Copyediting vs Proofreading: Not the Same Thing

I sometimes get requests from aspiring authors who want me to do a copyedit and a proofread. When I quote them my price for these two—separate—processes, they often seem surprised at the price. Miscommunication happens, I’ve realized, because these authors think the copyedit and the proofread are two names for the same thing. And they seem to think that both steps can be performed at the same time. So, naturally, they’re looking for a quote for one read-through of their manuscript. But there’s the rub. A copyedit and a proofread are two different things that are meant to take place at separate stages of the publication process.

I see where the confusion comes from. If you went to school here in the United States, chances are that you learned early—and repeatedly—that an important part of the writing process is “proofreading.” Which, at least in my education up through undergraduate studies, meant checking over your final draft for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors before you turned it in. And, yeah, that is important. So, now that we’re all grown up and writing things much bigger than our seven-page short stories and three-page essays on what we did over the summer… What the heck is the deal with this “copyediting” step? And is it any different from proofreading? What’s going on? Allow me to explain.

When Does It Happen?

The copyedit is the first round of small-scale editing to take place after the developmental edit has concluded. Basically, once the author and editor have agreed that the manuscript is finished-finished, it goes to the copyeditor for a polish.

The proofread, on the other hand, happens after the copyedit…and, more importantly, after the manuscript has been styled and laid out in its final format. So, if it’s going to be a printed book, the proofread is conducted after the manuscript has been turned into an actual proof of the book. Hence the name—proofread.

What Goes On?

There’s a reason these two steps happen at different stages of the publication process. The copyedit is the first read-through after the manuscript leaves the author-editor-team’s hands. Content-wise, it’s finished. But there are still going to be some rough edges to smooth out. Things like punctuation, grammar, and spelling, of course. But also things like continuity errors (making sure that a character’s eyes are the same color throughout the book, for instance), the flow of ideas over heavily edited portions of the text, and so on. In fact, a copyeditor is expected to create a style sheet—a document that explains the rules as they apply to this particular project, and which is created specifically for the proofreader to use as a guide later on.

The proofreader also checks for punctuation, grammar, and spelling. But they’re also on the lookout for new errors that may have been introduced by the copyeditor’s corrections, last-minute adjustments made by the author…and errors in the styling, layout and typesetting processes. The proofreader needs to look at the proof, not the manuscript, or they’re not proofreading. A proofread ensures that running heads are consistent throughout the book, that the pages are numbered consecutively, that words aren’t being broken incorrectly at the ends of lines, that text hasn’t been dropped between pages, and more.

Why Two Edits?

Since the proofread, by definition, must happen at the proof stage, it’s got to happen after the copyedit. And, though it could be possible to skip the copyedit and just go for the proofread to save a step and some money, that’s not advisable. That’s because, if the proofreader is trying to do a copyedit at the same time as the proofread, two things are likely to happen:

  1. That proofreader is going to miss some things. Nobody is that sharp. Especially if the project is a full-length book, there are so many things to keep track! One person doing one read is almost inevitably going to overlook a few errors.
  2. If the proofreader is responsible for the first and second round of small-scale edits, they’re going to find medium-scale issues with continuity, flow of ideas, or something else. These changes could end up being substantial, and they could significantly impact the book’s layout. If you’ve already had somebody format the entire book, you’ll have to go back to that person and ask for a do-over. Then you’ll probably want to ask the proofreader for another look at the proof, to make sure that their initial changes were implemented correctly.

Basically, it’s easier and more efficient to take the steps individually: Copyedit, then layout, and then proofread.

Should Two Edits Equal Two Editors?

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll go into bit more depth here. Basically, I advocate for hiring two different people for copyediting and proofreading whenever possible. Because here’s the thing: Humans are fallible. Every editorial professional has their particular strengths…and attendant weaknesses. One person might be great with commas but not super strong with hyphens, for instance. Another might be a wiz at noticing consistency errors but have less success keeping track of chapter opener styling. You get the idea.

Once your copyeditor finishes their work, a proofreader can notice the things they missed, and fix up layout issues. In short, two sets of eyes are usually better than one when it comes to polishing a publishing project. (A word to the wise. Though word-processing software is getting better all the time, even Scrivener isn’t remotely as good at spotting issues as a human being. Sorry, folks. Language is weird, and letting machines do your editing is still not a good idea.)

All that said, sometimes working with one person on several rounds of edits can be smart. If that person is good at what they do and really gets the project, it can be rewarding to go a few read-throughs with one brain. It can even be friendlier to your wallet, if you find someone who’s willing to cut a deal for combined work.

However many editors you choose to work with, the copyedit and the proofread should be separate processes. Your project will be stronger, better, and much shinier for it.

You can learn more about the full editorial process here, find out what editorial services I provide here, and contact me about edits here!

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