What do you need? Copyediting vs. proofreading

What do you need? Copyediting vs. proofreading

What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading? You can make better decisions and get a more satisfactory outcome if you understand the differences before hiring an editor or proofreader to help you.

There are several broad types of editing. The number of types doesn’t matter but understanding the general stages of editing can be handy when you’re looking for editing help.

TypeWhatFile typeWhen
(1) Developmental editing“Big-picture” editing. Looks at overall organization and content of your work. It looks at chapters and sections rather than fixing details at the paragraphs and sentences level.Word*When a draft with all the pieces is ready
(2) Line editing
(“structural” copyediting)
Editing at the paragraphs and sentences level. Checks for clarity, flow, and overall consistency of the piece. Syntax, grammar, and spelling also get checked. The focus is on making each sentence and paragraph clear, with a logical/convincing flow.WordWhen a complete draft is ready
(3) Copyediting
(“technical” copyediting)
Making the details consistent, applying “styles.” Checks that style, spelling, etc., are used consistently. Looks at details like table and figure numbers and whether heading styles are applied and follow a specific style. Could include consistency check for references. **WordWhen a more finalized complete draft is ready (after line editing)
(4) ProofreadingChecking the final (designed) version for print. Checks the proofs (the designed/laid out version) for any glaring typos and inconsistencies and makes sure that everything appears as it should.PDF (or Word)Last thing before submission/printing
* “Word” could mean any working document, where the text is movable/editable.
** Checking and cleaning up references is a big, time-consuming task. Make sure to agree with your editor whether they will take it on as part of the job. If it is, realize that the cost is going to be significantly higher.

While the line between (3) copyediting and (4) proofreading is fairly clear, the line between (2) line editing and (3) copyediting might be blurrier.

One way to think about copyediting is that it’s preparing text for design and eventual printing.

For example, when I copyedit for VoxEU.org, I make sure that the references follow the VoxEU.org style, the spelling is UK with -ise/-sation, subheadings are in sentence case (minimum case; “This is sentence case”), etc. I of course look at syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation too, but I keep my edits to a minimum.

But I do line editing for UNITAR, where I look also at the logical flow of the document, identify gaps, and make suggestions for moving/deleting/consolidating paragraphs and sentences.

Tips for when you’re hiring a copyeditor/proofreader

Again, it’s understandable if you don’t have a clear idea of whether you need line editing vs. copyediting.

Different editors/companies may define these services somewhat differently, so when you’re considering hiring someone to help you out, make sure you

  1. first identify what kinds of things you’d like your editor/proofreader to do before you contact potential copyeditors/proofreaders
  2. tell the editor/proofreader what you specifically need before you hire them (for example, here are 6 things you can tell your editor/proofreader before she starts)

We copyeditors and proofreaders are here to help you. We just need you to tell us what your envisioned result is because your requirements are unique to you.


If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your academic writing project, send me details via the contact form or email me at info@theclarityeditor.com.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay 

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