Copyediting vs. Proofreading

Ready to review your content? First, let’s define some terms and go over some basics. Many people don’t make a distinction between proofreading and copyediting, especially because technological advances in publishing have changed the way we process content, and although there is some overlap between these vital tasks, it’s still important to recognize that they have some unique functions, and to understand what makes them different.

Copyediting is the minute, detailed review and refinement of content to improve grammar, syntax, and usage and to ensure that it adheres to best practices for style—correct punctuation and logical, consistent treatment of words and numbers. Proofreading is the inspection of a document (whether a printout of a sign, an uploaded blog post, or a PDF of a book) to detect errors in content or format.

The distinction is often in the medium in which you are working: If you’ve opened a Word file with contents that will be migrated to a finished product, for example, you’re copyediting. If you have in front of you a formatted facsimile of the finished product, you’re proofreading.

At least, that’s the traditional model. But the lines have been blurred, and sometimes Word is the publishing medium, and sometimes copyediting is often conducted in proof—two steps in one. Even if that’s not the case, proofreaders, as mentioned above, are still responsible for checking content for errors, as well as making sure that what is known as running text (the bulk of the content, often displayed in a series of paragraphs), in addition to display type (that headings and subheadings, captions, pull quotes, and so on, as well as graphic elements—basically, everything that’s not running text), is correctly positioned and there are no extraneous or missing components.

However, qualitative issues (those impacting the meaning of the content, including grammar, syntax, and word choice) are more appropriately resolved in the copyediting stage, when this step is easily accomplished, while proofreading is primarily devoted to quantitative changes (those related to the visual presentation of the content). Making significant revisions to content in proofreading is problematic because it is more time-consuming to do so than to resolve such issues in the copyediting stage; even substitution of a word, or minor changes to a phrase, for example, may affect word count, which will impact the layout. In addition, a writer who may have approved substantial copyediting changes may not have the same oversight at the proofreading stage, and may therefore not have the opportunity to call out a proofreader’s late-stage misunderstanding or mistake that compromises the content.

Consider, too, that depending on the type of content, two or more proofreading stages may occur. Qualitative changes that may be welcome at the first stage will almost certainly be discouraged in the final proof unless they were accidentally introduced at the previous stage. The purpose of each proof should be made explicit—for example, the final proof is strictly for checking that egregious errors noticed in the penultimate proof have been properly corrected.

Before you copyedit or proofread, equip yourself with these resources:

  • An understanding of the document’s audience and its intent
  • Guidelines about the scope of the copyeditor’s or proofreader’s responsibilities and authority
  • A style guide (and a style sheet, if one has been prepared)
  • Reference materials and tools (a dictionary to check spelling, for example, and a browser to verify information).

Finally, whether you are proofreading or copyediting, scan, don’t read, the content. Avoid the temptation to read as if for education or entertainment; two key purposes of both copyediting and proofreading are to discover repeated or omitted words and to revise confusing or ambiguous phrasing, so proof and edit slowly and deliberately. Also, make at least two passes—one to resolve every error, and another to notice anything you overlooked, despite your diligence, the first time.

When copyediting, two passes should be sufficient, but you might prefer to undertake additional separate focused passes to check display type or to fact-check (verify all quantifiable information, such as names, dates, and figures). A single proofreading pass is adequate for running text, but the proofreader should undertake separate inspections for inclusion and consistency of different types of display copy and to evaluate the overall layout. (Proofreading is about detecting missing commas, but it’s also about global issues such as whether a page is too cluttered or there is a distracting abundance of typefaces and point sizes.)