Proofreaders? Copy Editors? What’s the Difference? (And Why Should You Care?)

Photo of a bunch of pencils; all of them are black and white except one right in the middle that is bright red and really stands out.
Time to break out the red pencil. (Photo: stillfx)

If you can remember a time when you were not being asked to do more with less, you may also recall that once upon a time in the world of publishing, a piece of writing was reviewed by two people possessing distinct editorial skills.

Yes, the job of a proofreader was different from that of a copy editor.

The era of the computer has reshaped these two editorial efforts—far more so with copy editing than proofreading. Copy editing used to be performed with a pen or pencil to note revisions on a printout of a manuscript.

Proofreading was also performed on a printout—but as you should surmise by the “proof” in proofreading, that particular printout was usually a facsimile of the finished product.

Yes, Writing Has Been Known to Kill Trees

So, while a copy editor may have done his or her job on a stack of letter-size papers filled with double-spaced typed writing, a proofreader might have been working from a galley or some form of mockup that was as close as one could get to the actual finished product.

There are several reasons copy editing gets done earlier in the process. The overriding one is that copy editing should happen long before something nears publication. That’s where—through the process of copy editing—a writer’s work is reviewed and corrected so that it follows the conventions of good writing.

This would include checking for grammar and punctuation as well as making observations or recommendations when the writing just doesn’t stand on its own.

Presto Chango!

At this point, the writing is in flux. A paragraph on one page might be pushed to the next because of the placement of omitted words. How many times have you added just one little comma… and watched the next several pages of your document rewrap in completely different ways? Ick.

So the proofreader stood by patiently and waited until the work between the writer and copy editor was completed. Then, and only then, did the proofreader bring his or her editorial skills to the fore.

Please Put Away Your Pens and Pencils

With the running assumption that the editing was complete, the formatting in place, and the ability to see the writing in its intended final position, the proofreader could check for the things that were important for his or her contribution—which was assuring that no typographical errors remained. Period.

Old black-and-white photo from 1943 showing several older men sitting around a circular desk, intently focused on reading newspaper copy; they are wearing the old-fashioned visors.
Proofreading desk at a U.S. newspaper, 1943. (Photo: Library of Congress)

That Last Hyphen Just Has to Go

Just as important as the quest for no typos is the effort to have the text flow pleasingly on screen or on the page. Are there four lines in a row that end with a hyphenated word? Does the text flow correctly around the graphic? Is there a widow (gasp!) at the top of a page?

You could say that the copy editor does the “heavy lifting,” and the proofreader makes sure that all the rules are enforced and it all looks nice in the end.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Does that mean that having your writing copy edited is more important than having it proofed?

Some may argue that the latter in this day and age is a luxury. And the truth is, if you have the skill of a copy editor, you probably also possess the ability of a proofreader.

Which gets us back to that “do more with less” proposition back at the start. Your writing can be greatly helped by a copy editor—whereas even if it’s in perfect form, bad writing will still leave an unfortunate taste in your mouth.

Please excuse the simile.

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Slaiter
    December 4, 2012

    I totally agree with the re-wrapping of the words when even a single character is typed, how annoying! Thanks for the post, definitely broadened my knowledge 🙂

    Reply
    1. Super Copy Editors
      December 4, 2012

      You’re welcome, Tom. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply

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