book pages with sticky notes and magnifying glass over text

The day I learned the difference between copyediting and proofreading was the same day I threatened the life of the copyeditor for my first book.

I was joking, kind of, but I was still very upset about the copyedits that came back on my first book, so I called my editor to complain:

Editor: “Tucker, if you’re this upset about the copyedits, wait until proofreading changes come back.”

Tucker: “I have to do this again? With a different person? I can’t kill two people!”

Although the terms “copyediting” and “proofreading” are often used interchangeably, they describe different steps in the editing process that benefit your book in unique ways. The differences are actually pretty simple to understand once they are explained. They can be summed up in two sentences:

Copyeditors catch all the mistakes the author missed. Proofreaders catch all the mistakes the copyeditor missed.

It’s not quite that simple, and this piece is written to help you sort through the full list of differences between copyediting and proofreading to get absolute clarity on this issue.

(If you want to know the differences between all the different types of editing and which you should use for your book, read about that here.)

What is Copyediting?

A copyedit is when a copyeditor looks for and corrects these errors:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Basic fact checking (correct dates, names, etc.)
  • Usage and style (usually based on a specific style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style)

When you read your book out loud (which all writers should do when they’re editing their book), you’ll catch the sloppy mistakes and wording issues, but you’ll miss the stuff that copyeditors search for: small grammatical rules that native English speakers often don’t even realize exist.

The kinds of errors in grammar copyeditors catch are not life-threatening, but they make the difference between a professional book and writing that comes across as amateur.

What is Proofreading?

Once the copyediting is done, then you go to proofreading. But don’t think it’s as simple as sending the manuscript to them. There is a whole other step between copyediting and proofreading.

After your book has been designed and formatted for publishing, (creating what is called a “proof”), the proofreader takes the proof and gives it a final review before the book goes to print. Since it comes right before publication, proofreading is the last line of defense against typographical errors. A proofreader isn’t looking to fix your content—just to correct any errors they see.

This is a very important two-stage process (we do this at Scribe) and the reason is not obvious:

Just like a copyeditor, a proofreader looks for typos and misplaced punctuation but also searches for layout issues like page numbering, consistency with headings, placement of tables of figures in the text, bad line or page breaks, and more.

I hope this clears up the difference between copyediting and proofreading and helps you understand what you need to make the best decision for your book, whatever that is.