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Proofreading, copy-editing and proof-editing: what's the difference?

"I just want the writing to be better." This is the most common answer that editors receive when they ask clients what type of editing they want and it is a very broad request! Do you need a deep, sentence-level edit or just a quick polish? Do you need advice on the correct placement of images and headings or just a check for consistency? The level of intervention you want will determine which type of editing will best suit your requirements. Essentially, editors can do as much or as little as you like but you need to have that conversation with them beforehand so that you are both on the same page (sorry for the pun).

A lot of the confusion surrounding the editing process arises from the fact that there can be a significant amount of overlap between the different types of editing and also because different publishers will use different names for the same thing.

Although these stages can vary depending on the client or publishing house, this is a basic outline of the editing process for a book:

  1. Developmental edits and/or manuscript critiquing

  2. Line and/or copy-editing

  3. Proofreading

Let's focus on the two most commonly confused stages – copy-editing and proofreading – then I'll

briefly discuss the function of proof-editing.


Copy-editing (sometimes called line editing) happens after any developmental or story edits but before the book is sent to the typesetter or given its final layout. The kinks in the actual story have mostly been ironed out but the text has not yet been checked at sentence level. The design has also not yet been laid out and the text is therefore still in a rather raw, draft format. In publishing, both traditional and independent, copy-editing is almost always done in Microsoft Word using Track Changes. PDFs are far more complicated to mark-up at this stage of the editing process and so your editor will almost certainly ask for you to send a Word document.

A copy-edit serves as a fresh pair of eyes for a document you've probably been staring at for months on end. The editor will check the writing sentence by sentence and will assess the structure and flow of the writing to make sure sentences are neither too long nor too short. This will help give the text variety and rhythm. The copy-editor will also check spelling, grammar and punctuation and the consistency of capitalisation and hyphenation. In publishing houses, they will also suggest where images and headings should go and mark-up the pages so that everything is ready for the typesetter when it comes to designing the final page layout.


Proofreading is the final stage before your book 'goes live'. At this stage the text will have been typeset and will have a certain amount of structure (e.g. headings, images, chapter titles). Unlike a copy-edit, a proofread can be, and usually is, done on PDF. Changes can also be made in Word or on paper, though paper editing is not as common these days.

Although most people think that proofreading is just spellcheck, a proofreader's job is actually not too different from the copy-editor's. A proofreader will check almost everything that a copy-editor does and is essentially there to make sure that everything is perfect in this final stage. They will check for any errors that were missed at the copy-editing stage and will also flag or correct any new errors which may have been introduced in the design stage such as incorrect image placement or captions, inconsistencies with heading design, typeface or even missing text! (Yes, it does happen). The copy-editor will have provided a style sheet of all formatting and design choices which the proofreader will follow to check for these errors.

Furthermore, changing the layout of a page once it has been typeset costs time and money and so the proofreader has the additional task of deciding whether or not a change is worth the extra cost. They must use their judgement and only recommend essential changes. (This is usually only the case in publishing houses).


Proof-editing is a fairly new concept that has sprung from the increased popularity of self-publishing. It combines all the aspects of copy-editing and proofreading and serves either as a more thorough proofread or a light copy-edit. This level of editing works best for people who perhaps cannot afford two separate rounds of editing or those people whose work only needs a small amount of copy-editing.

Proof-editing is usually what I offer students, small businesses and self-publishing authors who are on a budget. It can also be a good option for people who are querying literary agencies or publishers and just want the first few chapters of their manuscript edited. However, if you are a fiction author and you are planning on submitting your manuscript (or even if you're self-publishing), I do recommend also getting a developmental edit or critique done first.

So, to wrap up, the type of editing you need will depend entirely on where you are in the publishing process and how much editing you would like. Remember, the editor can either cut and chop your writing or just lightly scrape the surface. It's up to you!

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