Copy Editing vs. Proofreading

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I may not jump up and down about it, but there comes the point in the journey where the writing ends and the copy editing and proofreading begins.

Yes, I’m one of those authors who insists everything I put on the page is gold and needs no changing. But I begrudgingly accept the possibility I could be wrong. So, turning my work over for copy editing and proofreading goes with the process.

But it took me a minute to figure out what I was doing. What trips many people up (and I was one of them) is that most writers can’t distinguish the nuances between proofreading and copy editing. They are not the same thing.

Proofreading entails checking your document to see if it reads well, while copy editing is the process of making it read better. It may sound like identical processes, but they most certainly are not.

We’re going to see what differentiates these two vital styles for creating a single vision. Read on to check out my copy editing vs. proofreading comparison.


What’s Copy Editing?

Copy editing is a comprehensive process for revising and organizing the presentation of a piece of writing. The editor works her way through your manuscript word-by-word to check spelling, continuity, grammar, usage, and more. The ultimate goal of copy editing is to ensure the smooth readability of a manuscript.

Is Copy Editing Editing?

An author may need a detailed edit (which actually has nothing to do with a copy edit). Editing is a fine-tuning of development and structure.

An editor may read the piece and see exactly where the parts aren’t working. From this point, you start restructuring and rewriting. The edit may be light or heavy. She may go through the work multiple times.

Now, when you’re doing it yourself, it can be difficult to see structural flaws objectively. That’s why another eye can be crucial. Editors are a godsend! (And trust me, it kills me to admit it.)

The edit is a deep dive into the mechanics of writing. And once it’s done, you stick your toes in the waters of copy editing and proofreading. Some are capable of doing both at the same time. I prefer to stick to copy editing first and proofing after. But that’s not a hard and fast rule I stick to. It’s all about getting the work to the right place in the best ways you can.

Now, my last statements are about my process. My process has nothing to do with what will happen to a document after I turn it over. It’s my job to turn in the best content possible. The client is likely still going to put it through their editorial process as they should.

What a Copy Editor Will Do

A copy editor will go through the document from beginning to end, looking for errors in:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Capitalization
  • Word usage
  • Dialogue tags
  • Usage of numbers or numerals
  • Point of view (tense)
  • Descriptive inconsistencies
  • Tone consistency
  • Formatting
  • Style guides

Style Guides

There are several style guides to help editors and authors manage consistency throughout a manuscript. Style guides provide requirements for writing that improve and standardize consistency and communication across writing and within multiple documents.

The most popular style guides include the Associated Press or AP. It relates specifically to journalism. The American Psychological Association, or APA, is a style guide for scholarly writing, and the MLA (Modern Language Association) is another. The Chicago Manual of Style, or CMOS, is probably the most common guide for publishing.

Your copy editor needs to be familiar with at least one of the guides. Without the knowledge of style guides, it would be hard to ensure strict adherence to appropriate stylizing.

Each style guide has rules for sentence punctuation, hyphenation, writing out or spelling numbers, percentage signs, etc. As stated, one guide might take precedence. If you’re putting together an academic paper, it’s important to follow the MLA style guide. In the world of novels, CMOS is the Holy Grail of style.

The most important thing to remember with style guides is to apply them for consistency. That’s where your copy editor is invaluable.


I’ve had experiences with writing that’s pretentious, boring, or written in a way that’s difficult to read. Often these manuscripts wind up on a slush pile, never to see the light of day.

Unless you’re an established author, researcher, celebrity, or another widely recognized individual, lack of readability is the kiss of death for a manuscript. A copy edit can minimize that threat.

The copy edit process is extensive. A copy editor reads through the entire manuscript, often more than once. On the first pass, she reads to familiarize herself with the story. It’s a scan for consistency in characters, subject, tone, word choice, and verb tense.

Examples of Copy Edits

One of the most common technical errors new authors make is switching between past and present tense. This shift makes the story difficult to follow and confuses readers.

You write: I played the guitar and my fingers throbbed.

This sample sentence is past tense. While the sentence itself makes perfect sense, the tense is past and takes you out of the moment.

The copy editor may suggest: I play the guitar all night.

The sentence has been edited for present tense. Now the phrasing is more straightforward and shorter (in writing, less goes further than more). The sentence is forceful and direct. Conditional and future tenses can be hard to follow. Present tense helps clarify meaning and puts the reader in the moment.

New writers may shy away from using an editor. They worry that the editing process will significantly alter the story or change their voice. You need to remember a copy edit has nothing to do with the story except making it easier to read. A good copy edit means your voice stays throughout. A good editor will enhance the voice rather than alter it.

You write: Sally walked slowly around the building in order to get a better view of what she thought was happening, though she wasn’t sure if it was a waste of her time or if there was something truly fishy going on.

