Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: Understanding the Difference 📚

  • Writing
Contra Tips
· 6 min read

Copy editing versus proofreading — knowing what separates one from the other is crucial to choosing the right expert for your writing project.

In the world of professional writing, quality is king. A carefully crafted piece inspires, informs, and captivates its audience, but your work must be free of errors, inconsistencies, and ambiguities to keep your audience. To ensure your credibility, rely on a keen editorial eye.  

Enter the unsung heroes: copy editors and proofreaders. These titles are not, in fact, interchangeable — when it comes to copy editing versus proofreading, both play a specialized role in polishing the written word. 

Dive into the key differences between copy editing and proofreading so you know to hire the correct Independent for the job.

Understanding the difference between copy editing and proofreading ✍️

An essential step in the writing process is editing. A written piece is meticulously examined and refined during this phase to ensure it effectively delivers its intended message. 

Revising, proofreading, editing, and polishing are all steps in the editing process. But copy editing and proofreading are sometimes mistaken for being the same thing. They’re two crucial types of editing, each with a distinct purpose. While you may hear these terms used interchangeably, recognizing their differences is essential to understanding how each contributes to the published version of a written piece. 

What is copy editing? 📓

Copy editors play a significant role in the overall editing process. This step comes after substantive editing (more concerned with ideas, overall flow, structure, and content) to refine content for clarity and coherence while preserving the author’s voice and meaning. Copy editing comes before proofreading. 

Copy editing considers the following key elements: 

  • Grammar and spelling. Ensuring the text adheres to standard grammar rules and is typo-free. 
  • Tone and style guidelines. Aligning the content with the author’s desired tone and style guideline, such as AP, MLA, or Chicago. 
  • Wordiness. Increasing the concise nature of the text by identifying and eliminating unnecessary words and phrases. 
  • Unnatural transitions. Maintaining flow by smoothing awkward and abrupt transitions between sentences and paragraphs. 
  • Difficult syntax. Rearranging sentences to boost readability and make the text easier to follow. 
  • Truthfulness. Fact-checking to verify the accuracy of claims and data. 
  • Consistency. Ensuring consistency throughout elements like formatting and capitalization.

What is proofreading? ✒️

Proofreading is the last step of editing before a piece of writing is published. It’s a final chance to catch any leftover typos, errors, or inconsistencies before it reaches its audience. 

A proofreader is a specialized editor trained to look for inconsistencies in formatting, punctuation, and typos. 

Some of the key issues proofreaders are responsible for include:

  • Grammar and spelling. Catching and correcting grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
  • Punctuation. Ensuring punctuation is proper throughout the piece.  
  • Capitalization. Verifying that capitalization is consistent and follows the appropriate style guidelines.
  • Formatting. Checking that the composition aligns with the text’s requirements and is uniform. 
  • On-page layout. Assessing the structure of the content. This check may include looking at paragraph breaks, headings, and spacing.
  • Image and graphic placement. Confirming that visual assets are well positioned and labeled correctly.

Copy editors versus proofreaders: The differences 💻

Copy editing and proofreading share an ultimate goal — to make a piece of writing as readable and error-free as possible. That said, the distinct roles in editing are quite different.

To highlight their uniqueness, here are three key differences between the two: 

  • Timing. Copy editing takes place before typesetting a manuscript to refine its meaning. Proofreading happens after typesetting (font, layout, graphic design), before printing and publishing. It’s the final quality check for any errors that have evaded discovery. 
  • Focus. Proofreading cleans up mechanical inconsistencies like format or punctuation, while copy editing delves deeper, ensuring a text is fluid and cohesive, including issues related to syntax, word choice, and transitions. 
  • Roles. Copy editors enhance the author’s original work, whereas proofreaders serve as safeguards, ensuring the author and copy editor don’t miss anything. 

Do I need a proofreader or a copy editor? ⚖️

While some copy editors can edit and proofread, hiring separate professionals for each role ensures your piece gets as close as possible to meet the market’s high standards.

Because the primary job of a proofreader is to catch any errors the author and copy editor may have overlooked, relying solely on a copy editor to notice their oversights may be asking too much. When you don’t hire separate Independents, you compromise and, at the very least, lose the valuable last pair of eyes. 

Engaging the services of both a copy editor and a proofreader lets you benefit from the high standards of their unique, professional skill sets, resulting in a more polished, error-free piece. 

3 essential considerations when hiring a copy editor or proofreader ☝️

If you’ve decided to hire a copy editor or proofreader, there are a few important things to keep in mind. These tips will help you hire a suitable Independent for your needs: 

Analyze your business needs 🔍

Before hiring, determine which type of editor best suits the specific needs of your project. Try a copy editor if you’re seeking someone with writing skills and style expertise. However, a proofreader is your best bet if you need someone to fix grammatical errors and other inconsistencies without worrying about significant changes in the flow. 

Check Independents’ services reviews 📣

Every Independent profile on Contra includes feedback from previous clients. Take the time to review these comments to form a well-rounded understanding of the editor’s capabilities, reliability, and quality of their work. These reviews offer insight into the editor’s strengths, communication style, and overall performance.

Avoid conflicts of interest 🙅

To guarantee objectivity and impartiality, ensure the editor you hire has no personal or professional connections to your project. An unbiased editor offers a fresh perspective on your piece, helping you achieve the highest quality writing possible.  

Find copy editors and proofreaders on Contra ✨

Contra’s commission-free platform is the best place to hire a copy editor or proofreader. We also offer listings for skilled copywriters and ghostwriters — if you’re unsure who you need to hire, check out these tips. Ready to find the perfect Independent copy editor or proofreader for your project? Head over to our Discover page for a broad range of talented professionals available to meet your needs. With Contra, working remotely with freelancers is a dream come true.

How to Become an Editor: The Contra Guide for Freelancers 🧐

Discover how to become an editor with our comprehensive guide — a rewarding career with opportunities in books, blogs, and more.
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