Copyediting Vs. Proofreading: What Is The Difference?

what is copyediting

Copyediting and proofreading are editing exercises that ensure a piece of writing is free of grammar errors and other myriad issues. Though they are related, there is a fundamental and crucial difference between the two. So, what is it that draws the line of distinction between copyediting and proofreading?

Copyediting is thoroughly combing through a piece of writing. Proofreading, on the contrary, is adding finishing touches to a copy before it could be published. Based on the length of the text, copyediting could take weeks or even months to finish. Proofreads can be done within days or even hours.

If you are on the verge of publishing a book, you better read this through so that you don’t make the blunder of copyediting and proofreading your script by yourself without knowing enough about the two and the fact that one individual cannot do them all. 

What is Copyediting?

copyeditor word cloud

Copyediting entails checking a written material’s grammar, punctuation, spelling, style, and much more. It not just eliminates the glaring mistakes in a written material but also ensures the copy conveys its intended message in the best way possible. 

Both the smaller details and the larger picture are looked into during the copyediting stage. In short, copyediting is not just checking for and correcting grammar and spelling, but also ensuring all aspects of the written material are consistent, complete, and cohesive. 

The Significance of Copyediting

Copyediting is a key process and cannot be undermined even if the original writer is willing to review their copy. A writer usually cannot detect their own writing gaffes as they already know in their head the message they are trying to convey and, as a result, cannot easily sync those thoughts with the words written. 

A fresh pair of eyes is needed to thoroughly scan the copy and identify flagrant issues the original writer may have become oblivious to. The second pair of eyes must ideally be from someone who is more than just familiar with grammar rules. 

Copyediting is an unmistakable and unavoidable aspect of traditional publishing. Printing off thousands of books with a few typos, or discrepancies in descriptions of a character between two chapters is the last thing an author or publishing house would want. Several authors who self-publish their books overlook copyediting only to find their copies fraught with issues a copy editor would have easily identified and remedied. 

When grammar errors or narrative inconsistencies interrupt the flow of a story, it manages to confuse the reader and also hamper the writer’s reputation. When a writer has a copy editor by their side, their typo blindness becomes a non-issue. 

What Does the Copy Editor Do?

A copy editor reviews a script right after it flies off the writing desk. The job of the copy editor is to ensure the text is presented in the most accurate and succinct manner possible. This could mean a plethora of things. The following are some of the several tasks expected of a copy editor:

  • Providing feedback pertaining to sentence structure
  • Ensuring the writeup is in line with the style guide preferred by the client
  • Fact-checking
  • Commenting on characters, plots, setting, etc.

editing a paper

A copy editor must look for consistency in the piece. For instance, if a copy has the word ’email’ used multiple times, the copy editor must make sure the same spelling is used throughout the script. It cannot be ‘e-mail’ on one page and ’email’ on another. Similarly, if a copy must be in British English, any instance of American English must be corrected. 

Perhaps, the biggest task of a copy editor is to fact-check the copy. Non-fiction copies, such as memoirs and historical pieces, cannot have inaccurate information. The copy editor should ensure the statements or bold claims made are right. The editor, for instance, must check for inaccuracies in dates and names. 

A copy editor usually works in close proximity to the writer as that helps with making suggestions to the writer to improve on the material’s readability, style, and conciseness. 

Who Can Be a Copy Editor? 

Generally, well-established writers make good copy editors because they’ve been through the writing process themselves and know where the writer is coming from. And thanks to their experience, they are well-positioned to offer suggestions and make copy corrections with authority. 

As mentioned earlier, the ideal copy editor is someone with a command over the language and also a subject-matter expert. Compared to a general editor, a copy editor must possess certain unique skillsets. The ideal copy editor should:

  • Be precise and detail-oriented
  • Have a strong grasp over word usage and grammar
  • Be abreast with the publication’s standard writing practices

Based on the writing projects, the skills and experience requisites of a copy editor could vary. 

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is searching for typographical mistakes in a written copy almost ready to be published. In other words, the copy has been comprehensively edited already, thanks to a copy editor. 


During proofreading, the written material won’t or is not expected to undergo a complete overhaul. In other words, there will be no shuffling or rewriting of sentences. This is because even the introduction of a word or two into the draft could result in words within a sentence bunching up or spilling over to the subsequent line, thereby affecting a paragraph or sentence’s spacing. 

This could hurt the layout of a meticulously planned print. Proofreading is, therefore, making the minutest of changes to the final copy so that there are no layout issues or discrepancies. 

The Role of a Proofreader

A proofreader’s role can be likened to the quality checks that happen in factories right before the product heads out to the distributor or end consumer. A proofreader will not suggest major corrections in the text; instead, look for minor formatting and text issues and confirm the copy is good for publication. 

The following are some of the major responsibilities of a proofreader:

  • Looking for formatting and language errors
  • Correcting awkward wordings and typos
  • Doing light editing tasks like correcting inconsistent hyphenations or spelling

A proofreader typically looks for errors that could have infested the copy during the design and formatting stage. For the uninitiated, it’s quite possible for a piece of written material to be error-free but later develop issues after having gone through formatting and design. If the proofreader comes across way too many errors in the writing, they may return the material for another round of copyediting. 

Copyediting vs. Proofreading: What is the Difference?

Copyediting and proofreading, as aforementioned, are individual jobs. People who usually do not understand the difference between the two use the terms interchangeably. The simplest way to differentiate copyediting from proofreading is remembering when the two occur during the editing process. Invariably, copyediting precedes proofreading. 

Unlike a proofreader who just combs through the texts to find typographical errors, a copy editor may do a complete rewrite of the script or request for one from the original writer if the copy has issues with transitions, jargons, wordiness, or if the written material doesn’t fit well with the style of the publication it’s meant to go on. In the writing world, such overhauls are referred to as ‘revisions’. 


Proofreading represents the final phase of editing. It takes place after the book or manuscript has been structured for digital or print distribution. This is usually after the copy has been to the book designer or formatter. Copyediting happens right after the writing work is done since it involves the reordering and recasting of sentences for increased clarity – a task that could undo a book or any piece of text that has been already laid out or formatted. 

If the written material enters the copyediting phase after formatting, the copy editor may not send back the assignment outright but would charge a pretty penny for the service as their job would then be to carry out copyediting within the limitations of the already laid out structure. The copyediting costs also go up because the formatting may have rendered specific tools out of reach. 

If a book hasn’t been copyedited and directly enters the proofreading stage, it could mean too much work for the proofreader. Most proofreaders do not review a book or large pieces of text if the draft hasn’t gone through formal copyediting. However, if they do take up the task, they usually charge a premium. 

Copyediting and proofreading are two different jobs and cannot be swapped. A copy editor can wear the hat of a proofreader, but a proofreader is usually not experienced enough to copyedit a manuscript with the same effect as a professional copy editor. 

As far the costs of copyediting and proofreading are concerned, copy editors usually charge significantly more than proofreaders because their job is such. Going through and rewriting, rewording, and rearranging text is a lot of work compared to proofreading.


Checking a manuscript before it could be published is not as straightforward as looking for spelling errors or grammar issues. Multiple stages of editing and proofreading are needed, and that’s just scratching the surface. Learning the difference between copyediting and proofreading is a small step toward understanding how the review process of a written material truly works.

If you are writing a book, do not be your own copy editor and/or proofreader to save money. Though you might save some cash in the short term, you will lose money and repute after your readers realize the editing is not up to the mark. If you would like to copyedit or proofread a manuscript, make sure it’s written by someone else.

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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