Copyediting vs Proofreading

Let’s talk Editing: What do you mean when you say…
Copyediting versus Proofreading

black and white woodcut of monk at illustration desk

CC image “Writing” courtesy of AJ Cann on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In my work as both a staffer and a freelancer, I’ve seen a lot of confusion about what distinguishes different kinds of editing from each other.

I always discuss with my clients what exactly they are looking for in our collaboration. Do my editing clients want high-level concept or developmental editing? are they looking for an outline or organization? do they need copyediting of any kind? or will proofreading do?

In talking to people, it’s usually clear that they know what they need, whether or not they are familiar with specific labels, such as copyediting — a moniker guaranteed to cause non-editing eyebrows to raise in question.

My hope with this article is to bring some of that discussion into the forefront, so that you are more familiar with how some of these terms are used. For me, the categories are discrete and distinct ways of interacting with the text, but then again, that’s my job. It’s not necessarily your job.  So let’s take a look and hopefully I can offer you some clarity for the next time you need to talk to an editorial service provider.

Two different animals: copyediting and proofreading

I’m going to focus on the distinction between copyediting and proofreading for the moment, since in my experience this is the line which is most frequently blurred for people who are looking for editorial help. I should note here that what I discuss below may have different nuances from what other professional writers or editors may say. For example, I usually include more under proofreading than traditionalists might. To this I can only point to my article, “A Good Writer is Hard to Find” (available for download from this site), and reiterate my #1 recommendation from that article.

  • Whatever you do, always talk to your writer/editor about the specifics of the work to be performed, before any work is performed. Nothing beats being on the same page as your service providers.

Back to copyediting and proofreading. The easiest way to distinguish these two ways of working with text, is that one of them deals with content, and the other does not.


Proofreading deals only with presentation. It has nothing to do with your content itself, whether it’s logically organized, cohesive, or interesting to read. It is the last step in the review process before the work goes to print or is otherwise digitally published. Proofreading cares only about spelling, punctuation, and errant formatting — like widow or orphan lines or phrases.

That’s it.

The proofreader doesn’t need to check with the author about any of these changes. A classic example of proofreading is when a piece goes to print, and is moved from the word processing document into final layout. Proofreading wants to know whether the words appear in the final layout exactly as they appeared before they were put into layout.

Weird things can happen when we move between applications and programs. Most of us have heard of and probably complained about “formatting issues.” This is proofreading. Proofreading cares about introduced errors. It does not care if you are Emily Dickinson or Leo Tolstoy.


As the word “editing” in the name implies, copyediting deals with content. Copyediting does care if your content is logically organized, cohesive, or interesting to read. Copyediting cares a lot.

There are levels of copyediting. In the biz, these are usually broken down into light, medium, or heavy copyediting, which is straightforward enough. The spectrum moves from less to greater intervention with the text, and can include word choice/phrasing, grammar/syntax, style, recommendations for organization and chapter headings, and overall cohesion.

Consistent language sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at the choices the English language gives us and how many ways we say (and spell) the same thing! Conventions govern the use of hyphenation, the spelling out of number words, serial commas, and more. Although grammar prescriptivists like to insist there is only one correct way of doing things, the fact is that we have multiple style guides, depending on where the work is being published. The Chicago Manual of Style, the APA Manual, the AMA stylebook all make different choices.  The NYTimes and other newspapers and journals also make their own choices — a hybrid of style guide with a personal touch: what’s called a “house style.”

Copyediting begins with grammar and overall cohesion, and incorporates more detailed review of the content the heavier the copyedit gets. In copyediting, we keep an eye out for lapses in logic or sequential slip-ups, captions, citations, and for books, front and back matter, those pages which occur outside of the actual text of the work.

For longer pieces, we put together a style sheet, which is a personalized version of the style guide especially tailored for your document (this applies particularly if we copyedit a longer document such as a book manuscript or a report). You might think of this as your own brand’s “house style.” The style sheet comes in handy if you will be putting together other documents that you want to tie into the first one, or for any outside proofreaders, so that they can verify choices.

Copyediting is a collaborative relationship between the editor, and the publisher or writer (who may be one and the same, in these days of self-publishing and small business). Often, copyediting will come back to you in the form of a question. Or you will see a comment about the unclearness of certain facts or transitions: Is this how you want it done? Do you (the author/publisher) have a preference between [choice X or Z]?

This means that you have the opportunity, and may even be encouraged, to make changes after the copyedit.  There should be zero changes after a proofread.

Where the buck stops

Copyediting cares about content. Proofreading cares about looks. The two are different, and this is also why one will cost you more than the other. However, neither one will replace the other. I highly encourage you to consider a final proofread after your editing reviews and changes are complete.

I hope this clarifies a few things. If you have questions, remember: just ask! Any writer or editor worth their salt would be happy to go over this with you. We love words. That’s how we got into this line of work in the first place.

Thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions, and blarney (bonus points for wit):