Proofreading or Copy Editing: Which Service Do You Need?

Finishing your final draft is only the beginning. By that point, your written piece makes perfect sense to you…for better and for worse. You might know your topic inside and out, and your confidence might well show through. But the little grammatical errors, inconsistent punctuation, and awkward turns of phrase that were forgivable in your first draft may have become so familiar to you by now that you can’t see them for the problems they are.

It’s time to get a fresh, experienced pair of eyes on your draft. It’s time for an editor.

But how do you tell an editor exactly what you need, if the whole point of the editing process is to correct problems you’ve overlooked? This little guide will help you get exactly the editing services you’re after by helping you see things from an editor’s point of view.

The Difference, and Why it Matters

Many people use the terms proofreading and copy editing somewhat interchangeably to mean “find what’s wrong and fix it.” Editors use them to describe considerably different things, each appropriate for a certain stage of the publishing process. Knowing which one to ask for can save you time, frustration, and money.

Broadly speaking, proofreading checks for accidental errors and typos, while copy editing catches problems you might have introduced intentionally. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Proofreading: A Final Chance to Get it Right

Proofreading checks your document for misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and other typos. It puts a final polish on your draft, ridding it of any mistakes that might distract readers or convey sloppiness.

In print publication, proofreading occurs after a book or periodical has been laid out and just before it heads to the printer. It represents the last chance to make sure that everything is just as the author and publisher wish it to be, with no missed punctuation, subtle misspellings, or other little flies in the ointment.

Proofreading takes its name from galley proofs, the preliminary print runs that give authors and editors an idea of exactly how a book or periodical has been laid out and a chance to make last-second changes to its text. In the days before digital typesetting, books and periodicals were transposed by hand from the final manuscript to the printing press. This process invited human error, sometimes in the form of typesetters who thought they were lending a hand. No one who typeset Ulysses could read English; James Joyce was worried that English speakers would “correct” his manuscript, so his publisher had the work done in Dijon, France. Proofreading was a necessary step before the presses began to roll.

These days, most manuscripts start as digital files and stay that way until they are printed. But the lack of human intervention can also be a drawback. Typesetters once recreated each single character and space of the manuscript in physical form, either by assembling moveable type or by operating a mechanized typesetting system. This gave them a perfect opportunity to make technical corrections. Digital typesetting offers fewer opportunities to correct little quirks that make it through to the final manuscript.

Proofreading, even without traditional galley proofs, is more important than ever. Many editors even include it as a matter of course when they perform copy editing or other more intensive work. Speaking of which….

Copy Editing: An Expert Reader for Your Draft

Copy editing goes beyond proofreading’s concern with technical details to address questions of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. Proofreading asks whether punctuation, spelling, and layout are consistent throughout a draft; copy editing asks whether they are correct.

This is what most people think of when they think of editing. And with good reason: copy editing has no fixed definition, so it can be construed broadly enough to fit a huge range of editing tasks.

At its heart, copy editing helps a draft speak more clearly, consistently, and accurately. When your draft packs too many ideas into a single run-on sentence, a copy editor will find a way to give each concept its due. When you’ve chosen a phrase that makes sense to you but remains ambiguous to your readers, a copy editor will replace it with wording that keeps your argument clear and focused.

Copy editors have historically worked on everything from novels to scientific papers, but they have found their most durably valuable role in newsrooms. Journalists on tight deadlines must often choose between submitting their stories on time and writing them perfectly. The deadline always wins, so copy editors step in to ensure that each story is fit to print.

This can include services beyond traditional copy editing, such as fact-checking and even substantial rewriting. Each story in a newspaper must fit along with the others to form a complete layout; copy editors must often trim stories and rewrite transitions to ensure that the results are complete, accurate, and readable. Along the way, they ensure that each piece conforms to the newspaper’s house style.

None of these functions is exclusive to newspapers. Whether you’ve written a tweet, an article, or an entire book, a copy editor can free you to focus on the ideas you wish to convey, secure in the knowledge that an expert will help those ideas shine.

An Editing Service for Every Need

Proofreading and copy editing are the best-known forms of editing, but they’re not the only ones. Line editing extends beyond copy editing to consider voice and style at the sentence and paragraph levels, and can involve more extensive rewriting. Substantial editing goes even further, giving the editor free rein to move and rewrite entire passages for improved logical flow and readability. Developmental editing invites the editor into the writing process itself, giving authors advice and guidance as they write and revise their manuscripts.

Your editor is your draft’s envoy to the rest of the world: an expert reader and writer who can ensure that your ideas find exactly the right words for your audience. Knowing which editing service to ask for can help make your project’s editorial phase more efficient, productive, and successful.