Proofreading or copyediting – what’s the difference?

When you’re new to the editing process, some of the terms editors use can be unfamiliar – proofeading, copyediting, structural or substantive editing, developmental editing … so what’s the difference among them all?

Each of these editing types occurs at different stages of the production process. Let’s work backwards from the endpoint (the finished work) to show where each editing types fits into the mix.

Proofreading

This is the last stage of editing, the finishing touches, where your work is burnished to perfection. It literally means ‘reading proofs’ (which are final typeset/formatted pages that your designer/ typesetter/ printer supplies to you). The focus of a proofread is to find errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and formatting. These small but important details take your work from amateur to professional. Note that this job has a faster turnaround time than a copyedit because of its narrower scope.

Copyediting

In traditional book publishing, this round of editing usually occurs before the pages are in their final layouts. In the case of thesis students and academic researchers, this is the round before submission. Usually done in a program such as MS Word, a copyedit involves not only checking for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, but delves deeper into the text to ensure it reads clearly with a logical flow of ideas, consistent and appropriate tone, styles followed and applied, accurate references and tables, and correct facts (e.g. historical events, dates, characters’ names and eye colours, etc.). Note that, for academic works (masters and doctoral theses, and journal articles), I cannot comment/advise on content for ethical reasons (see IPEd’s Guidelines for Editing Research Theses).

Structural/substantive editing

Sometimes, authors may be concerned about the structure of their work – how it all hangs together. This is where a structural edit can prove greatly beneficial. In terms of fiction, for example, a structural edit looks a the plot and pacing, characters and setting, themes and writing style. While some comments on structure can be included during a copyedit, this can get messy because it takes the editor’s focus away from finetuning the author’s language. It’s best, therefore, to keep structural editing as a separate round where possible – this often takes the form of a manuscript assessment and editing report.

Developmental editing

In a perfect world, you would engage an editor at the very beginning of the writing process for a developmental edit, where you can use them as a sounding board to thrash out ideas and concepts, story outlines, narrative arcs, character development and be a shoulder to cry on when the mountain seems impossibly big to climb. In reality, however, if you’re part of a writing group, or working with an academic supervisor, you’re already benefitting from a developmental edit. This term can also be used for de facto ghostwriting, where the editor takes more of a hands-on approach, finding solutions to problems with plot, character and pacing. An editorial ‘deus ex machina’, if you will.

Which of these editing types is right for your manuscript?

The answer to this question depends on how far along you are in the planning/writing/rewriting process. If you’re not sure, please get in touch with a sample chapter or two of your work, and we can discuss how to tailor the editing process to best suit your needs and timeframe.

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