What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading, anyway?

What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading, anyway?

I’m not a language maven.

lady looking over her glassesWell, at least I hope not. You know the type: the self-proclaimed expert grammarian who likes to correct your text messages because they think abbreviations are an abomination. Or the friend who has decided a grammar faux pas on Facebook renders your post null and void. Or the language prescriptivists who don’t like it when you verb a noun, despite their never having studied linguistics… Yeah, them. I’m more of a ‘go with the flow’ kind of copyeditor and proofreader. And there’s a lot of flow to go through before we even get to grammar. Language is fluid. Ever evolving and changing. I like to think language is water. And I love to swim.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all the rules of grammar go out the window. Far from it. When I wade out into your writing waters (copyedit) and surf that final wave back to shore (proofread), I’ll be surveying the horizon and considering the complete view: genre, register, structure, style, voice, theme(s), language and the list goes on… and I’ll make sure they’re all swimming in the same ocean and even in the right direction… I mean, that’s a lot of surfing before we even get to grammar.


So, if it’s not running your writing through Grammarly (yes, it is a useful tool; no, it’s not enough), then what is copyediting? And what is proofreading? Copyediting is knowing you need to be able to keep the horizon in perspective, intimately know the tide, and be able to stand up on the board and balance before you can surf. And now to apply this surfing metaphor… Let’s say you’re writing a memoir, how does your writing work – or not work – within the genre? That’s your horizon to keep looking to. Did you know that memoirs have been written since ancient times; has this impacted your writing? Have you been consistent? Being clear and consistent is the tide. For example, if grandma has a ruby ring on page 17 but it’s a garnet on page 83, I’ll be asking if you can remember which gem it is, or if there are two rings.

And have you been factual? A memoir is often a touchstone moment in a person’s life, anchored in time and place. Are all the names correct? What about dates – are they correct and consistent? A copy editor will be check spelling; dates; facts; consistency of capitalisation, use of hyphens, use of numerals, etc.; historical accuracy and the veracity of your writing; making sure your syntax is sensical; all while ensuring each sentence, paragraph, and chapter is functioning to bring out the best in your writing. That’s the tide coming in from the horizon and reaching out to the shore.


Oh, and we’ll try to make sure you don’t get sued! Yep, that’s a thing we do. I’ll consider your potential legal liability and work with you so that your manuscript doesn’t libel anyone. That’s, wait for it, making sure you don’t get bitten by a shark. Get it? Because lawyers are sharks… I’m having too much fun with this metaphor (which at this stage, as a good copyeditor will know, is a conceit). Surprised by all the things your copyeditor does before they catch that final wave back to shore? But wait, there’s more!

We probably won’t throw in a free set of steak knives for your surf and turf, but we will check your use of punctuation. We’ll also check your use of font, bullet points, graphs and most anything you’ve included. We’re resourceful and adaptable like that. What about British or American spelling variations – have you been consistent? Which does your publisher prefer? A good copy editor will know the preferences of different publishing houses (and we often even have useful chunks of their style guides memorised) and will edit your work accordingly. In short, a copyeditor is in a continual – approximately month-long – process of expediently reading and re-reading, and appraising and assessing, your writing so that it has continuity, consistency, cohesiveness and is (finally) complete.


baseball game in actionAnd here is where your proofreader comes in, she’s been patiently waiting for that perfect, awesome wave (yes, that was an alt-J reference) to finish on. Proofreading doesn’t happen until after your manuscript has gone to the printers. This final copy of the manuscript (that is: the proof copy) is then examined by a professional proofreader. Depending on your publishing house, and some other factors, your copyeditor and proofreader could be the same person or different people. (I prefer to do both the copyediting and the proofreading, but I’ll also get a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript).

Now, this doesn’t mean that the copyeditor has done all the work and then the proofreader swoops in at the last minute and steals their wave. No, to mix my sporting metaphors (I should confess I’m not much of a surfer and I should have gone with a dance or gymnastics metaphor), the proofreader is your backstop. They need to catch anything that has been missed because no matter how good your copyeditor is, mistakes or inconsistencies always find their way into a book. As well as this, your proofreader is looking out for changes that might arise once a document moves to print. She’ll have the original edited copy in one hand and the proof in the other and compare the two documents, checking that there are no omissions or strange gaps or missing pages, or awkward page or word breaks. So, there you have it, folks: the difference between copyediting and proofreading… and why both are necessary to give your book its best chance.

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