What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading?

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Copyediting and proofreading are two different stages of the journey from blank page to published document, but nowadays the line between them is often blurred. A good rule of thumb is that copyediting comes first and usually involves more extensive changes than proofreading. Think of it as the difference between a haircut and a blow-dry: the first usually involves more substantial changes, and there’s little point in getting the hairdryer out until you’re happy with what you’ve got to work with.

In this post, we’ll look at what copyediting and proofreading involve, what each service is best for, and when the difference doesn’t really matter.

What is copyediting?

Once you’ve decided what you want to say and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), a copyeditor helps make sure you’ve got your message across in the most effective way possible. They take your text and look for ways to improve it from every angle. 

A man examines a game with two children: Copyeditors look at your text from every angle
Copyeditors look at your text from every angle
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Copyediting usually involves:

  • improving style and use of vocabulary
  • helping you to convey your argument and ideas clearly and logically
  • working on readability, consistency and tone of voice
  • ensuring correct spelling, grammar and punctuation 
  • applying any guidelines (e.g. a company’s house style or publisher’s instructions)
  • improving the structure of the text and removing repetition.

Because copyediting can involve extensive changes to the text, it’s best to do it before any extensive formatting or design work; otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll have to do all that again!

What is proofreading?

A proofreader carries out a series of checks on a document to make sure everything’s as it should be just before it goes live or to print. 

Proofreading consists of:

  • correcting remaining language errors, including typos, grammar, punctuation and inappropriate vocabulary
  • making sure a document is internally consistent 
  • applying any guidelines (e.g. a company’s house style or publisher’s instructions)
  • checking for errors in a document’s design, presentation and layout
  • comparing the designed version of a document with the original text to make sure nothing has gone missing, if applicable. 

Due to its very nature, proofreading should be one of the very last steps before a text is finalised – and it should certainly be done after any formatting or design work. Otherwise, there’s a risk that errors will creep in after the proofreader has finished. 

Proofreading vs editing: the services compared

Of course, some elements are common to both services; neither an editor nor a proofreader would be aiming to leave spelling or grammar errors in their finished text, for instance. But the scope and focus of each service are quite different, and they’re determined partly by the point in the process at which they take place.

Here’s a handy summary of what proofreading and copyediting involve and how they differ:

FocusCopyeditingProofreading
Style and use of vocabulary
Clarity and logic of argument
Tone of voice
Readability
Tone of voice
Structure
House style guidelines
Spelling
Grammar
Punctuation
Consistency
Layout and design errors
Content lost during design

So do I need copyediting or proofreading?

In short, it depends what shape your text is in and what you’re planning to do with it. 

There are many reasons why copyediting might be a good idea. Maybe you’re an inexperienced writer, or English isn’t your first language. Perhaps several people have contributed to your document and there’s a chance they’ve contradicted or repeated one another, they’ve written in different styles or their individual sections don’t form a cohesive whole. Or perhaps you’re simply aiming to make a big impact with your text – sharing groundbreaking research findings, communicating big news about your company to the world or getting ready to pitch your latest novel. If any of these scenarios ring true, you might want to check out our copyediting services.

In all these circumstances, an expert copyeditor can wave the magic wand you’re looking for. They’ll make sure you’re communicating your information, arguments and ideas clearly, professionally and in a way that will maximise your chances of achieving your aims. 

A big pile of work can be overwhelming: copyeditors and proofreaders can help lighten the load
We can help, whatever shape your text is in

Conversely, it could be that you’re almost ready to say goodbye to your text. You might be about to make a new webpage go live and just need a fresh pair of eyes to check that you haven’t contravened your company’s house style or formatted your bullet points differently to the rest of the site. Or it may be that a designer has just spent a fortnight making your new sales brochure look a million dollars and you just want to pick up those final typos that your eyes are too tired to notice. Enter the proofreader. If this sounds like what you’re after, you can find out more about our proofreading services here.

When the difference matters…

Sometimes, both editing and proofreading are needed – especially if a document is undergoing extensive formatting or graphic design work. At Tate & Clayburn, we offer both these services to many of our business and public sector clients. When working on a corporate announcement, a glossy magazine or a major public sector report, for example, we copyedit the text before it goes to the design team and we then proofread it right at the end of the process. For the highest-stakes projects with complex processes, clients sometimes ask for several rounds of each service to be sure that their content is in the best shape possible at each stage of production. 

In these cases, both stages of the process have a key role to play in ensuring that the words and the design and layout complement one another perfectly. And each stage of the process must clearly take place at the right time.

… and when it doesn’t matter

In other, less formal contexts, the distinction between copyediting and proofreading can be a little less clear – and much less worth worrying about. If you’re preparing a cover letter for a job application, you’re unlikely to have a design team on hand, so there’s little need to make a distinction. An academic submitting a paper to a journal simply needs to ensure that their research is presented as clearly and convincingly as possible – and in flawless language, of course – to maximise their chances of being accepted (although, strictly speaking, there should be a separate academic proofreading stage once the journal is about to publish their submission). In these cases, our clients just want us to do what’s needed for a text to be the best it can be. And that’s exactly what we do. 

Editorial experts at your service

Whatever you’re planning – be it a 500-page corporate report or an email to your boss – we’re always happy to share our thoughts on what would work best for you depending on your circumstances, budget and timings and what you’re trying to achieve. So if you’re wondering whether you need a professional copyeditor, an expert proofreader or just a quick read-through by your aunt’s next-door neighbour, drop us a line. We’ll even sometimes recommend the third option – we promise.

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