Michael on the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading

The following is a guest post from Associate Editor Michael Sivilli about the difference in skill sets and job descriptions between proofreaders and copyeditors.

I have had friends who, in different circumstances (most of the time looking for extra income), have asked me about what I do as an Associate Editor in book publishing.  Most are fascinated to find out that just because the word “Editor” appears in my official title does not mean that I do the actual editing of the books on which I work.  At that point, I usually explain that I oversee the work of freelance copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers, all of whom I hire for the various book titles assigned to me.  One of the most popular reactions I then get is, “I can do that.  I like to read.”

This is when the conversation gets a bit uncomfortable, and I have to explain that there are actual skills involved other than being capable of reading to perform any of the aforementioned functions.  A test is in order in the process of hiring a copyeditor or a proofreader.  My general experience has been that those with no prior experience who take one of these tests, usually either don’t pass or, more often, simply do not return the test.

Copyediting and proofreading are two very different functions in book publishing.  Therefore, the tests I have mentioned are very different.  Through these tests, we can determine a lot about a person’s skills.  Primarily, whether or not he or she would actually be capable to copyedit or proofread a book.

There are distinct differences between copyediting and proofreading.  Usually, when a freelancer contacts us in an attempt to be hired, he or she is very precise about which of these skills he or she has.

At the copyediting stage of the editorial/production process, the manuscript has already been through some forms of editing; the editor who signed the author has at least looked through the manuscript to determine how much editing is necessary (i.e., light, heavy, rewriting, etc.).  Even then, it could be decided that the manuscript is not ready for copyediting, but needs more work, such as developmental editing (i.e., the editing of structure, order, and arrangement).  Once all this is fulfilled, the manuscript is given to a copyeditor, whose main role is to make sure it reads clearly.  Sense, control of the language, and consistency in style (e.g., are we spelling out numbers or using numerals?) are all examples of what a copyeditor needs to watch.  As Associate Editor, I alert the copyeditor to the degree of editing that is now needed.  The copyeditor could still do some rewriting where he or she may deem necessary.  These instances are usually suggested to the author by the copyeditor before they are actually implemented, and an agreement is always reached.  The copyeditor also checks cross references to text, sidebars, illustrations, etc., throughout the manuscript, making sure anything referred to in the text actually resides how and where described.  A crude example of this is an illustration.  If the text reads something to the effect of  “…as described in Figure 8-4,” there had better be an illustration numbered “Figure 8-4” in the manuscript.  The copyeditor also edits the illustrations, making sure that they are what the text describes.  Once the manuscript is in order, I review it, and send it on to the compositor for typesetting.  Enter the proofreader.

The proofreader will now read the book against the final version of the manuscript, making sure that everything that was submitted to be typeset was done correctly.  The file used for this is known as the “galley pages” or “first proofs.”  The proofreader should not have to rewrite the text or change the author’s concept anywhere.  Sometimes intensive rewrites are necessary at this stage, but they should be rare.  The proofreader reviews the organization of elements such as illustrations, sidebars, and case studies, making sure they appear in their appropriate positions in the book.  The reason for this is quite obvious, and one might say that this was, in fact, the copyeditor’s responsibility.  True, but this is now the typeset version of the manuscript, and errors can occur during composition as bona fide typesetting errors or to help fit material within allotted space.  If this should happen, the proofreader needs to instruct the compositor to fix any such occurrences.  As with the final manuscript, the proofreader will submit a final master copy of the proofs to me, and I will send them on to the typesetter to make any further corrections.

Bottom Line:  Copyediting and Proofreading are two different stages of the editorial/production process in book publishing.  They do complement each other, and many of us in the business are capable of performing both functions.  But each needs to be done at their assigned times in a book’s editorial/production schedule.  If a copyeditor does no more than a quick read, and changes a few commas to semicolons, etc., or a proofreader heavily edits a set of galleys in areas, then either a reevaluation of the project needs to be done or the copyeditor and proofreader took the wrong tests.

Thank you, Michael!

Michael Sivilli has been an Associate Editor with AMACOM, the books publishing division of the American Management Association, since 1988.

Earlier Posts:
Michael on the Evolution of Language
Michael on Permissions
Michael on Corrections and Galley Proofs
Michael on Authors and Indexes


One response to “Michael on the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading

  1. Barry Richardson

    I received a fairly skimpy resume recently from a young lady who listed her main skills as “reading” and “writing.”

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