What’s the difference between copy-editing and proofreading? It’s a question that we’re often asked, as Sara Donaldson (Northern Editorial) pointed out in a recent(ish) blog post.
It’s important that the editor or proofreader and client are both clear about various aspects of what’s going to be done. One of these is the level of intervention: will we just be fixing errors, or also tweaking the wording, maybe rewriting the odd sentence? If we find something that’s unclear, will we fix it or just point it out?
What we do for publishers
In the world of publishing, it’s all pretty clear-cut. A copy-editor works with the manuscript (the copy) – usually a Word document nowadays – that the author has provided, and typically needs to do the following:
After copy-editing, the manuscript goes to a typesetter, who converts it into the format that’s needed for publication. The result is what we call the proof – usually a PDF file. This is then passed to a proofreader, who has two main jobs:
(The proofreader doesn’t correct anything directly, but just indicates things that should be changed or at least reconsidered.)
On the other hand ...
That’s all very well when we’re working for publishers. They know what copy-editing and proofreading are, and they (and we) know what needs to be done at each stage.
When it comes to other types of clients, though – businesses, researchers, students, independent authors and so on – it doesn’t usually work that way. They normally want just one person to work on their material, whether it’s in Word, PDF or any other format. But should they ask for copy-editing, proofreading, some sort of hybrid, or something else altogether?
As I see it, this problem is all down to wording (something that we should be good at!). When we advertise ourselves as ‘copy-editors’ and/or ‘proofreaders’ to clients such as these, we’re thrusting publishing jargon into the faces of people who aren’t publishers. It’s no wonder that they’re often a bit puzzled. And when we then try to explain it, this can seem condescending.
Instead, why don’t we use words that will make sense to them in the first place?
Breaking it down
Let’s look at the basic words that make up these terms: ‘copy’, ‘edit’, ‘proof’ and ‘read’.
This use of ‘copy’ – meaning a piece of writing – means something to journalists (‘filing copy’) and marketers (‘the copy for the website’) as well as publishers, but might draw blank stares from most other people.
As for ‘proof’, they might wonder what it’s proof of – guilt, purchase, pudding? ‘Read’ is suspect as well: I’m sure most clients will want us to correct the text, not just read it. (Also, we often do so-called ‘proofreading’ on a Word document, which isn’t really a proof.)
‘Edit’, however, does have a relevant meaning in the wider world. It suggests changing the content, bringing it up to a higher standard. I think we should keep this one.
So, here’s my idea
As an experiment, at least, I’m going to offer three levels of service to non-publishers:
Level 1: Error check
Level 2: Light edit
Level 3: Full edit
Level 1 is what we might call ‘proofreading’, although, as mentioned earlier, it might well be done in Word. Level 3 is effectively copy-editing, while Level 2 is, unsurprisingly, part way between the two: it’s sometimes known as ‘proof-editing’ (another misnomer, sadly).
I’ve listed these on the ‘What I do’ page of my website, and I’m considering doing so in other places, such as online directories.
It isn’t quite that simple, though. I don’t want to eliminate the terms ‘copy-editing’ and ‘proofreading’ from my marketing material altogether. Publishers will be looking for people who can do those jobs, Non-publishing clients often think they’re looking for a ‘proofreader’, even if their actual needs don’t fit with that word’s traditional meaning (as demonstrated by the success of the Find a Proofreader website).
So, at least for now, I’m a copy-editor and proofreader who offers (a) copy-editing or proofreading to publishers and (b) an error check, light edit or full edit to everyone else. I hope this will be at least a bit clearer.