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Copy-editing versus Proofreading

Copy-editing and proofreading are two separate functions, and it is quite common for people to confuse the two. ‘Proofreading’ tends to be used as a generic term. Some say that they want their work proofread, when they actually mean copy-edited. Others say that they have proofread their own work, when they actually mean that they have just checked it through for spelling mistakes and typos.

Simply put, a copy-editor prepares work for publishing, by checking its consistency and accuracy; a proofreader reads proofs and marks any errors. A copy-editor has more involvement with a typescript than a proofreader has, but both functions are just as important. Here are some differences between the two:

  • A copy-editor may make small changes to a typescript, suggest improvements, and raise queries for the author. A proofreader only looks for typographical and other obvious errors; makes changes and raises queries only when necessary.
  • A copy-editor may be creative, but is cautious about altering the author’s style, or rewriting, unless asked to do so. A proofreader is never creative, never alters style, and never rewrites.

Because these terms are associated with publishing, they can be perceived as a ‘before and after’ procedure: copy-editing is carried out before typesetting (the production of the typescript in book form, known as a ‘proof’). Proofreading is carried out after typesetting.

There is another stage of editing that is carried out before copy-editing begins: a more substantive procedure known as structural editing (a.k.a developmental editing). This looks at the fundamental organisation and content of the work. A structural editor is likely to suggest improvements for the author to make, including rewrites and restructuring, as well as checking whether there are any legal problems, such as libel or plagiarism. (This is not the same thing as a critique.)

If you are considering the self-publishing route, it is important to have your work structurally edited, and then copy-edited prior to formatting (the self-publishing equivalent of typesetting). You should then have it proofread prior to publication.

I have been asked, “Why is ‘copy-editing’ hyphenated, whilst ‘proofreading’ is not?”

As both words are verbs, my best guess is that it has something to do with ‘copy’ (meaning printed matter) being a mass noun, whereas ‘proof’ is a regular noun. Therefore, ‘copy-edit’ becomes a hyphenated word because it is not possible to apply the verb ‘edit’ to a mass noun, but it is possible to apply a verb to a regular noun, which is why ‘proofread’ is one word. The only other evidence I can find, at the moment, is the verb ‘people-watch’. Again, it is a mass noun accompanied by a verb, and it is hyphenated.

Other than that, who knows? Answers on a postcard, please.


4 thoughts on “Copy-editing versus Proofreading

  1. Reblogged this on Martin Flux and commented:
    A while ago, when I was looking up certain details about typography, I came across this helpful little blog of British copy-editor and proofreader Sue Shade. Today I went back and found yet more interesting facts. In particular: what the difference is between a copy-editor and a proofreader.

    Why should I (or anyone) be interested in any such thing, you ask? Well, The Dream Reality is still many Saturdays away from the last chapter, but once the web serial edition is done I would like to get it professionally edited and get it published. For that to happen, I need to know who to look for in the first place and what all the different roles in the publishing industry are. The post reblogged below helps with that.

    Also have a look at the rest of her website, as there are some useful tips hidden there. I just wish she would write an article on proper use of commas … maybe one day.


  2. Really great explanation. I would have little idea of this except I started an editing certificate at Simon Frasier University in BC Canada online. I soon found out I am not a good editor but at least I know basic copy-editing and proofreading. I’m glad there are professionals to actually do the hard work.


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