Proofreading and copyediting: what’s the difference?

by | 17 August 2021

You’ve written a draft but know it could be better. Does it need proofreading or copyediting, and what’s the difference?

Perhaps it’s a business blog or a report with too much jargon.

Or the manuscript of a book that’s a little too wordy.

Or maybe you’ve rewritten so many times that your document is now too familiar: you need fresh eyes.

Read on to find out whether you need a proofreader or copyeditor to help you out.

Knowing the difference between proofreading and copyediting

Do you need to know how proofreading differs from copyediting?

Not necessarily, because an editorial professional will know that for you and be able to determine which service you need.

But if you’re writing a book and want to understand what’s next, outline knowledge of copyediting and proofreading skills will help.

What is copyediting?

The copyeditor’s job is to ready your document for publication, whether a company report or proposal, a book, a blog or other web content.

  • A copyeditor has a freer hand than a proofreader because there’s more to do at the copyediting stage and changes are far less costly.
  • Copyediting precedes design – there’s no point in making your work look great if major changes could follow – and proofreading.

Copyediting skills

A copyeditor ensures:

That your draft text sticks to house style. Publishers, academic journals and institutions almost always have a style guide. It ensures consistency in spelling, hyphenation, the use of capitals and numbers, across all publications.

  • Adviser/advisor, policy-maker/policy maker, chief executive/Chief Executive, 11/eleven are examples, together with style for headings and titles.
  • This consistency is important: readers will notice if on one page you are ‘organising’ but on the next you’re ‘organizing’. It will look unprofessional and interrupt flow.

That your copy is coherent and easy to read, which could mean altering a single word, a phrase or a whole paragraph. If text repeats or adds nothing it could be cut by the copyeditor, making your writing clearer and more concise and therefore a better read.

  • In a book I copyedited recently a section illustrated unrelated knowledge that digressed unhelpfully from the tale.
  • In another, a contentious opinion could have offended readers from whom the author sought help. Both sections were omitted, leaving the books in better shape.

That your tone and vocab suit the intended audience. Academic language won’t help lay readers; copy written for adults may not appeal to teens.

Additional checks:

That there are no glaring factual errors. Copyeditors are unlikely to check every fact but if a date or statement is dodgy, for example, will verify it themselves or query with you. Detailed fact-checking is not part of the copyediting job, though, unless agreed in advance.

That legal problems are avoided. Do expect a red flag if claims are dubious, potentially libellous or could infringe copyright. Don’t expect your copyeditor to have the specialist knowledge of a lawyer, though.

That your web-page layout helps readers. We read differently on screen and on paper. Online, we might move on after just eight seconds. Your copy should help readers find what they want in that time – or at least be easy to scan and make it clear that your site is useful.

A copyeditor could also help with your website’s meta data – the ‘back end’ text that appears on search pages.


What is proofreading?

Professional proofreading is your quality control, the final check and polish before you publish. It protects your reputation and your brand.

Freelance proofreaders look for the errors that others have missed, from the big-picture appearance of your project to the fine detail of spelling, grammar, punctuation and style.

Proofreading skills

A proofreader checks:

Grammar, spelling and punctuation, usually in line with a predetermined style.

  • If your project has been copyedited, house style should be integrated already – the style required by your publisher, journal or institution, for example. If not, the proofreader will agree a style with you.
  • It will cover the copyediting checks above, including the use of ise/ize spellings, of full points in acronyms (or not), and of single or double quote marks.
  • If your writing is consistent in terms of style it will flow more easily for readers and look more professional. That goes for print and web copy.

Graphics, images, tables, figures captions and headings – that they’re correct, consistent and match house style.

Web links and meta data – that your website or blog links work and, if part of the brief, the all-important meta text we see on search pages.

For omission and repetition.

Layout glitches, such as missing text or images, extra or missing space around headings.

  • Extra or missing space sounds a small thing but ensuring consistency makes a big difference to the look of your document or web page and the impression given.

Pagination, of a book or report, say.

The contents page – that it matches chapter page numbers.

  • I won’t be the only proofreader to have found chapters misnumbered. It is this type of error that makes professional proofreading so important.

Proofediting – the third way

Proofediting is a mix of copyediting and proofreading. It’s a one-stage, light-editing process, often required by academic, business or other non-publisher clients and writers for whom British English is not the first language.

Get in touch if you’d like help with your writing, be it a short or long project, web or print.

I’ll provide a style sheet unique to you which you can use in the future if you reprint or add new pages.

Other services include:

Cath Harris is the ultimate professional. She edited my book, Visionary, and her suggestions, especially concerning the sequencing of various passages in the narrative, have improved the final work immensely. Her suggested cuts, too, were really helpful, and her eye for detail was invaluable. I can’t thank her enough.

PHILLIP VINE, author, Visionary

Absolutely super job by Cath. Constant communication meant we were able to get the book to the printers on a very tight schedule. Very high-quality work. I would definitely recommend Cath for any proofreading work

SARAH JUGGINS, Co-author, Under an Orange Sky