Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: What is the Difference?


Many authors who contact me think that proofreading is synonymous with copy editing (and sometimes copy editing is synonymous with copy writing, but that’s a different story). But copy editing and proofreading are two different processes done at two different stages of production. When I explain to an author who is clearly looking for copy editing that proofreading is actually the final step after typesetting and layout, I still have many who say that is what they need because they have already put their manuscript in final publishing format—without having copy edited the text first. Editors can understand how eager authors are to see their manuscript “look” like a book, but there are stages that should be followed so that you do not end up wasting valuable time and money.

According to the Professional Editorial Standards of Editors Canada, copy editing is defined as “editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness,” whereas proofreading is “examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements.”

Science or Art?

Regarding the text, it has been said that proofreading is a science, editing is an art. Proofreading is correcting text. Copy editing is not just correcting, it is also improving. Let’s take a look at the following example:

Original sentence: I would like to take the oportunity to think you for agreing to met with me on Monday, May 21st.
Proofread correction: I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for agreeing to meet with me on Monday, May 21.
Copy edited correction: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me on Monday, May 21.

Notice the difference. In the proofread correction, the text remained the same, but the spelling and number errors were fixed. In the copy edited correction, the wordiness of the sentence was corrected. This change in wording makes it a “stronger” sentence. The proofreader would not change the wording. As long as it is understandable, the proofreader would leave it as it is and fix the copy editing and layout errors only.

When, Where, and How

Copy editing and proofreading differ in when, where, and how they are done. The copy editor works on the manuscript before layout, usually on-screen in a Word document. This is a much easier time and location to copy edit. The copy editor can adjust the font size and line spacing of the document for easier reading without worrying about messing up the layout. The copy editor also has access to lots of built-in Word functions as well as add-in Word tools and macros to help in the process. The proofreader, on the other hand, works on proofs of the final manuscript after layout, usually within a PDF or on a hard copy (printed out version). Space to work is far more limited in this format and the proofreader reviews things that the copy editor never sees, such as all the style and visual elements, cross-references and running heads, typography and page formatting.

Copy editing (manuscript in a Word document)
 copy edit text
Proofreading (PDF proof of page spread)
 page spread

How are corrections marked? When copy editing a Word document, track changes is used to mark errors and changes to the text. Errors and text changes are marked directly within the body of the text. Comments are usually made within the margins. In proofreading, however, changes have to be indicated in two places: within the body of the text using standard symbols and a corresponding symbol or note/query in the margin on the same line so that the error can be easily spotted. A summary of the differences is presented below:

Copy Editing Proofreading
  • Changing copy for clarity and readability
  • Works on manuscript before layout (usually Word)
  • Markup in-line only (comments in margin)
  • Does not even see layout
  • Correcting copy
  • Works on proofs after layout (usually hard copy or PDF)
  • Markup both in-line and in margin
  • Responsible for checking layout
  • Identifies copy editing errors

My favourite quote describing the differences between copy editing and proofreading comes from Suzanne Gilad in Copyediting & Proofreading for Dummies:

“If publishing were like getting dressed in the morning, the copyeditor would review the chosen outfit, bearing in mind the weather and what the day’s agenda entails. She may decide on different shoes or a wider belt. She may pick out a different jacket. She may even suggest an entire wardrobe change. She examines the overall appearance and makes suggestions to create the nicest-looking ensemble that ever stood in front of the bedroom mirror. The proofreader then waltzes in and points out the deodorant marks on the shirt.”

What other differences are there between copy editing and proofreading? Share them with us.

Happy Adventures in Editing!


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