The Difference between Proofreading and Copy Editing, and between Copy editing and Content Editing

I am frequently asked what the difference is between proofreading and copy editing. Then there is content editing. What is the difference between copy editing and content editing? Contrary to what most authors think, there are distinct differences among the three.

A manuscript should ideally go through each one of these stages in order. Many authors seem to be of the opinion that proofreading is what they need (and all they need). In thinking this, they mistakenly want to pay for proofreading when what they really want is content editing.

Content editing is performed at the rough draft (production) stage of a manuscript. A good content editor will check the manuscript for style, voice, consistency, and overall narrative flow. They will make suggestions as to point of view, character development, audience, plot issues, etc. This is a very in depth analysis of a manuscript. The content editor is trained to spot inconsistencies and other problematic issues with the construction of the narrative.

Copy editing is the next step in the editorial process. The copy editor is responsible for reviewing the grammatical structure of the manuscript, fact checking, and overall consistency of the manuscript (again, in the production stage).

Proofreading is the final stage of the editorial (writing) process. Proofreading is done AFTER the rough draft (production) stage. The manuscript has been reviewed by the content editor for overall narrative flow, and it has been copyedited for serious grammatical issues and correct facts. The proofreader is the final ‘eye’ of the manuscript. They check for typos, anything the copy editor may have missed, layout of the manuscript (are page numbers correct, are paragraphs indented, are fonts consistent, etc.). The proofreader is NOT the one who will tell you that your character is flat or your plot line is skewed. This is sometimes called line editing or final review.

Can you get all three from one person? Yes, but it is advisable to have a separate proofreader from the person who did the content and copy editing. Why? Because the proofreader offers a final ‘fresh’ eye on the manuscript. Having a separate person do the proofreading ensures that issues that the copy editor may have missed are picked up, ensures that the manuscript is laid out correctly, and ensures that pesky typos in the layout stage are caught by ‘fresh’ eyes.

Do I Need a Proofreader or a Copy Editor?

Online publishing is full of unedited manuscripts. I have even found books formatted for Amazon Kindle, the Nook, etc. published by major houses to be rife with typos. It is a sad thought that our children are reading these manuscripts on their mobile devices and being exposed to improper spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. As an English teacher, I cringe every time I find an error.

I finished writing my book; should I hire a content editor, a copy editor, or a proofreader? Ideally, I would say you need all three. Realistically, at the very least hire a proofreader (the least expensive route). There are some people who advertise themselves as proofreaders, get paid as proofreaders, and perform all three functions. Again, I don’t recommend you hire them. Each job is distinct and involved, and someone offering to do all three for very little money is not likely to give you quality. You get what you pay for, right?

I only have enough money to pay for one. Which should I choose? Go with a copy editor. The copy editor is going to clean up your manuscript. Sometimes – if they like you (ha ha just kidding) – they are going to throw in some advice if they see major issues with the content (but don’t expect them to rewrite it for you!). THEN, get a family member or friend to read over the final manuscript to catch any glaring typos, etc.

Why is proofreading so important? Your copy editor (or content editor) is going to suggest changes to the manuscript, and you are going to make their changes if you agree with them. In the process of making changes, you risk creating typos and misspellings. Remember, the content and copy editing is done DURING the production of the manuscript. The proofing (line editing, final review) is done AFTER you have made all the changes and the manuscript is ready to go to the printer – final eyes!

I have read some beautifully crafted stories on my Kindle – many of them free – but they are not going to make it because NO ONE PROOFREAD THEM! One or two typos is not so bad, but I find it so disheartening to read a great story and get stopped in my reading ‘flow’ over and over again by grammatical errors and typos. I won’t read anything more from that author because it was just so draining to wade through all the messy sentences.

PROOFREAD, I beg you!

Ready to hire a content editor, copy editor, or proofreader?

Give me a shout at karenzomedia@gmail.com or visit Karenzo Media online.

About Karen Y. Hamilton

Karen leads workshops in Creative Writing, Poetry and Journal Therapy, and Memoir Writing. She has studied genealogy and personal histories since 1987, lecturing and leading workshops on Memoir Writing and Journaling to the community since 1998. Karen holds a BA in English and has studied Literature, Business, and Education at the graduate level. She is a former college instructor of English Composition and Reading. In the past, Karen has worked as a high school & middle school teacher. She currently works as a Curriculum Specialist and is an MFA Creative Writing student at Florida Atlantic University.
This entry was posted in Freelancing, tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Difference between Proofreading and Copy Editing, and between Copy editing and Content Editing

  1. This has been very helpful for me. However, I beg to differ on one point. You imply that an editor who doesn’t charge much isn’t good. Have you ever considered that the editor needs money and dropped his/her price to attract more customers? I am one such editor. Maybe I should raise my price.

    • Yes, I have to agree with you there. I have also dropped my price on many occasions for just that reason (tough economy!). The point I’m hoping to get across to clients is that they need to know exactly what they are asking for and plan to pay accordingly. So often clients ask me to ‘proofread’ when what they really want is a full content/copy edit. They rarely want to pay for that though. When I drop my prices, I tell potential clients that I am dropping my price (for a discount or because I have an open schedule, etc.). I think it is important for potential clients to know that full copy editing costs more because it is far more extensive than just proofreading. I would suggest that you raise your price to an acceptable market rate, but then offer discounts or ‘sales’, etc. By doing this, you let clients know your value (the market value) but are still able to offer discounted prices because of the economy, or whatever.

