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.
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.
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.