Proofreading or copy-editing – what’s the difference?

posted in: Proofreading | 0

Every day I receive enquiries about proofreading. But, more often than not, what these clients actually need is copyediting. The level of intervention required is far more in-depth than spotting missing punctuation, misplaced letters, a consistency check or ensuring that a style guide has been adhered to. Clients often come to me needing help with word count reduction (I’ve written some tips about this here), checking a citation style has been followed, or imposing one, and formatting documents. All services I’m happy to provide.

The publishing industry

In the publishing industry there is a clear difference between the work of a copy-editor and a proofreader. They work at different stages in the production of a publication, usually a book, where the work will be checked and revised several times before finally going to print. The copy-editor’s task is to take the ‘copy’ – the author’s manuscript or document and prepare it for publication. During this process the copy-editor will take decisions about the style, for example alternative spellings, check for errors in grammar and for problems with the language, inconsistencies and structure. The proofreader comes in at a much later stage in the publication process as a final quality control check.

BSI proofreading mark-up

In the past, proofreading was done on paper using different coloured pens and a set of special symbols to clearly indicate the changes required to the manuscript. The proofreader had two separate paper documents to compare, side by side, the copy-edited typescript and a proof. They checked that all the corrections in the copy-edited manuscript had been transferred to the proof and that no other errors had crept in. Any corrections are marked on the proof using special BSI proofreading mark-up symbols. Of course, in the modern digital world this method is rare and most copy-editing and proofreading is done electronically.

Academic editing

Outside of the publishing industry, in other fields such as business and academia, the terms copy-editing and proofreading are often confused and the differences are less clear-cut. Many people look for a proofreading service when, in fact, they actually need a copy-editor. In simple terms, a proofreader will just check for mistakes in spelling, punctuation and layout, whereas editing is more intensive and can involve deleting or re-wording parts of the text to ‘improve’ it. Sometimes it’s necessary to change words or word order so that the text reads like native English. Generally, I prefer the term editing for ESL clients as this is a more accurate description of the work involved, or some people prefer to call it ‘proofediting’.