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Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: What You Need to Know

In the publishing world, copy editing and proofreading both take place toward the end of the editing process. However, these terms are tricky to pin down. And to confuse matters further, many freelance editors offer a mix of both. But there is a distinction between the two, so let’s look at what makes copy editing and proofreading different.

The Editing Process

Before we look at copy editing or proofreading, we should establish the two levels of editing:

  • SubstantiveSubstantive editing is concerned with high-level issues such as the structure and content of a document, which may involve making major changes to a text. The focus here is the document as a whole, not the small details.
  • Mechanical – Mechanical editing, which covers both copy editing and proofreading, is about putting the final touches on a text. It takes place after any substantive editing, although you may skip straight to the “mechanical” level for shorter, simpler documents.

Both copy editing and proofreading, then, happen toward the end of the editing process. They also focus on similar things a lot of the time (e.g., spelling, punctuation, grammar).

So, what exactly is the difference? Traditionally, it’s that copy editing comes first and involves a greater focus on clarity and readability, whereas proofreading concerns itself only with fixing errors. To explain this more clearly, let’s look at each task in turn.

Copy Editing (Tidying Up Writing)

Copy editing is about ensuring a text is easy to understand. This may involve:

  • Correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.
  • Revising sentences for clarity or concision.
  • Looking for inconsistencies in tone, spelling, formatting, etc.
  • Checking that word choice is appropriate.
  • Making sure the document follows the client’s chosen style guide.

Some people also distinguish between line editing, which focuses on style and phrasing, and copy editing, which focuses on issues like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Neither, though, would involve making major changes to a text’s content or structure.

The key here is we’re helping to polish the final draft of a document. In the publishing industry, this happens before a manuscript is sent for typesetting.

Proofreading (The Final Check)

Once a manuscript has been typeset, a publisher will create a “proof” copy or galley proof. This is a test version of a book created to check the text for errors before printing.

As such, proofreading has traditionally been about fixing typos introduced during typesetting or missed during the final copy edit. This may involve looking for:

  • Grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors.
  • Issues with fonts and formatting.
  • Inconsistencies in all the above.

These would often be recorded on hard copy using proofreader’s marks, though many publishers now create digital proofs instead (e.g., as a PDF or ebook). A list of corrections is then sent to the typesetter, who will make the required changes.

However, any changes made during proofreading must be minimal, since making significant revisions to a typeset text is expensive. And if you are working on a proof and find major issues, you should contact the publisher to let them know it requires further editing.

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading

Let’s quickly review the traditional differences between copy editing and proofreading:

  • Copy editing is about making sure a text is clear, readable, and error free. In the publishing industry, this is the final edit before a manuscript is typeset.
  • Proofreading is about correcting errors in a “proof” version of a typeset text. This is the final step in the editing process before a book is printed and published.

However, in modern freelance proofreading, where you often work directly with authors, this distinction is less clear. So, to finish, let’s look at how copy editing and proofreading overlap.

Proofreading with a Hint of Copy Editing

The distinction above still applies in some cases, especially in the publishing industry. But many modern freelancers blur the lines between copy editing and proofreading.

This is possible because of Microsoft Word and other word processors, which allow editors to track changes in documents. It is thus easier to make minor edits to the phrasing of something than it is when working with a printed, typeset “proof” document.

Consequently, many freelancers offer a light copy edit as part of a “proofreading” service. And if you want to offer separate services, you could distinguish between them as follows:

  • Proofreading – A very light copy edit that focuses on typos and other errors.
  • Copy Editing – A heavier line edit where you also tweak text for clarity and concision.

However, neither involve making major changes to a text. And it’s important to establish the extent of the changes you make with each client before starting work.

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