An editor might suggest: She walked slowly. Sally thought something fishy was happening in the building. She hoped to get a better view. She worried it was a waste of time, though.

The author’s intent remains intact while the passage has a nicer flow. The former is unnecessarily clunky and wordy. A lot of writers who have minimum word counts tend to go overboard to reach the limit. Unfortunately, almost anyone can see that trick. And just like that, you’ve lost a point.

In writing, less is more.

How Copy Editing Changes Your Manuscript

I think the key to copy editing is that while the editor may appear to make significant changes to your manuscript, she doesn’t make changes (or will avoid making changes) to content or overall structure. She’ll offer advice that might improve those elements. She will look at significant errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

Copy editing concentrates on the mechanics to polish what already exists in your writing to make it more appealing and easy to read.

What’s Proofreading?

It’s fascinating to note regardless of how meticulous a writer you are or how fastidious the editor, somehow mistakes get through whether the piece is 800 words or 80,000.

Laymen often interchange proofreading and copy editing. Authors want proofing services when they need copy editing services (or vice versa). They are not the same thing though.

Proofreading is as equally challenging as copy editing but involves the mechanics of writing. The proofing process entails walking through the document separate from a copy edit and marking errors that affect readability.

A proofreader is the last barrier between your manuscript and the outside world. He looks out for anything your previous reader may have missed. He ensures that your manuscript’s formatting and typeset properly, that grammatical and spelling is on point, and the work’s ready for reading.

Some of the elements your proofreader will look for include:

  • Review of documents for spelling and grammar
  • Ensuring the writing adheres to the appropriate writing style
  • Checks content to ensure it’s original
  • Ensure content aligns with expected character and tone of intended publisher or audience
  • suggests edits and corrections that will enhance the writer
  • Fact checks and researches for accuracy
  • Ensure the document’s formatted consistently and properly, such as headers are all bold, sentence case or italics

Proofreaders come through the door at the end of the editorial process (which can include but may not be only limited to copy editing). It’s a unique and exacting process.

A manuscript has to be on point. A single typo, contextual inconsistency, or grammatical error can be jolting. And the last thing a writer wants is to throw the reader — whether that reader’s a publisher or target — out of the narrative. When it happens, your reader steps out of the story and tries to rectify mechanical mistakes. That’s why proofreading is so important. It helps maintain an uninterrupted flow in your work.

More importantly, your proofreader gives the work one last necessary polish, a level of professionalism that shines on you.

Plodding through an unproofed book is like watching a shoddily produced motion picture. Everyone from potential publishers to readers end up believing no one cared enough to invest in the work. Worse, the more work a manuscript warrants on the publisher or reader’s side, the less they’ll want to keep reading (or worse, follow your work).

The primary responsibility of the proofreader is highlighting mistakes, often leaving the final decision to make changes to an editor or writer. Proofreaders usually don’t copy edit. But it’s not unusual that he’d find glaring blunders in the text missed by a previous editor.

Copy editors simply comment, writing their notes in a separate document or utilizing a Notes feature available in WORD or Google DOCS. Proofreaders instead write directly in the document, using a language for their suggestions that’s unique to the field. These markings are shortcuts for specific document changes.

Take a look at the following table. While there may be variations of the symbols, these are the most commonly applied markings. (Some proofreaders may not use them at all, preferring to longhand the instructions.)

1New paragraphWriters often miss necessary breaks in the text that would enhance the visual flow of the narrative.
2DeleteIf a word, letter, or clause isn’t required, the proofreader plasters the delete symbol over the text you should remove.
3Remove spaceExtra space is common in a lot of writing. This symbol is the edit for removing unneeded space.
4TransposeTyping words in the incorrect order is another common typo. This symbol tells you which words to switch.
5InsertYour proofreader will note you’re missing a word or phrase which would complete your statement. He’ll write out what needs to be inserted and use the Insert symbol to show where to place the text.
6     En or Em dashYou use the en or em dash to punctuate text. Instead of a colon, parentheses, or commas, the dash draws attention without disrupting the flow of the narrative.
7    Move left or rightMove content left or right. The symbol is usually as long as the space content should go.
8Use italicsMost style guides ask for italics with published materials. Proofreaders may apply italics to highlight a word to accentuate a word or phrase.
9Change to capsProofreaders will highlight content that should start with a capital letter or entire words to capitalize.
10    Horizontal or vertical alignmentProofers use these symbols to indicate the correction when text somehow ends up out of place or is misaligned.

Other responsibilities of the proofreader concern measuring margins and spaces so that the manuscript meets publication standards. In the newspaper and magazine world, it’s common for proofreaders to position headlines, photos, and articles.

copy editing
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Examples of Proofreading

Here’s a sample of how a proofreader works.

