If we had a dime for every time a colleague or a student asked, “Can you proofread this?”, we’d probably be set to retire. Unfortunately, we’re not making bank every time you ask this question. It does sometimes irk us a little bit, because most of the time, what’s meant is “can you copy edit this?”

A few of you just shrugged your shoulders and asked, “There’s a difference?” As professional editors and proofreaders, we’re here to tell you yes! There is a difference between copy editing and proofreading.

So … what is it?

What Is Copy Editing?

Let’s get back to basics. We’ll start by outlining what copy editing is and what copy editors do.

And then we’ll add the caveat that virtually everyone has a slightly different definition of copy editing. Most of the time, copy editing focuses on the nuts and bolts of good writing (which is why it’s also sometimes known as a “mechanical edit”).

A red pen on a sheet of paper, which is likely being copy edited.

A copy editor is usually expected to fix glaring spelling mistakes, pop in missing punctuation, and the like. This effectively tidies up your work. Copy editors may also look at some of the fundamentals of good writing, such as avoiding wordiness and repetition. If you’ve used a particular word or phrase over and over again, the copy editor might make suggestions for changes. If your sentences are overly long or complex, the copy editor could help you shorten them up.

Most people are actually asking for a basic copy edit when they ask someone to “proofread” their work. Here’s why you don’t actually want a proofread.

What Is Proofreading?

Most people ask for a proofread on their work because it sounds less scary than an “edit.” Editing is hard work. It’s intensive. It’s going to make a million changes you don’t want. You just want someone to make sure you didn’t miss a comma or spell your boss’s name wrong.

That’s why people ask for a “proofread.” It implies a quick, light read over the finished copy, fixing only the absolute essentials. Nothing more, nothing less.

This woodcut from 1598 shows a printing press, including compositors in the background.

And, for the most part, that is what proofreading is about. Proofreaders fix only the worst of the worst. If your copy is repetitive or doesn’t make much sense, a proofreader isn’t under any obligation to help you make it better, although they might sometimes try. That should have been fixed during the editing stages. (You did edit, didn’t you?)

This stems from when proofreading happens in the publication process. Manuscripts had to be typeset by hand in days of yore, which meant someone had to decipher the author’s handwriting and slot in all the individual stamps to make up each individual word on each individual page.

You can imagine how easily someone might make a mistake. It’s as easy as accidentally reversing “e” and “i” in receive. Misinterpreting someone else’s handwriting is common enough, so printer’s proofs—the first copy of the typeset pages—were often full of these sorts of errors, which needed to be corrected.

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: Types of Corrections

Now, at this point in the production of the book or newspaper or whatever else you’ve sent to be printed, you’re facing down your deadline. Most of the editing is done. The author and editor have worked very hard. The book’s in great shape.

It’s also costly and time-consuming to typeset by hand, so you don’t really want to start rewriting pages and pages. Even one sentence is bad enough. And you can bet the typesetter will charge you for each correction you make to your proof, since they have to go back and change it out by hand.

Keeping corrections to the absolute minimum is key in a process like this. The proofreader’s job is thus to find only those mistakes that would make the publisher and author look bad or silly. Those are essential corrections. Anything else is unimportant.

One difference in copy editing vs proofreading is the marks. This images shows proofer's marks, which copy editors don't use.

Today, of course, we work digitally, which has eliminated much of the manual labour it used to take to make books. The digital workflow usually means the typesetter can create proofs relatively quickly and easily. It also means making corrections is less time-consuming. Some typesetters are even axing their charges for corrections, although many still limit the number of corrections they include “gratis” or charge by the hour when making changes to the proofs.

You Can’t Proofread without Typesetting

Now, here’s the major catch with copy editing vs. proofreading. You can’t actually proofread without first typesetting the text.

Why is that? The other job the proofreader had, aside from catching major gaffes missed during edit and errors introduced by the typesetter, was to check on the typography itself. At no other stage can you check for things like bad breaks, incorrect line spacing between design elements, and typos in running heads and feet.

Manuscripts lack these features. Most Word documents you whip up also lack these features. It’s almost impossible to properly proofread a Word document, because it hasn’t been typeset.

What you’re actually hoping for is a mechanical copy edit. This edit can be just as light and quick as a proofread, but it immediately allows the editor to focus in on the copy, rather than paying any attention to the typography (or lack thereof).

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: Which Should You Book?

The answer should be fairly self-evident at this point. Unless you have typeset page proofs or an eBook file, you’re probably going to book a copy edit. You might ask a friend to proofread for you, but in all truth, you’re actually asking them for a copy edit.

One concern people have when they want to book editorial services is the price. Proofreading rates are often lower than those for copy editing, which may be another reason authors in particular prefer to book proofreading over copy editing. (Trust us, we’ve seen publishers try to skip straight to proofreading too.)

Copy editing doesn’t have to be expensive. Copy editing rates and proofreading rates alike are based on a few factors, including how clean the project is, the length, and so on. If you book a proofread and your work is very messy, you could actually end up paying more in the long run.

If you’re not sure what your work needs or what you should book, talk to an editor today! Most are happy to evaluate your work and give you some feedback on how they would approach working with you and your manuscript. Shop around and get different opinions. Remember, every editor edits differently. Ask around until you find someone who makes you feel comfortable and outlines a plan that’s in line with your needs and your vision for your book.

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