What Is the Difference Between Copy Editing and Proofreading?

An example of proofing marks

As paper goes away, so does the need for proofreading?

What is Proofreading, Anyway?

Proofreading, in a traditional sense, is when one compares typeset (unpublished) pages against original copy to ensure that no errors have been introduced when keying the copy and arranging text and images for publication.  The original can be article that is being republished, in whole or in part, or it can be a printed manuscript sent in by an author, for example.

In these halcyon days of the early twenty-first century, it would be unusual for a publication to accept a hardcopy manuscript from a writer and then have it keyed for publication.  Authors now turn in electronic files of their work, skipping the need (and cost) for keyers and proofreaders.  But for products that repackage information, publishers must still have articles marked up, keyed (or scanned via OCR in India), and proofread before publication.

So while it may seem that the task of proofreading hardcopy against typeset pages is falling to the wayside in the digital age, the editorial process of proofreading is still an important step.  Proofreading is the last editorial step before publication — the last chance to catch errors in text or visual consistency.

A photo of a stack of style manuals

Copy Editing, In Plain English

Copy editing is the correction of grammatical errors, including syntax, punctuation, and spelling.  Copy editors clarify text and check facts.  Not only must a copy editor know the English language inside and out, but she must also know the style manual(s) required for the project.  Copy editors also make judgements when faced with grey areas undefined by English standards or the style manual.

Think copy editing sounds dry and staid?  Have you heard of the great serial comma debate?  Nothing mild about that.

Copy Editing Is Still King

As text messaging and other expedited forms of communication transform (or some would argue mangle) the English language, there are those who feel that copy editing is on the way out.  Detractors do not want to take the time or spend the money to make their copy correct, perhaps because they are in a rush to publish or because they assume (and hope) that what they have written is comprehensible and that is good enough.

Not so.  Grammatical errors — especially spelling! — are the mark of slapdash writing, whether you are in elementary school, college, or working in an office.  Some may be willing to shrug off these mistakes, but think of this: everyone still notices the error and those errors have your name or business attached to them.