Proofreading vs Copyediting: 22 Differences



If you’re an author whose book is still at the unpolished stage, this article is for you.

You may wish either to (1) self-publish or (2) have your book perfected by a professional copy editor or proofreader, so you can present your manuscript to a literary agent or publisher and make your book more marketable.

But whatever your aim, it’s important to know the difference between proofreading vs copyediting.

While the role of a copy editor and a proofreader has traditionally varied, nowadays some freelancers offer an editorial service that overlaps both processes.

What is copyediting?

The copy editor checks and, where needed, corrects text in a printed document or electronic file.

This stage comes before proofreading and involves far more than proofreading.

The three main types of copyediting are ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘heavy’. As their names suggest, each type involves greater or lesser spadework.

After the copy editor has gone carefully through the text, few errors should remain to snag the proofreader’s eyes.

However, should the proofreader notice many flaws after a copy editor has trawled through a book or other type of document, it means the editor failed to do his or her job properly.

Sadly, in my 24-year experience I’ve found it rare to proofread a work that has few errors. Usually, acres of weeds cover the pages, which shows the poor state of the copyediting profession.

The good copy-editor is a rare creature: an intelligent reader and a tactful and sensitive critic; someone who cares enough about perfection of detail to spend a long time checking small points of consistency in someone else’s work but has the judgement not to waste time or antagonize the author by making unnecessary changes.

~ Judith Butcher, Copy-Editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Authors and Publishers, 3rd edition, p. 3

Issues a copy editor has to check and documents to compile

(I’ve listed only some of these.)

  • grammar errors
  • spelling errors
  • punctuation errors: UK punctuation differs from US punctuation in some cases – the copy editor edits accordingly
  • cross-checking the table of contents with the chapter titles and subheads
  • compiling a list of running heads
  • factual inconsistencies: ‘55 years old’ vs ‘56 years old’
  • making the use of bold, italics and capitals consistent throughout
  • consistent and correct hyphenation; e.g. ‘copy-editing’ vs ‘copyediting’, or ‘postwar’ vs ‘post-war’?
  • indenting, with a line space above and below, quoted text (say, quotations of 40-plus words)
  • quotation references are present (including the page number of the book from which the quote comes, if from a printed source)
  • consistent use of quote marks: double vs single quotes
  • that the style matches a publisher’s ‘house style’ or follows the style laid out in one of the various style guides, such as the Oxford Guide to Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (known as APA style). (Wikipedia has a detailed list of the various style guides.)
  • correct use of ‘only’
  • correct use of ‘which’ vs ‘that’
  • correct use of the possessive ‘s’ (style guides vary)
  • making the use of numbers as words or figures consistent, depending on the style guide or publisher’s house style the copy editor follows; e.g. Oxford Guide to Style: use words for numbers from zero to ninety-nine; from 100 onwards use figures; Chicago Manual of Style: spell out numbers zero to one hundred; from 101 onwards write as figures; spell out round numerals such as ‘ten thousand’; APA Style Manual: write out zero to nine; use figures for 10 and above
  • simplifying and clarifying sentences
  • writing out in parentheses after it the first time each acronym appears
  • checking that a heading hierarchy is logical and helpful to the reader
  • removing extra spaces between words
  • ensuring tables don’t appear in footnotes, but only in running text (the copy editor must first query the author about this)
  • ensuring there are no long quotations in footnotes – it’s better to move these into the running text (also known as ‘body text’) if possible
  • ensuring there are no diagrams (figures) in footnotes – again, it’s better to move these into the running text if possible
  • marking the structure of a page of copy or an electronic file with typesetter codes – elements such as headings, subheadings, indented quotations, lists, images, boxes and tables
  • checking table style and that the table content matches what’s said in the running text
  • checking and making consistent figure captions (and querying the author if any are missing or seem incorrect)
  • checking the alphabetic order of author names in a bibliography
  • checking that a bibliography matches a publisher’s house style
  • checking that none of the elements in each bibliography entry is missing; e.g. place of publication, publisher, date, etc.
  • checking that the details in bibliography entries match those in footnotes
  • checking the footnote numbering
  • drawing up a ‘style sheet’ – a document that shows the proofreader how certain words should be spelled, capitalized, etc. (see the example below)
  • drawing up an ‘editorial notes’ document for an in-house desk editor to explain various unusual editorial decisions made during the copyediting
  • adding queries to an electronic file for the author to reply to (most copyeditors now use a computer to edit ‘on-screen’ rather than editing a ‘hard-copy’, paper, document)
  • inserting the author’s replies into the document or file

