What do you need? Copyediting vs. proofreading

What do you need? Copyediting vs. proofreading

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

It’s very common for people to say “I need proofreading” when they mean they need any kind of editing.

Once you and your editor or proofreader discuss the project, it usually becomes clearer which one you need. But knowing the differences between editing and proofreading will make it much easier for you to communicate with your editor/proofreader.

Stages of editing

There are several broad stages of editing. These stages aren’t set in stone and in fact, different people define them differently. But if you have a general sense of these stages, it will help you when you’re looking for editing help.

TypeWhatFile typeWhen
Developmental editing & structural editing“Big-picture” editing. Looks at overall organization and content of your work. The focus is on chapters and sections rather than paragraphs and sentences.Word*It depends. You could get help planning your content or you could start with a rough draft.
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.Word*When a complete draft is ready
(“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.**Word*When a “finalized” complete draft is ready (after line editing)
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.

The difference between copyediting and proofreading

To figure out the difference between copyediting and proofreading, it may help to think about the traditional publishing process.

Before digitization made it easy for anyone to publish all kinds of things, manuscripts were finalized before being sent to the designer. It was then typeset and finally printed. (I may be grossly simplifying it but you get the idea.)

In that flow:

  • Copyediting comes before the design. The copyeditor cleans up the manuscript so it can be sent to the designer and then the typesetter.
  • Proofreading looks at the proofs that the typesetter prepared. The proofreader checks for remaining errors and anything “off” that needs to be corrected before printing.

So you can see that in copyediting, there is still scope for changing text. In contrast, the proofreading stage is no longer about fine-tuning the wording. It’s about catching errors, especially any introduced in the typesetting stage.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily see all these steps. But thinking about physical printing may help you visualize the difference between copyediting and proofreading.

(On copyediting vs. line editing)

While the line between copyediting and proofreading is fairly clear, the distinction between line editing and copyediting might be blurrier. One way to think about copyediting is that it’s preparing text for design and eventual printing, whereas line editing comes before that and is about tightening the text.

For more on that, take a look at the article below:

Tips for when you’re hiring a copyeditor/proofreader

It’s ok if these differences aren’t fully clear to you.

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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