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Understanding the Key Differences Between Copy Editing and Proofreading

I hear the words "copy editing" and “proofreading” used interchangeably quite a bit, so it's important to understand the difference, especially before contracting with a book editor. Many authors are surprised that the primary difference between copy editing and proofreading is WHEN it happens. Copy editing is the revision that happens before the book is formatted or typeset, and it prepares the manuscript for design and production, and a proofread happens right before the book goes to print. 

Let’s dive into each editing service more in-depth. 

Copy editing

A copy editor will work in a word processing program like Microsoft Word or Google Docs and track changes as they work so you as the author can see the revisions made. Unlike a developmental edit or line edit, a copy editor will not address big-picture issues like moving chapters around or questioning the overall flow of your work. They are more concerned with the little-picture issues like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics.

The primary concerns of a copy editor are the 4 Cs: to make a manuscript correct, consistent, clear, and concise. They will make sure the manuscript is grammatically sound and adheres to the style manual for your publishing genre (usually Chicago Manual of Style for trade publishing). They will also check Merriam-Webster for capitalization, hyphenation, and spelling and may consult a specific style guide depending on the genre (Christian Writer’s Manual of Style for faith-based texts, for example). If anything in your writing is unclear, they will either offer a potential revision or flag the text for you to revise.

A copy editor will also create a "style sheet" for your project, which just means they will note any particulars for your project that are not expressly addressed in (or that deviate from) the chosen style manual. A style sheet is particularly helpful for the proofreader, who will use it as a guide for what to mark or not mark, especially if it’s something that deviates from standard style. Our blog post, "What Does a Copy Editor Actually Do," goes into more depth on copy editing. 


A proofread, on the other hand, happens right before the book goes to print, when the book is already formatted. A proofreader will work in a PDF rather than a word processing document to address many of the same issues a copy editor does, as well as any typos or errors introduced during the revision process. 

They will also check the table of contents for correct page numbers and common formatting and spacing issues in a formatted book: blank pages unnumbered, no widows/orphans, correct headings throughout, and note any inconsistencies in the book block, among other things. They will often work closely with the book formatter to ensure the quality and consistency of the final product.

A proofreader is the last line of defense before the book goes to print, so their job is vital to ensure the most correct version of the book goes out to the world. 

One thing to note is that even with the most diligent copy editing and proofreading, you can still expect a small margin of error. Even with the NYT bestsellers I read, I always find a few missed periods, broken lines, misspellings, or homonym errors. Just get your book the most polished it can be by working with a professional editing team!

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