Copy Editing & Proofreading

Congratulations! You’ve written a solid final draft, and with the support of beta readers, editors, and friends, you’ve worked, tweaked, and (re)adjusted your content to satisfaction. The manuscript has probably had a couple rounds of editorial support, so overall, the text is cohesive in approach and coherent in its message. So off the to proofreader… right? Well, maybe not quite yet. Copyediting and proofreading are not the same thing, but they’re often confused for one another.

What are copyediting and proofreading? (And what’s the difference?)

The aim of both processes is to clean up the manuscript: a sweep for typos and other small errors or inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics. The earlier stages of writing and editing are quite intimate: each contributor spends a lot of time interacting with the text, adjusting it, rereading it, identifying problems with content or flow, and playing with solutions. By the time you’ve read a text this many times, it’s easy to read right past doubled or missing words and silly misspellings because your brain simply fills in the blanks for you.

So, during a round of copyediting, an editor sweeps the manuscript for such sneaky errors. In addition to this, the editor also keeps an eye out for any remaining sentence-level concerns in structure, problematic word choices, and consistency throughout.

After copyediting, your manuscript, which probably exists in a Word document, will be laid out by your book designer/formatter. Extra hands on your book and reformatting can introduce new issues that need to be remedied before it can finally be published. This is when your proofreader comes in with a fine-tooth comb, before the work is finally printed or e-published.

While many in the industry use copyediting as a catchall to refer to all the rounds of perfecting the language, I find it useful to employ different terms for each level of primary focus, dropping lower and lower to the smallest constituent of concern from paragraph level (e.g., flow), to sentence level (e.g., syntax), to word level (e.g., spelling and punctuation).

And after all this—voilà—the manuscript is as ready as it will ever be.