Understanding the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading

Have you ever met two people who look exactly the same? Well, the cases of identical twins are not rare in this world, but it never ceases to amuse us. Even though two people can look the same, there's no written principle that they would walk, talk or behave the same because they both are individuals with distinct personalities. You, as a stranger, may not be able to tell the difference, but the people who are interacting with them on a regular basis know exactly how to tell the difference. Now that you have got my point, replace these twins with copyediting and proofreading. Both are identified as editorial skills, and to most of the people (talking about the laymen), they both look the same.

Well, like those twins, copyediting and proofreading are two different things. A layman may not be interested in knowing the difference between these two editing procedures. But if your job involves writing or something that revolves around writing, it is important for you to identify the distinction. For starters, copyediting can be identified as a process that is used for spotting mistakes, inconsistencies and repetition. This is basically a process that makes your manuscript more polished for publication. On the other hand, proofreading takes place once the manuscript has been published. A published copy is then checked by an expert for quality check.

A few decades ago, copyediting used to be performed by putting marks and making revisions on a typewritten manuscript. However, things have changed in the recent past. Now you just enter changes in a word-processing program and get it done. Proofreading, on the other hand, is done on a hard copy using a pen or pencil or by electronically marking up a PDF. Well, if you know this much, congrats! You are more knowledgeable than the majority of the people out there. However, these were just the basics. The distinction between copyediting and proofreading runs way deeper than you can think.

Functions of a copyeditor

Well, the copyeditor’s job role includes polishing a piece of content so that it can be presented as an example of good writing. A good writer can be skilled at describing a process or turn a portion of his imagination into amazing words, but it is the copyeditor who ensures that the syntax of the manuscript is smooth and the writing is absolutely flawless (means the document should adhere to the conventions of grammar with proper and precise use of words and appropriately placed punctuation).

Apart from just simply editing the errors, a copyeditor can also reorganize or recommend changes in certain aspects (the chapter titles and subheadings) of a particular document if it seems necessary. He can also call out lapses in logic or sequential blunders. So it can be a difficult task for the associates to fill the shoes of a copyeditor, a person who polishes and moulds the writing of a writer, and that too when the copyeditor has very less time to offer or is completely absent.

If the task involves working on a book manuscript, an extensive report or something of considerable length, a copyeditor usually compiles a style sheet, a statement of overall editorial policy and a record of idiosyncratic word usage. A lot of style sheets list all the proper nouns that are repetitively used to ensure that they are capitalized again and again. However, the search functions in the latest software and the spell-checking programs have turned such usage of style sheets ineffective.

Functions of a proofreader

In contrast to the functions of a copyeditor, the job of a proofreader involves checking the facsimile of a finished product for errors. The motive of proofreading is not to revise, but to rectify the mistakes so that there's no typographical error left in the document. During the production of the document, a lot of new texts (such as captions) are introduced in the already written manuscript and may not have been edited. Or in some other case, an element (it can be a letter, or even a paragraph or more) may have been unintentionally removed, misplaced or repeated. This happens since most of the texts are copied from the electronic document directly and then pasted without even checking it. The chances of leaving a blunder in a final copy are pretty low, but instances are there.

Besides, the proofreader has to deal with several aesthetic issues as well. If there are way too many end-of-line hyphens in a row, a short final line of a paragraph at the top of a column or a word sliced in two at the end of a column or page, it is also a proofreader’s duty to fix it. A proofreader may also encounter two different spellings of a particular word. Well, the style sheet comes in handy in this context. It should be mentioned that the style sheet’s compilation benefits a proofreader the most.

The job role of a proofreader also includes checking of the page numbers or recurring copy at the bottom or top of a page which kind of identifies a section in a periodical, a chapter or book title. It is his/her duty to ensure that the font size and the type are uniform in that class throughout the document. A proofreader also makes sure the photo captions match the content of the pictures or that when the written text refers to a chart, a figure or a table. The graphic element is also a part of the content which is why the proofreader needs to proofread that element as well.

In addition to their existing roles, proofreaders can also detect grammatical errors or irregularity of writing style, and there are instances where they have been given the liberty to change or at least identify such exceptional errors. But unfortunately, they are usually restricted from doing so as such activities may lead to addition or reduction of lines on a page which may have adverse effects on the graphic design.


In a nutshell, copyediting can be described as more of a qualitative skill and proofreading as more of a quantitative sill. There are some massive differences between these two procedures of editing; there’s also a bit of a grey area where both the skills overlap. In this context, it has been noticed that if an individual is good at what he does (be it copyediting or proofreading), he can do exceptionally well in the other form of editing as well. As a profession, proofreading pays less and is one of the stepping stones towards the job of a copyeditor, but don’t be surprised if you see a person pursuing both at the same time.

Interestingly, many print and online publishers have cut back or scrapped both the stages of the editing process to be cost-effective and to save valuable time along the way. However, there are still some publishers who still believe in the conventional way of editing a document and value rigorous attention to details in a written copy. Those who are familiar with the wonders of such editing procedures will always find these professions useful, and it won't be wrong to mention that copyediting and proofreading still have a lot of scope in the market.

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