Image for 'Proofreading vs copyediting' post showing a copy editor's style sheetImage for 'Proofreading vs copyediting' post showing a copy editor's style sheet from a book Eldo copyedited

Example of a ‘style sheet’ Eldo compiled for one of his copyediting projects

Country-specific English copyediting

An expert copy editor knows how some words may have different English spellings in countries such as the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia. For example:

Australia/UK/Canada: colour, centre, metre
USA: color, center, meter

USA/Canada: analyze, fulfill
Australia/UK: analyse, fulfil

Also, some words are used differently in, say, the UK vs the USA. For example:

fairy cake
to make a drink

buggy (for small children)
to fix a drink

Furthermore, UK punctuation sometimes differs from USA usage. For example:

UK: The proper spelling is ‘fulfil’.
USA: The proper spelling is “fulfill.”

UK: Mr White Jr said to Mrs Black, ‘In my defence . . .’
USA: Mr. White, Jr., said to Mrs. Black, “In my defense . . .”

Image for 'Proofreading vs copyediting' post showing an on-screen copyedited page 

Example of Eldo's on-screen copyediting

Example of on-screen editing taken from one of Eldo’s projects

What is proofreading?

Proofreading is the stage in the editorial process that comes after copyediting.

Once the copy editor has completed his or her task, the document or electronic file goes to a typesetter for typesetting.

The result is a set of page ‘proofs’ or, now more commonly, a pdf file, where each page appears in the form of a published book’s page.

Once he or she has the printed proofs or the pdf file, the proofreader begins to comb through each page.

Proofreading is a safety net that catches any copy editor or typesetter errors, but is much more than this.

The proofreader should make only minor changes to the text, as major changes will cause layout issues expensive to put right.

If the proofreader makes too many changes, the typesetter may have to reformat the wholefile and will charge extra for doing so.

See the helpful list of proofreading symbols at the Lancing Press website.

Issues the proofreader has to check

(I’ve listed only some of these.)

  • the preliminary matter (the pages at the front of the book that come before the main text)
  • grammar errors
  • spelling errors
  • punctuation errors
  • extra spaces between words
  • ‘rivers’: long gaps of vertical white space running down the text between words (bad typesetting)
  • three or more of the same word that start or end three successive lines of text (known in the USA as a ‘stack’); e.g

the man went . . .
the horse also . . .
the field was . . .

. . . at the end
. . . before the end
. . . they saw the end

  • that the page numbers are in the correct position on the page, in the correct order and none are missing
  • that the page depth is correct (that each page has the correct number of lines)
  • that each page margin is the correct width and height
  • that sentences are indented correctly
  • that quoted matter is laid out correctly
  • that a chapter begins with a right-hand page (a ‘recto’) – usual in non-fiction books
  • running heads (the headings at the top of most pages – chapter openings don’t have these)
  • end-of-line line bad word breaks; e.g.

‘help-ful’ not ‘hel-pful
‘jar-gon’ not ‘jarg-on’
‘helped’ not ‘help-ed’ (words of one syllable must be left intact)

(The New Oxford Spelling Dictionary is a helpful resource for end-of-line word breaks.)

  • three successive lines that end in a hyphen (known in the USA as a ‘ladder’)
  • that a right-hand page doesn’t end in a hyphenated word, where the second part of the word carries over to the next page
  • widows (the last word or line of a paragraph that appears as the first line on the next page)
  • orphans (the first line of a paragraph that appears as the last line of text on a page)
  • that there are at least five lines of text on the last page at the end of a chapter
  • that there are at least two lines of text below a heading at the bottom of a page
  • the end matter (the sections that come at the end of a book; e.g. an appendix, glossary, endnotes, a bibliography and an index)

Sometimes – but not often enough – the printer’s proof-reader saves you – & offends you – with this cold sign in the margin: (?) & you search the passage & find that the insulter is right – it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.

