…but do you need a copy-editor or a proofreader? Believe it or not, even people working within the industry get these roles confused. According to the Publishing Training Centre, the copy-editor’s role is “to make the author’s message clear and accessible for the readers and to mark up documents for
typesetting”, and proofreading is “the process of checking written materials for errors before they are published”. So, the copy-editor works on the manuscript first, makes style decisions, ensures good sentence structure/grammar and makes sure it says what the author intended it to say. It is
then typeset before going on to the proofreader, who checks it over for typos, punctuation errors, consistency, presentation issues, etc. – dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s before publishing. Of course, there’s a lot more to both jobs but they are clearly two distinctly different roles, with
separate training and different rates for the service.

Seems straightforward yes?

Sadly, far from it. The problem lies with where copy-writing ends and proofreading begins (and vice versa). How much proofreading should the copy-editor do? You can be sure that when a copy-editor spots an error, they are hardly likely to sniff and say, “That’s one for the proofreader,” or when a proofreader sees that a word is missing, or a sentence doesn’t make sense, that they won’t do anything about it. The two roles have become even more blurred with the huge advances in technology that have rapidly changed publishing processes. When I trained, only a few years ago, I learned the old-fashioned way, with my red and blue pens and my two hard copies, so that it could clearly be shown whose error was whose, and each manuscript was checked by copy-editor, proofreader, typesetter and proof collator. These days, with the popularity of e-books and the low-budget publishing that produces them, everything is done on-screen and the once clearly defined roles have merged, so we just end up with a couple of general editors, if we’re lucky. More frequently, the whole editing job is done by one person. All too often, as a result, the quality of the final product is compromised.
The role of the copy-editor is still quite easy to define, as they’re the first to work on the manuscript. Their job is to get the text to make sense and ensure (within reason) that the research and facts are correct. They make decisions about style, but don’t necessarily have to ensure consistency of those decisions – that’s the proofreader’s job. If they pick up on proofreading issues, they should change them but they don’t have to consciously proofread. In turn, the proofreader should not have to edit
content, reorder sentences, query discrepancies (why has John suddenly become Tom?); that should be done by the copy-editor. But knowing they’re the last port of call prior to publishing brings a heavy responsibility. As far as reviewers are concerned, the butt stops with the proofreader – they
never say, “Shoot the copy-editor!”. All too often the proofreader, who wants the very best for their client, is compelled to undertake work beyond their remit and to take the flak from critics. With this in mind, it may surprise you to learn that proofreading services generally cost less than copy-editing!

If you want your published text to be of the highest quality, you need to consider what sort of state it’s in to start with. To ensure a virtually (no one’s perfect!) error-free copy, then you will need a copy-edit and a proofread. If you think that it’s already in a good state, then a proofread is all you need. But remember, if you skip the copy-edit:

  • Your proofreader may send it back, or renegotiate your fee to include a copy edit.
  • There is only so much a proofreader should justifiably do for the fee. Cutting out the copy-edit in order to save money may result in a poorer quality text.

And bear in mind that the author has the greatest responsibility for the quality of the text – it’s very hard for even the best editor to make a poorly written copy perfect. If the author just dashes it out and expects the editors to sort out the mess, the chances are it will remain a mess. We advise you to check your text thoroughly, or get someone you know (who knows!) to look it over before you send it for editing.

By Miranda Summers-Pritchard