Copy editing and proofreading are two distinctly different jobs with the same goal: making a piece of writing as readable and error-free as possible. The difference between the two jobs is pretty simple: a copy editor will improve and correct what the author writes, while the proofreader makes sure the copy editor didn’t miss anything. In other words, one always comes after the other. 

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Copy Editing vs Proofreading: What’s the Difference and Which Do You Need?

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Copy editing ensures that a piece of writing is ‘correct.’ Most people will understand this to mean fixing spelling mistakes and correcting grammar issues, but this will usually go a lot further in professional publishing. 

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What is proofreading?

In traditional publishing, the proofreading stage comes directly before the book goes to print. After the copy has been edited, a designer or typesetter will create a file to send to the printers. Before they commit to printing 20,000 hard copies, they will create what’s called a ‘galley proof’— a test version of the book. A final digital version will also be evaluated for ebooks about to be published .

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The proofreader will then meticulously comb through the proof to see if the copy editor has missed anything or if the designer has accidentally introduced a mistake into the final file. In addition to typos, these mistakes may include:

  • Incorrect numbering of pages;
  • Inaccurate index;
  • Misaligned text;
  • Additional (or missing) spaces between words;
  • Incorrect paragraphing.

A proofreader’s list of responsibilities is often broader than what we’ve laid out above. For example, with non-fiction or journalistic writing, they might also fact-check the manuscript.

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As a copy editor will be focusing on the individual sentences and paragraphs of your manuscript, you’ll first want to make sure you’re satisfied with your book’s structure. If there’s a chance you’ll cut out chapters, add new ones in, or tinker with certain passages — don’t get a copy editor yet! You’ll either have to get another copy edit later or pay a professional to edit something that won’t make it into the final book.

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Professional proofreaders are there to catch the author and copy editor’s mistakes. Some copyeditors also offer proofreading services, but it’s often best to get a fresh pair of eyes for that task. If a copyeditor misses a mistake the first time around (no editor is 100% infallible), there’s every chance they’ll miss it during the proofread. If you can, hire a separate copy editor and proofreader.

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