Copyediting, Editing, and Proofreading: What's the Difference?
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
These are three terms you are likely to see often in professional realms but not think much about—until you need one! Then, the differences can become confusing quickly. One reason for this confusion is that people often use them interchangeably. So, let’s take a deeper look at these terms.
If professional copyeditors have their own bible, it’s probably Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook (2011). She describes copyediting as focusing on the “ ‘4 Cs’—clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness—in service of the ‘Cardinal C’: communication” (p. 3).
Einsohn lists the following as the copyeditor’s “principal tasks”:
Mechanical editing for spelling, punctuation, and so on—the sentence-level technical stuff
Correlating parts of the manuscript, like making sure notes are numbered correctly, checking tables, ensuring the manuscript and table of contents match up, and so on
Language editing to ensure that not only are grammar, grammar usage, syntax, and diction in line, but that such language complies with house style (when necessary) and doesn’t interfere with meaning or distract the reader—all while respecting the writer’s choices and voice
Content editing for not only structure and organization but inconsistencies and discrepancies
Permissions, meaning the copyeditor needs to know—and note—when an author should seek permission to use or refer to the work of others
And sometimes typecoding, which is verifying elements of the manuscript like numbers, titles, headings, etc. (pp. 5-10)
Some people will make a distinction between copyediting and editing, noting that editing focuses on the whole enchilada—all the things!—while copyediting mainly focuses on errors and accuracy. And that’s fine, but we at Tip of the Writeberg are in the Einsohn camp and consider copyediting and editing to be the same thing.
Our distinction is on “levels of copyediting,” again channeling Einsohn’s description: copyediting can be “light, medium, or heavy” (p. 13). The level a client needs will depend upon a variety of factors, including the client’s wishes, the client’s skill with writing, and (you guessed it) money. How much money is the client or publisher willing to spend? A copyeditor can do anything from simple patch and repair to making the work shine.
While editing/copyediting can include everything from structure to content development, style, correctness, formatting, and so on, proofreading takes place at the sentence level primarily. You could say copyediting focuses on the big picture, while proofreading focuses specifically on errors. Proofreading is a form of the lightest copyediting. Proofreading is basically correcting the typos and spellos and punctuation and grammar and diction.
At Tip of the Writeberg, we offer all levels of copyediting and even simple proofreading, if that’s your need!