The Original Text

His arms was numb. His left knee felt like pulp. Not that the man could see the knee. Neal was sure he wanted to anyway. But he felt it. The pain hadn’t subside, even though it had been days. Or hours. Or… He wasn’t sure no more. He’d been engulfed in the darkness a long time and couldn’t remember what time it was. Night was day, and day was night, and that Rolex on his left wrist was useless with his hands taped behind his back.

After Proofreading

I don’t use proofreading symbols here, but you should get an idea of what the proofreader does to improve the ebb and flow of the narrative.

His arms were numb. His left knee was pulp. Not that he could see it see the knew. Neal wasn’t sure he wanted to anyway. But he felt it. The pain hadn’t subsided, even though it had been days. Or hours. Or… He wasn’t sure anymore. He’d been engulfed in the darkness too long and couldn’t remember what time it was. Night was day, and day was night, and the Rolex on his left wrist was useless with his hands taped behind his back.

Proofreading With a Blend of Copy Editing

Neither profession involves making significant alterations to your text. (That would be a major task given to an editor.) The distinction between the two applications applies in most cases, especially if we’re talking about the publishing industry.

Overall, modern freelancers blur the lines between the two skill sets. I’d attribute this to the advancement in techs like Microsoft WORD and Grammarly. Both of these solutions and many word processing solutions track writing issues in documents. They then make general suggestions for corrections. There’s also software that claims to do the work of a copy editor.

Most applications are both copy editor and proofreader without distinguishing between the two. The platforms, for the most part, only look at minor issues in phrasing. WORD does not look for clarity, narrative, structure, etc. Google DOCS will not tell you if there are contradicting statements in different parts of the work. They only look at your writing from a generic stance.

You don’t get the personalized touch that takes your voice, intent, or audience into account. They can also be frustrating. I’ve found Grammarly’s habit of telling me to correct hyphenation and then telling me to change it back during a second read quite annoying!

It’s critical to know the difference between copy editing and proofreading and how each impacts your writing. Copy editing is a heavy line read and edit that emphasizes concision, clarity, and voice. Proofreading focuses on errors in grammar, spelling, etc., elements that disrupt the reading flow.

Now, I wouldn’t totally dismiss technology outright. An add-on like WordRake does a decent job of analyzing your writing right in WORD or Outlook. It utilizes a track change, in-line style, and lets you choose edits. But again, WordRake lacks the personal touch.

Strategies for Doing Your Own Copy Editing and Proofing

Even if I’m eventually hiring a pro to go over my work, I shouldn’t be lazy and leave all the work to them. Clear writing will give the hired hand a greater understanding of your intent. Knowingly handing over a manuscript chockful of my mistakes is a mistake.

Errors will always slip through, but spending a little time revising and refining to present the highest value, substantive piece you can create is essential. Trust that the more time you put into getting it right, the less time you’ll spend doing it over time. It worked for me!

Here are a few tips for getting through the process effectively.

Let the Document Marinate

If your deadline allows, let the work sit, if only for an hour. The longer you worked on the material, the harder it will be to see your errors. Putting it aside helps you gain perspective.

Work in a Quiet Place

Concentration is crucial. Work in a place where you limit distraction. Avoid answering the phone or checking email. Anything that steals focus is a detriment to the process.

Use Stages to Review the Draft

As I said, I prefer to approach copy editing and proofreading separately. I start with assessing clarity and flow, making changes by adding, moving, or deleting. Next, I line edit, pinpointing clear communication. I look at spelling, word choices, sentence structure, punctuation, and so on.

Line editing isn’t copy editing now. The copy edit is the polish. Proofreading is the final stage, carefully reviewing the document for errors like misused phrasing and misspelling.

Read It Aloud

Reading the text out loud is helpful. It forces you to listen to how the material sounds. I find it to be the best way to catch awkward transitions, run-ons, and missing words.

One thing I like about WORD is the software can read the text to you. The robotic voice takes away the passion and makes noticing mistakes easier.

Take Breaks

Detail-oriented work like this can be mentally challenging. Your attention will wane, so take breaks every half hour or so. Being too focused can cause you to miss errors. Breaks also improve your analytical side.

Backward Editing

Editing in reverse is a process I highly recommend and use often. Review each paragraph in reverse order without prejudice, i.e., knowing what comes before. Taking the content out of its context makes highlighting gaffes a lot easier.

Replace Repetitive Words and Phrasing

Use your SEARCH feature to go through the document to find inconsistencies and common errors. It lets you see repetitive material. With the highlighting, you can replace words allowing you to add variety and change up inconsistency.

I hope you find this information on copy editing vs. proofreading useful as you put together the best writing you can produce.

Related post: 10 Valuable Grammarly Alternatives (Tested and True)

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