~ Mark Twain

Image for 'Proofreading vs copyediting' post showing a proofread page of a PDF fileAn example of Eldo's proofreading on a pdf

Example of Eldo’s proofreading in a Portable Document Format (PDF) file

22 differences between copyediting and proofreading

(I’ve listed only the major ones.)

Note: the three main stages of the publishing process, which follow one another, are (1) copyediting, (2) typesetting and (3) proofreading.

  1. Copyediting always comes before proofreading.
  1. Only the proofreader sees the typeset proof texts, as these are produced after the copy editor has moved on.
  1. If working with hard copy (text printed on paper, which the copyeditor has marked), the proofreader checks it against the proofs. This ensures the typesetter has inserted all the copy editor’s corrections shown on the marked hard copy.
  1. Copyediting usually deals more vigorously with the text than proofreading does (although poor copyediting may lead to intensive proofreading).
  1. In traditional publishing the copy editor liaises with both an author and an in-house desk editor.
  1. The proofreader liaises only with an in-house desk editor.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – checks that the preliminary pages (the ‘front matter’) and end matter are in the correct order.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – cross-checks a table of contents with chapter headings and subheadings.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that page numbers shown in the table of contents match those that appear later in the book where chapters begin.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – cross-checks bibliography entries with footnotes or endnotes.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – checks that author surnames in bibliography entries are in the correct alphabetical order.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – checks that bibliography entries follow the house style.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – checks table content with the content of running text.
  1. The copy editor – not the proofreader – checks that figure/table captions match the content of a figure/table.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that page layout for each page is correct (margins, number of lines of text on each page, space at the beginning of paragraphs and quotes indented correctly).
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that the type size is consistent for the various page elements (e.g. for running text, 11-point type on page 5 vs 8-point type on page 46).
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that the text colour is consistent (sometimes grey text slips into running text and this can be hard to spot).
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that long words are hyphenated correctly at the ends of lines.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that there are no ‘river’ gaps of white space between words running down the text on a page.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that there are no more than two end-of-line hyphens stacked above each other.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that the last page of a chapter has at least five lines of text.
  1. The proofreader – not the copy editor – checks that no right-hand page ends with a word break.


In this article we’ve looked at the main differences between proofreading vs copyediting.

Having read the info above, you should by now have a far better idea of what you need to nudge your book towards the bestseller list: a copyedit or a proofread.

Which service you choose depends on at least three factors:

1. How much polishing your text needs (a) to be read by a literary agent, (b) to be accepted by a book publisher or (c) for readers to be able to read it easily and enjoy the experience – so they come back for more. 🙂

2. Your budget – copyediting costs more than proofreading.

3. Whether you can afford both a copy editor and a proofreader – it’s a good idea to use a different person to proofread your text once a copyeditor has worked through it.

Especially if your text appears in printed format.

A copy editor doesn’t deal with formatting issues that appear on proofs or in a PDF file (e.g. end-of-line word breaks, missing page numbers, incorrect running heads, etc.).

An expert proofreader will spot errors the copy editor missed.

However, if your budget’s tight, a well-trained, experienced copy editor will iron out most of your text’s creases – in which case choosing between proofreading and copyediting will not be an issue for you.

Get a free copyedit of a sample of your writing

If you’re an author, send me a 500-word sample (around two pages) of your text to look at. 

I’ll analyse and copyedit (or proofread) it for free and – based on my editorial training and 24 years of experience on over 500 books – send you a no-obligation short report on how to improve your writing.

Why do I offer you this for free? 

  1. It will prove the quality of my work. 
  1. It will help you decide whether or not you’d like to hire my copyediting (or proofreading) service – you’ll be taking less of a risk than if you’d handed your money over on spec to someone listed in a freelance directory. 
  1. It will give me an idea of how much work I’d need to do to streamline your text so it appeals to a publisher or wider readership.
  1. It will help me to cost your project fairly. 
  1. You may recommend my service to other authors wanting to hire a copy editor or proofreader. 

> Get in touch today and let’s take it from there. 🙂

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