Copyediting vs. Proofreading
What's the difference?
Which should an author hire for their pre-published works?
Many people confuse these two distinct editorial skills, but it’s important to recognize how they differ, and why.
I do copyediting and proofreading at work (my day job). Here's an example of each:
Copyediting: I'm given a rough article for a newsletter that I must revise and make more reader friendly. I also need to reformat it and scan for any typos. I have to research and find any gaps in logic, etc.
Proofreading: I'm given a finished document, completely ready for publication. I won't be recreating it or revising it. I will be checking for typos, inconsistencies, page numbers, formatting.
The copy editor’s task is to finesse a writer’s prose so that it observes all the conventions of good writing. A writer may be skilled at explaining a procedure or verbally depicting a scene, but the copy editor is the one who makes sure the manuscript’s syntax is smooth, that the writing adheres to the conventions of grammar, and that wording is proper and precise and punctuation is appropriate and correctly placed.
The copy editor may also do or suggest some reorganizing, recommend changes to chapter titles and subheadings, and call out lapses in logic or sequential slip-ups.
The proofreader, by contrast, is assigned to check a reproduction of what the finished product will look like. And the task is not revision, but correction — making sure that no typographical errors remain from the manuscript or were introduced in the production stage. Proofreaders are also expected to check page numbers or recurring copy at the top or bottom of a page that identifies a section in a periodical or a chapter or book title. They make sure the font and type size and weight for one text element matches another element of that class. They double-check that photo captions match the content of the photographs or that when text refers to a table, a chart, or a figure, the graphic element consists of what the text says it does — and they proof that element, too.
Proofreaders may also catch grammatical errors or inconsistency of style, and they are often given some leeway to change or at least call out egregious errors, but they’re generally constrained by not being permitted to revise the text in any way that adds or subtracts the number of lines on a page, because doing so may adversely affect the graphic design.
In summary, copyediting is a more qualitative skill and proofreading is more quantitative, though there’s quite a bit of overlap, and someone who does well at one often succeeds at the other as well. Proofreading usually pays less and is a pathway to copyediting, but many editors (myself included) do both.
If you're still undecided on whether to hire a copyeditor or proofreader to comb through your novel, here is the real swaying factor....waitforit.....the cost.
I know that I couldn't afford an actual copyeditor when I was producing my first novel. I had a few people beta read it and had a very grammatically-inclined friend go through it with a fine tooth comb. This is, of course, after I read it 28 times. I believe the cheapest editor I could find wanted about $4k to do my book, due to its size--140k words. For a first time author, that wasn't an option for me. But to achieve the most polished product, you need to go with a copyeditor because nothing is more annoying than a few too many typos while you're trying to read.
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