Copyediting and Proofreading: What's the Difference?
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Most people know what proofreading is, or at least have some sort of a vague idea. But copyediting? If you're not an experienced writer or have never looked into the world of publishing and editing, you may have never even heard that term before. Guess what, though? You've probably done it before!
Think back to your high school or college days—before handing in an essay, did you read it through a few times to make sure you didn't spell anything wrong or forget a word? Did you go the extra step of having someone else read it to see if you missed anything? That was proofreading!
Or remember when the teacher would have you swap papers with someone and read theirs, checking for errors as you went? If your teacher was like mine, you may have also been asked to provide commentary on word choice, strength of the argument, sentence structure, etc. If so, that strayed into copyediting territory. Congratulations! You have experience proofreading and editing.
Now, you may be thinking: "Grace, those honestly sound pretty similar to me. What's the difference between the two?" Great question! A lot of people think of proofreading and editing as being interchangeable, but they are different processes. Keep in mind, there are several levels of editing—structural, developmental, line—but for now let's just take a look at copyediting.
Copyediting is the process of reviewing text for errors on a technical level. Some things a copyeditor looks for are mistakes in punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. A copyeditor also provides feedback on syntax, sentence structure, and other suggestions on how to improve the overall flow of a piece of writing. There is often a lot of back-and-forth between the author and the copyeditor as edits are suggested and implemented. This step in the editing process precedes the proofreading stage, in case any changes need to be made.
There are varying degrees of copyediting, and a copyeditor should discuss the preferred level of editing with their writer before beginning any editing. A light copyedit generally only includes correcting incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as ensuring consistency in all those aspects (copyeditors do this by using or creating a style sheet, which we'll talk about in a later post). A deep (or heavy) copyedit involves eliminating wordiness, changing words or sentences to improve readability, and similar substantial edits.
Proofreading, on the other hand, is about making sure that the text is ready to be published, printed, or posted. It should be the final stage in the editing process and occurs after printing the final copy, or proof. The goal of proofreading is to ensure that the formatting from the original edited copy was maintained during the printing process. A proofreader checks for things such as awkward page breaks, omitted words, and formatting issues.
One other important job a proofreader has is to make sure that all edits were implemented correctly, as well as that no new errors were introduced in the process. A proofreader generally doesn't make edits of their own, except for correcting a few small errors that may have slipped through the editing phase (editors are only human, after all). Because this is the final step before publishing, a piece of writing should already be in near-perfect condition by the time it gets to a proofreader. If a lot of errors remain in the text, the proofreader may send it back to the copyeditor for further editing.
Why Does It Matter?
Knowing the difference between copyediting and proofreading could save you a lot of time and money. For example, if you search for a proofreader, but actually need someone to help with sentence structure and readability, you're going to be disappointed when you get the proofread version back. In the reverse situation, if your writing is already in a pretty good place and just needs a final glance and you hire a copyeditor, you will probably end up paying a lot more than you needed to, since copyeditors generally charge higher fees than proofreaders. Then you would have to go through the whole process again and pay another person, and nobody wants to do that.
Save yourself time and money by figuring out if your work needs to be copyedited or proofread. I hope this post helped clear up the differences between the two, but if you're still not quite sure which service you need, head on over to my Services page and fill out the contact form. I'd be more than happy to help you determine what level of editing you need. Happy writing!