This month Surbiton-based publishing professional Suzanne Arnold explains, in a guest blog, the difference between copy-editing and proofreading.
What do the different types of editing actually involve? And which service do you need?
I specialise in copy-editing and proofreading, so that’s what I’ll talk about here. Both focus on polishing a text for publication, once the content and structure are final. They don’t address ‘bigger picture’ questions such as whether anything is missing or the order is logical.
But what happens before copy-editing?
There are specialists in structural editing, rewriting, fact-checking, permissions to use quoted text and a host of other things.
Don’t worry if the range of services seems overwhelming. You can search directories such as those of the CIEP, ACES and the EFA to find someone who does what you think you most need – such as structural editing – and ask their advice on whether your particular text would benefit from anything else.
Get that work done before the copy-editing.
This focuses on the detail of readability and consistency. Think of it as preparing the text for publication.
It looks at things such as:
Consistency of spelling, hyphenation etc.
Appropriate word choice and tone for the audience, topic etc, including any fluctuations in tone (eg a formal-sounding passage in a piece with an informal tone overall).
Readability at the sentence and paragraph level – eg reducing distracting repetition or wordiness, suggesting fixes for awkward phrasing, flagging phrases that seem ambiguous.
Appropriate punctuation and tenses.
The editor’s suggestions will be just that – suggestions, for you to consider. Yes, issues such as misspellings will be straightforward. But much will be a matter of judgement.
You’ll need to go through any questions that the editor has for you and make edits.
This is a light-touch review – a final check for errors before publishing, especially spelling mistakes.
Proofreading happens after the author has worked through the copy-editor’s suggestions and questions. If possible, use different editors for the copy-editing and proofreading – there’s always value in a fresh pair of eyes.
Proofreading is not about whether a text reads well. It treats the text on the page as final and is ‘just’ looking for typos – including the ones that spell-check can’t pick up, such as ‘fiend’ instead of ‘friend’.
Do I need both?
As you can see, copy-editing and proofreading are very different tasks – one is much more in-depth (and, yes, more expensive) than the other. In an ideal world, a book will benefit from undergoing both – in the correct sequence.
When you contact an editor, they’ll probably ask to see a sample, to help them assess whether they might be the right person for that text and how much work would be involved.
Use my descriptions as a general guide for defining the scope of work, but remember that labels are ultimately just that. So when you hear back from an editor, pay close attention to their description of what they would (and would not) do if you go ahead with their service.
About the author
Suzanne Arnold is a copy-editor and proofreader who specialises in non-fiction for adults, from motorsport to marketing, accounting to ancient history. She focuses on the details that many people hate – spelling, grammar and consistency.