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What is the difference between editing and proofreading?

The terms “editing” and “proofreading” are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually two different stages of the editorial process. Here, we take a look at the distinct roles of copy editors and proofreaders and the key differences between them.

Close-up of shiny black ball bearings neatly in rows, with one singular shiny red ball bearing to illustrate what is the difference between editing and proofreading

What is copy-editing?

Copy-editing is a thorough editorial task, which typically begins after a first draft has been completed. The primary aim of copy-editing is to refine the text to improve the flow, tone and consistency of a piece. The end result is clearer, sharper text that’s much more engaging and suitable for the target audience.

Editorial choices are made with both the author and the reader in mind – preserving the author’s original message yet enhancing it for the audience. Changes can include restructuring an argument to give the author’s message more clarity, amending phrases or vocabulary to suit the piece’s tone and querying any factual errors that may have crept in. All of these edits will improve the reader’s comprehension of the author’s words and focus on delivering the aims of the piece.

What does a copy editor do?

The first step a Websters International copy editor takes is usually to read the submitted draft from start to finish to get a feel for the piece as a whole. In doing this, they get an idea of the things they’re going to be looking out for when completing their edit. After this, they drill down into the details to improve it. Their edits can generally be categorised into five key areas:

  • Structure: ensuring the piece flows well and that any arguments are as compelling as possible. Entire paragraphs may need to be restructured, deleted or moved in order to achieve this.

  • Language: checking that the vocabulary matches the intended tone and audience. Making word choices, grammatical constructions and phrasing more suitable for the intended readers.

  • Fact-checking: combing the text for any factual errors that may have accidently been included in the piece. This covers anything from misspelt proper nouns (such as names, places or brands), to statistical evidence and outdated factual information.

  • Style: making sure the text meets all stylistic guidelines or formatting requirements before publication. If a style guide is available, all text and terms are cross-referenced against this.

  • Cultural sensitivity: eliminating potential cultural insensitivities or unsuitable content for the target market. These issues occur more often than you’d think. Adding a human touch helps to prevent potentially damaging content from making the final draft.

What is proofreading?

Typically the last step before publication, proofreading offers a final check of the text to catch smaller, surface-level errors or inconsistencies across the work. This includes tidying up regional spelling variations, polishing punctuation and cleaning up formatting. At the most basic level, proofreaders conduct a systematic and thorough review of text, graphics and figures, carefully correcting objective errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Historically in publishing, proofreading takes place after the layout stage, where “proofs” are checked against the original copy. Today, and in digital copy especially, proofreading often takes place before the final design stage, to reduce the number of corrections that are required at that final stage. The process usually involves marking up documents or tracking changes within them in order to mitigate against versioning issues.

What does a proofreader do?

As the final check before publication, proofreaders scan the text for editorial mistakes that may have been missed. Proofreaders at Websters International are all trained to catch unwanted errors that may have slipped through the cracks, and know what to look out for when proofreading:

  • Consistency: checking capitalisation, font and spacing to ensure everything is the right size and in the right place.

  • Linguistic accuracy: assessing content for inaccuracies in language, such as spelling, punctuation or grammar.

  • Localisation (or localization): ensuring the target market variant (e.g., US, Indian or UK English) is implemented consistently.

  • Layout and design: from finding broken hyperlinks to aligning text with images, proofreaders hone in on the smallest of issues – items that could result in a disproportionally large impact – to ensure the final piece functions as intended.

Many people make the mistake of assuming AI and automated spellchecking tools have made proofreading redundant. While there’s clearly an important role for such programs in the editorial process, they’re not foolproof. A lot of nuance can be missed without a second pair of (real) eyes looking over content – and data used by large language models (LLMs) can quickly become outdated. There’s currently no substitute to the human eye for a final in-context check to perfect content.

What are the key differences between copy-editing and proofreading?

Although often, incorrectly, used to mean the same thing or grouped together under a vague “editing” umbrella, copy-editing and proofreading achieve very different processes. The copy editor looks at the bigger picture, improving the text and making bigger, more noticeable changes. The proofreader then fine-tunes the text, correcting smaller errors that may have been missed or introduced by the copy editor. Think of a copy editor as doing a spring clean – decluttering your house, finding new places for things and throwing away items you no longer need. The proofreader then goes around with the polish, duster and vacuum cleaner to put the finishing touches to it.

The varying scope of the processes results in differences in the time it takes to complete the two tasks. As a rough estimate, an experienced copy editor will usually be able to cover somewhere in the region of 800 to 2,000 words in an hour. A proofreader, on the other hand, will be able to get through 2,000 to 4,000 words in an hour. These estimates are obviously affected by many factors, not least the quality of the original draft, the complexity of the subject matter and the type of content it is. The important thing, however, is that neither stage should be rushed or skipped.

Key takeaway

Using both copy-editing and proofreading in tandem will ensure your finished piece is always of the highest standard. Both steps play different roles in contributing to the final piece being as clean, accurate and easy to read as possible.

Discover what Websters can do to support you in making your text ready for publication.

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