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9 Key Differences Between Proofreading and Copyediting

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If proofreading is the dependable roadie of the writing world, then copyediting is the rock star. The differences between proofreading and copyediting can be night and day for many reasons—not the least of which is the cost.

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of “copyediting” specifically. Proofreading is certainly a more common term and a trendy way to earn money. But comparing proofreading to copyediting is a huge mistake since they are entirely different skill sets.

Let’s jump in to see a few of the differences between copyediting and proofreading, from function and timing to cost and skills.

1. What Copyeditors Do

Copyediting is the sweet spot for grammar/word nerds. It’s the powerhouse for taking a good piece of writing and making it stellar. Without copyediting, readers of books, articles, white papers, and more, would throw up their hands in frustration over the confusing writing.

While many writers can edit fairly well, many others need the fine-tuning of a copyeditor who understands the complexities of dangling participles and syntax. Copyeditors are the second-to-last-step of the editing process. Sometimes they’re the only editor!

Copyeditors are responsible for the majority of the grammar updates that make text readable and clear. This includes syntax, punctuation, plot consistencies, and more. They also make sure a style guide is followed to ensure consistency throughout the document.

This higher skill set and time spent updating the text means copyeditors are paid more than proofreaders—up to twice as much! This depends on the industry and your experience, but it’s absolutely true that proofreaders make less money than copyeditors.

2. What Proofreaders Do

Simply put, proofreading is basically the typo check. By the time a proofreader gets their hands on the document, it should be mostly free from grammatical errors. Proofreaders check for minor spelling and punctuation errors that may have been missed or introduced during the editing process.

If it’s a work of fiction, the plot is also tight and ready to capture readers’ attention before it gets to a proofreader. If it’s non-fiction, then the messaging is clear, structured, and targeted to the audience.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that proofreaders update all grammar mistakes, correct syntax problems, rewrite sentences, and layout a book for publishing. None of these are true. That’s partly why proofreaders are paid less than copyeditors.

3. Copyeditors Earn More Than Proofreaders

This should be obvious, but when you have a higher skill set, you’ll earn more. If you have two skill sets, even more job opportunities are available. This is especially true for proofreading and copyediting.

On average, most proofreaders earn around $25-$35 per hour or $0.015-$0.3 per word. Copyeditors typically earn $35-$50 per hour or $0.03-$0.59 per word. The differences in earnings is experience and industries. Some industries even pay a little more for copyediting.

Be aware that many jobs require the skills of a copyeditor even if they say they need a proofreader. So many of the rates posted for proofreaders are actually for more skills than proofreaders have. You can learn both skills in the Editing Made Easy course and ensure you have more chances to apply for remote work opportunities.

4. Some Clients Think a “Proofreader” Is the Same as a “Copyeditor”

This is one of those “If I had a dollar…” scenarios. It’s surprisingly common for a client to say they need a proofreader, when really, they need a copyeditor. They think that a proofreader will update all of their grammar for one low price.

In fact, many companies will post jobs for a proofreader, but the job description actually includes a lot more work and skill requirements.

If you know how to proofread and copyedit, you’ll be perfectly positioned to help educate them on the difference between proofreading and copyediting. Then sell your skills to be their copyeditor and earn more than you would have as a proofreader!

Here is a real job posting that is completely inaccurate. It’s asking for a proofreader, but the tasks are more than a proofreader is trained to do. That means the pay rate more in line with what a copyeditor does (and even says it wants copyeditor experience!).

proofreading job posting that should be for copyediting

5. Copyediting Happens Before Proofreading

Since copyediting involves so much more editing to update grammar and confusing writing, it must happen before a proofread. There’s no point in checking for a few typos and missing periods if there is a lot of grammar to update.

Copyeditors are the most essential editor if a line editor isn’t going to be hired. A proofreader simply shouldn’t be adjusting dangling modifiers, fact checking, or fixing parallelism problems. That’s for a skilled copyeditor to do.

