Sometimes there is a misunderstanding of the conventional meaning of proofreading and copyediting. As a result, the distinct differences between such tasks may not be fully appreciated.
For example, self-publishers may ask for proofreading but, in fact, they probably require both copyediting and proofreading in the traditional sense.
In traditional publishing, the tasks of the copyeditor are undertaken relatively early in the publishing process. They ensure that the text is polished and has the necessary qualities for publication.
Copyediting entails the modification of an author’s text (the copy) before it is sent to the next stage of the publishing process (the typesetting/design stage).
At its most basic level, copyediting involves checking grammar, spelling and punctuation (a light edit). However, copyeditors often perform additional tasks that may be much more complex (a heavy edit) associated with clarity, repetition, flow, consistency, and readability (amongst others), alongside imposing the publisher’s house style.
Overall, copyeditors may have considerable scope (within reason) to modify the author’s text and are likely to provide queries and comments directly to the author.
The proofreading task occurs late in the publishing process after the copyediting and typesetting/design steps. As a result, it should be a more straightforward job (one would hope!) compared to copyediting.
Relatively little work should be required by the proofreader. It involves checking and correcting the proofs of the author’s document (i.e., the final, formatted document before publication). Proofreaders act as the ‘backup’ to the copyeditor and typesetter.
Proofreaders are required to check for typos, internal consistency, formatting issues etc. However, they must also undertake good judgement concerning not making unnecessary changes.
At this late stage, the proofs should be considered ready for publication when it is ‘good enough’. The proofreader’s job is to eliminate mistakes but not increase the costs to the publisher or delay the publication date.
Proofreading vs copyediting
A simplistic short answer explaining the difference is that copyediting typically involves much more work. This is because the two tasks occur at separate stages of the publishing process; the proofs have already been through the copyediting step.
Additionally, since it is an earlier stage in the publishing funnel, the copyeditor has much more scope to apply modifications to the text compared to the proofreader.
To further complicate matters, a third process known as proof-editing lies somewhere between proofreading and copyediting. All three tasks are undoubtedly strongly related, so it is easy to understand the confusion over their differences.
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