Many independent authors, academics and businesses contact me to ask for their paper, manuscript, blog, etc to be proofread as soon as they have finished writing it. This usually leads to a discussion about whether they actually need a copy-editor rather than a proofreader. Generally, this situation arises because many people aren’t aware of the processes that written material usually goes through prior to publication, and nor are they aware of the problems with their writing.
The aims of this blog are to help explain what copy-editing and proofreading actually mean and also to clarify the difference between them.
Just to complicate matters further, there are several other levels of editing – e.g. developmental, structural and line – that are frequently carried out on a manuscript. It’s also worth noting that definitions of each level of editing can differ slightly from place to place and in practice there is often an overlap between some of the levels. However, as I generally provide copy-editing and proofreading services (not to mention copywriting), this blog is limited to focusing on these two aspects.
What is copy-editing?
Unsurprisingly, the SfEP is probably the go-to place for an explanation: “Copy-editing takes the raw material (the ‘copy’: anything from a novel to a web page) and makes it ready for publication … The aim of copy-editing is to ensure that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, fit for purpose and free of error, omission, inconsistency and repetition.”
As a consequence, copy-editing involves a much higher level of intervention (and therefore greater time and cost) than proofreading. This means it will make more significant changes to the text than proofreading and will streamline the work, knocking off the rough edges to produce a better and easier read.
In most cases, a document is likely to need some degree of editing before being proofread.
What is proofreading?
Again, the SfEP provides a good summary: “After material has been copy-edited, the publisher sends it to a designer or typesetter. Their work is then displayed or printed, and that is the proof – proof that it is ready for publication. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up … A proofreader looks for consistency in usage and presentation, and accuracy in text, images and layout, but cannot be responsible for the author’s or copy-editor’s work.”
The main point here is that proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up – it shouldn’t involve any major changes to the text, such as completely rewriting poorly worded sentences.
Having said that, an important caveat is that in some circles the name ‘proofreading’ is occasionally used as a catch-all term to encompass editing and proofreading, merely for convenience.
So which service do I need?
The requirement for copy-editing or proofreading can differ from job to job. For example, a manuscript that is going to be published is likely to undergo several rounds of editing prior to proofreading, whereas a student’s thesis will probably not require anything like as much scrutiny. Furthermore, if you are a non-native English speaker and your work hasn’t been edited, it is unlikely that you will just need a proofread. Therefore, the service you require will be dependent on your own specific circumstances.
In many cases it may be appropriate to carry out a ‘proof-edit’, which – as the name suggests – is a combination of copy-editing and proofreading carried out at the same time. It is a compromise between undertaking each stage separately, but there will obviously be time and cost savings and for many clients a proof-edit is perfectly acceptable (e.g. for a thesis/dissertation or a corporate blog/report).
Want more information?
If things still aren’t clear, I’d point you towards the SfEP’s FAQs because they are full of useful information.
Alternatively, please contact me if you’d like to discuss the particular requirements for your project.