6. Copyeditors and Proofreaders Use Style Guides Differently

Style guides are essential tools for businesses who prioritize excellence and for anyone publishing a book. They outline rules for treatment of numbers, capitalization rules, when to use certain punctuation, etc. Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, and NY Times are the most common.

A copyeditor relies on a style guide during their editing process and may even create their own style sheet. For instance, some writers prefer to capitalize certain words that normally aren’t capitalized (often in science fiction). Any situation that’s different from a style guide should be documented so copyeditors keep it consistent throughout the text.

A proofreader uses a style guide as a reference to make sure the copyeditor followed the rules. If an additional style sheet was made, the proofreader will also refer to that document. Minor updates can be made if the copyeditor missed updating something like writing a 29 as twenty-nine.

7. Copyeditors Ensure Readability—Proofreaders Don’t

Do you know someone who talks in long, round-about sentences? They talk about three things on the way to the one point they wanted to make? Imagine someone writing a book like that.

It happens more often than you think. That’s where copyeditors really shine. They know how to take long, complex sentences and correct the syntax and make updates so it’s clear and readable.

Here’s an example:

  • He went to the store to buy some milk, forgot his wallet at home, so having to go back and get it caused a longer delay in going to the store to get the milk for making dinner soup.

Yikes. Right? Let’s copyedit that to make it more readable.

  • He forgot his wallet on the way to the store to buy milk for his soup, so the extra trip home meant it took longer to get dinner ready.

Much better. We didn’t lose any of the meaning or elements, but it’s a stronger, clearer sentence now. The good news is that most writers won’t write like that all the time, so copyeditors will probably only need to clarify a part of a sentence.

Proofreaders don’t do this at all. What they do is read that sentence and know that it’s a really poor sentence. If there is a lot of poor grammar, they’ll need to recommend the text for copyediting before they can proofread.

Improving readability is one of the biggest differences between proofreading and copyediting.

8. Neither Proofreaders or Copyeditors Do Layouts

It’s a common misconception that a proofreader (or a copyeditor) “formats” a book. In fact, most people use the word “format” when they really mean “layout.”

If you’re working in book publishing, laying out a book for publishing is a whole other ballgame that includes software and an understanding of page sizes, margins, etc.

A proofreader can ensure that there is consistency in how paragraphs are indented and that chapter titles are the same size and location on the page. Copyeditors might even suggest new chapter titles or rearrange a few paragraphs if it makes more sense for the plot. But layouts are done in-house by the publisher.

In digital publishing like online articles, a proofreader or a copyeditor might be the person making sure the article is formatted with the proper font size, heading structure, and paragraph sizes. And proofreaders can offer e-book formatting as an add-on service if they’re familiar with the software for each platform like Kindle.

(Learn more about formatting/layout in our Editing Made Easy course!)

9. Proofreaders Don’t Fact Check—Copyeditors Do

Since we know that proofreaders should be focused on making sure the style guide was followed and any typos or punctuation issues are caught, this should be obvious. Proofreaders don’t fact check. This is a time-intensive process that they simply don’t get paid for—unless they’re getting paid for it.

What does that mean? Well, if a “proofreader” is hired by a company to do lots of tasks, this might be one of them (like in the job description above that is really asking for a copyeditor). But in general, freelance proofreaders leave the fact checking to copyeditors.

Copyeditors are deep in the text making sure all the pieces work together grammatically and factually. This is part of their role of making the text accurate overall and one of the big differences between proofreading and copyediting.

If the writer includes a quote, they need to make sure it’s exactly accurate (which can be tricky and involve a lot of research). If there are dates, places, or events cited, copyeditors should check reputable sources (not Wikipedia) to make sure the information is correct.

It’s easy to remember what proofreaders and copyeditors do if you keep in mind that proofreaders work on surface-level errors, while copyeditors dig deeper into the content.

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