Copywriters tend to charge roughly twice the rate of a copywriter per hour, whereas proofreaders charge about 70–80% of the rate of a copy editor. If the client is only paying for proofing when you’re actually editing, you could (and should) be earning more.

It’s unlikely (in my experience at least) that the client is trying to rip you off. It’s more likely that they either don’t know the differences between the roles (and why should they?), or they don’t recognise how “bad” the work is from an outsider’s perspective.

Skills required

Above all, proofreading, copy editing and copywriting are all very different jobs. Just because someone is an accomplished proofreader with an eye for errors doesn’t mean they’d be good at editing. And someone who can re-jig a few sentence might not be good at research and structuring a story. It can be like a defender replacing an injured goalkeeper – they do similar jobs on the pitch, but something ain’t quite right.

It’s the same in-house

If this is all written from a freelancer’s perspective, that’s because it’s where I’m coming from right now. But even when you’re working in-house or at an agency, it’s just as important to know how long work will take and what skills are being used. Somebody is being billed for it, and your estimate will determine whether that’s your employer or their client.

Avoiding misunderstandings

The best way to avoid any conflicts is to skim over every job before you accept it and quote for it. Read a few random paragraphs and you’ll quickly get a feel for the quality of copy on offer. With the size of the job in mind and this instinct for how much work it needs, you should be able to come up with a quote you can stick with.

Whether or not you charge more per hour for the various services, an accurate quote will keep your client happy and ensure you’re paid for the time you put in.

Image: Amir-abbas Abdolali