Copy-editing and proofreading – is there a difference?

Yes! Definitely.

“Proofreading” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Publishing companies, for example, use proofreaders very late in the production process, after the copy-editing. These proofreaders conduct final checks at the end.

At publishing companies, the copy-editor’s job begins sooner and is much wider in scope than that of the proofreader. Take a look:

Professional proofreaders:

  • Check for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, and clear up anything that’s confusing or unclear
  • Ensure consistency in style and overall content (for example, hyphenation or the use of capitals)
  • See that captions and labels (e.g. in illustrations, tables and graphs) actually match the content
  • Correct odd-looking breaks, such as broken lines at the top of bottom of a page or paragraph
  • Check page/chapter numbers and headings to confirm that they match table of contents
  • Check cross-referenced statements
  • Check that citations really match their references
  • Intercept inconsistencies in layout, content, presentation and overall logic

Above all, a proofreader’s job is to ensure material is clear, concise and accurate.

Professional copy-editors do all the tasks in the list on the left, AND:

  • Check that the content is complete
  • Look for discrepancies in logic and reasoning
  • Truncate over-long sentences
  • Keep fonts, punctuation and format under control
  • Query suspicious ‘facts’ and enforce brand-name integrity
  • Shake passive sentences into wakefulness, making them say precisely who is doing what

The copy-editor looks at the big picture, including style rules and legal issues, project length and technical matters.

For most businesses, however, “proofreading” involves everything in BOTH lists above. In reality this in-depth operation is “editing”. It can include suggesting structural changes and scrutinising format, facts and graphics.

For in-depth details about how these roles usually work, check out the SfEP’s descriptions of proofreading and copy-editing.