The ugly truth: Copy-editing and proofreading are two different things

Blog, On editing


I’m always surprised at how many people think that copy-editing and proofreading are the same things. They are not, people! And if you don’t believe me, here are the facts:


Proofreading is the final stage of any publishing process. It’s the last quality check that happens after your text has gone into layout and before your content is printed or published online.

The proofreader’s job is to check (among other things):

  • that there are no typos, inconsistencies or grammar errors in the text. (Duh.)
  • but also that all the page numbers and page headings are where they should be
  • and that the illustrations and captions match up
  • that the same font type and size have been used throughout
  • and very importantly, that there are no missing punctuation marks or elements that may have crept in during the design phase – we’ve all seen them in printed copy before – a series of x’s indicating unfinished content that never found its way into the layout. Cringe.

In other words: They check EVERYTHING. Every page, every word, every image. Think of proofreading as a final spit and polish of your product before it goes out into the world.


Copy-editing happens after you’ve written your text and before it’s been typeset – or for digital publishers –before it’s been added to the platform you will be using to share your product.

The job of the copy-editor is to (among other things):

  • bring the first draft of a manuscript up to scratch. (You may think it’s perfectly written. But, remember:  Everyone needs an editor.)
  • check grammar and spelling (Duh – it’s the job of any editorial role)
  • suggest edits to cut wordiness and repetition
  • (if necessary) suggest changes to chapter titles and sub-headings
  • reorganise certain sections so that the content flows in a more logical order
  • make sure that the writing conforms to the publisher’s style guide (more about that in another post)
  • and of course to check that any dates, names, places and facts mentioned are accurate

In short, the copy-editor’s job is to help make the content accurate and more readable before it goes into layout. If proofreading is the final spit and polish, think of copy-editing as the sanding down of a new sculpture to bring out its sheen before being treated.

Sadly in today’s world of immovable deadlines and compulsive cost-cutting, especially in publishing, these roles are often played by the same person. But make no mistake – they are two separate jobs. And both are necessary.


Written by Melissa Fagan, freelance non-fiction editor

I help non-fiction publishers deliver award-winning content using a creative and flawless approach to editing. Internationally qualified non-fiction editor with 11 years’ publishing experience.

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If you liked this post (or even if you didn’t) and you’re passionate about publishing, let me treat you to a coffee so we can discuss the industry. Contact me at or 082 5002612


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