  2. Great informative and TIMELY article considering the self-publishing explosion. I just referenced it with a link on my site, the Women’s Writing Circle. Thank you.

  3. Kaz:
    This is an important topic; I’ve written on it as well. As a developmental editor, I would like to differ on one point. I do not believe what you call “content editing” is best done at the rough draft. It can be, but it won’t be as effective, and may have to be done again.

    Almost all writers, especially beginning ones, are feeling their way into a story as they write. The second draft is to stand back and say “Well, what do I have here?” and start to develop the story. Then you should write another draft to do so, and another pass at least to check for the million and one details that writing requires of us. Those details hold many clues to story development.

    I always ask my clients that they take the story as far as they possibly can, and polish it as best they can, before sending it to me. This will ensure that 1) the story ends up being the one they wanted to tell, 2) structural problems will be more apparent (they can hide behind execution problems) and 3) your work will point more clearly to the solutions.

    In order to have a developmental edit, in other words, you need a story complete enough for editing. I can suggest any number of answers, but only demonstrate how a cohesive story is built. Then the writer rushes off to self-publication thinking they’ve been edited—when really their choices have created a new rash of problems. If the story is early and rough, there may not be enough there, and you may need a writing coach instead.

    Also, FYI, the conversion to e-book process is still pretty rough, people tell me, introducing all sorts of errors that weren’t there to begin with. Hopefully that will get sorted as e-publishing continues to grow in popularity.

    • You make some valid points, Kathryn. I agree that the client needs to have a completed manuscript (as close to complete as possible) in order to do a content edit. That complete manuscript is still considered a rough draft, however. Too often (far too often!), writers dash off to self-publication with that rough draft. Yes, the story is complete; they finished it! But they don’t understand that it is NOT finished by a long shot. Sadly, they find this out the hard way when they receive all those horrible reviews at Amazon, etc.

      I am still shocked that Fifty Shades of Gray made it so big with so many errors in…well, EVERYTHING (plot, characters, grammar, typos, etc.). If I were that author, I would be so very embarrassed by the comments being made about my book!

      • Fifty Shades author E. L. James is embarrassed all the way to the bank. She got by with it because there is a class of modern readers who don’t care and probably don’t even recognize when fiction is badly written or borders on illiterate.

        I myself am an editor, but I hired a pro to edit my four novels. Still, typos and slips slip through, no matter how many layers of editing are applied. (The most embarrassing was a typo on the cover of the first edition of Web Games, a glaring error that countless people had seen without seeing it.) To err is…

      • Don’t you find it disheartening that there are so many people out there who find a book like Fifty Shades acceptable?? As an English teacher, it greatly depresses me. Or maybe I’m just old and need to ‘get with the times’? (Never going to happen!) The great literary giants are rolling in their graves…. 😦

      • I hear you about the rush to self-publication—or submission. Always shock me when authors are surprised that I am suggesting they do an in-depth rewrite to achieve their goals. Um…if it were so perfect, why did they hire me? And Larry—fun to bump into you here!

  4. This has been really helpful to me. I’m left wondering, where does one find training and/or certification in one of these professions?

    • Good question, Ariana. I know that there are courses offered at community colleges and at online institutions. I received my training through English degrees and while working for a magazine. I also teach reading, composition, and creative writing at various community colleges and local community centers.

  5. Writing is work. If you like it, it is work you like.
    Writing is art. You have to stand back to really see it.
    As to a cohesive, complete story, I always have a map in mind. I know where I start and where I am going. But how to get there? The trip may have unexpected detours. Now THAT makes it interesting!
    I find that as I plan the “trip,” I have to keep checking the details of the route and well as the nuts & bolts of the vehicle (spelling, grammar, etc.).

    • I certainly agree with you, Wesley! Although I do tell my workshop participants not to allow themselves to get bogged down in the spelling, grammar on the first draft. I am one of those people who believes you need to get the story written FIRST. Completing the trip is the hardest part (I have countless stories half completed!). The wonder of writing stories is that no matter what kind of map you use, the characters seem to take on a will of their own. You are right, THAT is the fun part of the trip! 🙂

  6. This is useful information, especially to pass on to writers asking for advice on ‘proofreading’. I’d like to know if you charge per page, per word, or if you assess the manuscript before deciding what you will charge. We sometimes get manuscripts written by second language English speakers and they take an enormous amount of work. Thanks.

    • Hi Jan, it does depend on the manuscript and the client. I know how long it takes me to work on one page, so I am comfortable with charging per page or per hour. I go with whichever the client is more comfortable with. Of course, this depends on how extensive the work needed is per manuscript, which is why I would rather see a few pages of the client’s writing before making a determination (sometimes you can tell just from their query!). If I feel a manuscript is going to need significant work, I charge by the hour. ESL clients would fall in that category. Clients that have written and published before are generally more comfortable with per page. I base a ‘page rate’ on @300-350 words per page, and that is based on using publisher standards of using Times New Roman 12 point double spaced. I have received manuscripts that were 10 point or not double spaced, etc. I tell clients how to format the mss, and if they don’t do it, then I will format it for them and adjust the page count. Hope that makes sense…typing fast! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s