What is Copyediting? And How Does it Differ from Proofreading?

By Lourdes Venard, lead instructor, Copyediting Certificate Program


One of the first lessons in the Copyediting I class of the UC San Diego Extended Studies Copyediting Certificate Program is to explain the different types of editors. Before we can even begin teaching copyediting, it’s necessary to clarify the distinctions because there’s often confusion among authors—and those new to editing—about what each editor does. There are many roles and stages in the publishing process; copyediting and proofreading come toward the end, after a manuscript or piece of writing has gone through more substantial content editing.

Perhaps the most confusion comes when distinguishing between copyediting and proofreading. These two terms are not interchangeable because they are different stages of the publishing process. Authors, especially those who are self-publishing, will often unknowingly ask for proofreading, when what they need is copyediting.

An editor must understand the differences between copyediting and proofreading so they know how they contribute to the process—and so they can discuss their services with a client. The following explains both and what to look for:


This stage of editing follows developmental editing, which looks at big-picture issues like narrative flow or, in fiction, plotting and characterization. Once those issues are resolved, a copyeditor looks at the following:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Capitalization
  • Hyphenation
  • The use of italics and bold type
  • Treatment of quotations
  • Treatment of numbers and numerals
  • Treatment of special elements, such as lists and charts
  • The formatting of footnotes and endnotes

The copyeditor will also make sure there is consistency and clarity throughout a document. They will fact-check information—for instance, whether an important date is correct in the text.

They will consider phrasing and may help an author with awkward language. If something seems confusing, they will query the author for clarification. The copyeditor or their manager will ideally work closely with an author, making sure that any revisions don’t change the author’s intended meaning.

This process can take multiple passes of a document. But, by the end of copyediting, the document should be mostly error-free. I say “mostly” because no one is perfect; in the industry, a good edit is considered to be one that has caught 95% of the errors.*


Proofreading is the final stage of editing a manuscript before it is printed. It’s completed after a manuscript has been through multiple levels of editing and then designed and typeset. When proofreading is finished, the manuscript is almost ready for print and a “proof copy” is created, sometimes as a PDF and sometimes as a printed, bound softcover book.

Because no one person is perfect, publishers rely on proofreaders for a final check. These proofreaders are a necessary quality check, and they are the last person in the process to review the text and catch anything missed. They are mostly looking for egregious errors and formatting issues, like the following:
  • Errors that were introduced during the formatting process, such as dropped words or even dropped paragraphs.
  • Other typographical and layout errors, such as whether a word breaks badly at the end of a sentence or whether a paragraph breaks at a bad spot over two pages.
  • Any misalignments, such as incorrect margin and line spacing.
  • Consistency between the table of contents and chapter names as well as page numbers.
  • Whether the front matter and back matter are in the right place. Front matter includes the title page, copyright page, and table of contents. Back matter may contain the author’s bio, an appendix, an index, and a glossary.
  • Whether headlines or titles, photographs, text, and even advertising all make sense on a page. For instance, in a newspaper or magazine, you typically do not want an ad from an airline company next to a story about a plane crash, or on a corporate website, an article about a bank collapse and neighboring ads inviting the reader to apply for the bank’s credit card.
The proofreader is unlikely to do multiple passes—it’s a much quicker read. They are not going to change any awkwardly worded sentences or ask the author for further clarification on a point. This simply is not in their scope of work, but if the proofreader found something that they felt strongly needed attention because it could be confusing to the reader, they could discuss it with the copyeditor. The proofreader is unlikely to have any interaction with the author, as they are working directly with a production editor or other editor.


Here’s an example of how a copyeditor and proofreader would approach this sentence differently:
  • Our accountant, Lynne, was not going to be able to meet the April 16 tax deadline, so an estension was filed.

The copyeditor would change the misspelled “estension” to “extension.” They would also suggest that the sentence be written in active voice and correct the date of the tax deadline after double-checking or querying the author. A query could be: “Tax deadlines typically fall on April 15. Is 16 meant to be 15?” They might also add the date of the extension deadline.
The copyeditor’s final edit, after the query is resolved, might look like this:
  • Our accountant, Lynne, was not going to be able to meet the April 15 tax deadline, so she filed an extension for October 15.    
The proofreader would change “estension” to “extension”; they might change the date if they knew, offhand, the correct date—but they are not obliged to fact-check it. They would make no other changes or queries—unless there was a formatting issue in the text.

As you can see, a copyeditor and proofreader have different roles. As stated in The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, “Although many copyeditors are good proofreaders, and all copyeditors are expected to catch typographical errors, copyediting and proofreading are two different functions.”

Now that you know the difference, which role in the publishing process most interests you? Visit our Copyediting Program page and review our course offerings. You might find something you like. And although our certificate program is about copyediting, those interested in proofreading may also benefit from our classes. A proofreader needs to know the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, and editorial style, which we teach in our program. *As stated in The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, “According to one study of human error rates, 95 percent accuracy is the best a human can do.”

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