What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

It depends on your point of view. (Sorry. The definition changes depending on who you talk to.)

For me, editing and proofreading have meant different things at different times. When I was in high school, these terms meant the same thing.

When I worked as a copy editor in the book publishing industry, the two terms were not at all synonymous.

Now, as the owner of a language services agency, I use both terms. But they don’t mean what they do in the publishing world.


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Editing vs. Proofreading in…

…the Publishing Industry

…the Translation Industry

…the Real World

What’s the Difference Between Editing and Proofreading…

…in the Publishing Industry?

The terms editing and proofreading in the publishing industry are different. Before we discuss that, though, let’s look at how a book is published.

Today, electronic editing or online editing is the standard. Previously, though, the production phase of a book involved a lot of paper. This is how things worked when I was in book publishing in the early 2000s:

  1. A copy editor would read the hard copy (paper) of an author’s manuscript while correcting errors along the way with a red pencil. These are called line edits. (We won’t deal with a developmental edit—also called a substantive edit—here.)
  2. A typesetter or DTP specialist then modified the electronic version of the manuscript by keying in the copy editor’s changes.
  3. The typesetter then printed out preliminary versions of each page of the book, called proofs.
  4. Last, a proofreader would check the proofs against the copy editor’s marked-up manuscript.
  5. The typesetter and proofreader would repeat steps 2–5 until all page proofs reflected the changes that the copy editor had made to the manuscript.

What a Copy Editor Does

As you can see, copy editors and proofreaders have very different jobs.

A copy editor edits copy. She checks every sentence of every page. She checks that there are no errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, word usage, and so on. (Collectively, these are called mechanics.)

The copy editor also makes sure that the publisher’s style guide has been followed.

In addition to the above, the copy editor prepares the manuscript for publication. She marks up heads and subheads, numbered and bulleted lists, inset boxes, pull quotes, and so on.

So you can think of a copy editor as an English-Savvy Word and Sentence Checker. (Need services? Learn more about our copy editing process.)

Behold the copy editor with his chiseled jaw. Is he lost in thought? Or is he so good that he doesn’t even need to look at his own edits?

What a Proofreader Does

By contrast, a proofreader reads proofs. (Betcha never knew where that word came from!)

But the proofreader doesn’t need to be an English major or an expert writer. This is because he doesn’t have to correct errors in mechanics. His sole job is to catch anything that the typesetter missed.

For example, let’s say that the copy editor had made a dozen changes on a page but the typesetter missed one (e.g, a deleted hyphen). The proofreader sees it and makes a mark on the page proof. Then he returns it to the typesetter.

So you can think of a proofreader as an Eagle-Eyed Discrepancy Checker.

The difference between editing and proofreading in the publishing world, then, is this: editing means correcting/improving the text, and proofreading means checking that the proofs look the way they should.

An example of proofreader’s marks showing transposition, lowercase, deletion, and closing up.

Deep Thoughts

  • What’s different now, though, is that copy editors are moving more and more to an “electronic-only” model. Goodbye, paper manuscript. Hello, Track Changes in MS Word. In this way, the copy editor actually does half of the typesetter’s job. She enters changes into the electronic file on the fly. (Editing on a screen is often harder than it is on paper, though. I can personally attest to that.)
  • The term typesetter comes from the days when highly skilled tradesmen would set type. (Using brass letters from a printer’s tray, the typesetter would physically arrange letters and punctuation to form sentences and paragraphs.) Now, the “typesetter” is a person skilled in page layout software such as InDesign or Quark.
  • The little marks that the copy editor made to the author’s manuscript are called—maddeningly—proofreader’s marks. Gah!

…in the Translation Industry?

In the translation industry, the terms editing and proofreading are also used. But their meaning is different from what we saw above.

Here’s a fairly common workflow in the translation industry:

  1. A translator translates a document from, say, English to Spanish. (Best practice is for translators to work only into their native language.) In this case, the translator is a native Spanish speaker.
  2. An editor (who is also a translator) reviews the work of the first translator. In our example, this person is also a professional translator who works from English into Spanish. The editor checks the quality of the translation, which involves meaning and style. Was meaning conveyed correctly? Was it worded in a natural way?
  3. A proofreader then reads the reviewed translation but does not compare it to the source text. In other words, the proofreader need not be a translator. The proofreader checks the text for any native-language errors (e.g., spelling, grammar, awkward phrasings, etc.).

Both the editor and the proofreader can make corrections to the text. Here, the difference between editing and proofreading is murkier.

Think of the editor as a Bilingual Copy Editor and Translation Checker and the proofreader as a Monolingual Copy Editor. (Here I’m using the term copy editor as I described it in the section on book publishing, minus the formatting duties.)

You may see this workflow described in the translation industry as TEP (translation, editing, proofreading).

…in the Real World?

Remember what you just read in the two sections above? Well, those differences probably don’t matter to most people. (Man, it pains me to say that.)

In the real world, there’s no real difference between editing and proofreading.

You’ll hear a high school kid say that he has to proofread his report before turning it in. He just means that he has to reread it and make corrections. These fixes could be necessary (e.g., fixing typos). Or they could be optional (e.g., improving a turn of phrase).

A coworker at your nonprofit might ask you to edit a grant letter before she sends it. Again, she means that she wants someone else to read the text and correct it.

So in a non-specialist’s world, the acts of editing and proofreading are the same.

But for publishing pros or translators? The difference between editing and proofreading is significant.

The Bottom Line

If you’re an author, an aspiring book editor, or a buyer of translation services, then the difference between editing and proofreading is important.

But if you’re anyone else, you can use the two terms interchangeably. (No one will lose any sleep over it.)

At RedLine, for example, we use the term editing (or copy editing) when we correct reports, white papers, brochures, and so on. But that’s internal.

Some of our clients use the term proofreading. So we have to adjust to their terminology or explain ours so that everyone’s on the same page. (Page. Get it?)

On translation projects, we use the terms editor and proofreader. But with clients we refer to it as QA (quality assurance) or internal review.

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