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They both know a lot about words. They both seem to carry a red pen with them wherever they go. They both have a bookcase at home that takes up an entire wall. It can be hard to tell the difference between a copy editor vs. proofreader.

One might turn your comma into a period. Another might question word choice. But which is which? If you’re hired to proofread for someone, can you make suggestions about which phrases to use? If you’re hired to provide copy edits, what about spelling errors?

The best way to understand the difference between copy editor and proofreader roles is to know what the words themselves mean. This goes back to the older days in publishing, when the machines would need to be “set” with a final draft.

  • Copy: The final edit on the words themselves, to make sure they get the writer’s ideas across.
  • Proof: The final stage of corrections before the type is “set” into place. Think about it with this rule of thumb. What is a proofreader? Someone whose job it is to make sure the final copy is error-proof.

But what does this look like in terms of editing your next piece? Let’s dig deeper.

Understanding the Role of the Copy Editor

One of the most famous lines ever uttered by an American President didn’t start off so snappy. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went in front of Congress and said, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a day which will live in infamy…”

The line day which will live in infamy is striking. Something about that word infamy hits the perfect tone to describe the disaster that had just transpired.

But how would it sound if FDR had said, “day which will live in world history?”

Not quite as catchy, is it? Yet that was the original line as written. Fortunately for us, a copy editor got to it. They weren’t correcting a spelling mistake. They were trying to find the right words to convey an idea. After all, what is a copy editor there for if they don’t notice an opportunity to pick a better word?

What Is a Copy Editor?

A copy editor is someone who reads over a piece of writing with the goal of improving word choice and clarity. 

They’ll check for syntax errors, inconsistencies in your writing voice, and anything else that might get in the way of a distinct, powerful message.

What Does a Copy Editor Do?

Traditionally, copy editors have worked at newspapers and magazines. If you’ve ever seen a manuscript marked up in red ink—phrases crossed out and notes scribbled in the margins—then you’ve probably seen the work of a copy editor. 

Their role is to get the copy (the literal words and sentences themselves) to match the author’s intent. A regular editor could have higher-level suggestions for changing story structure in addition to providing copy edits. For copy editors, the main focus is the set of words as written.

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Writing Editing Masterclass—Content Editing, Copyediting, and Proofreading

Understanding the Role of the Proofreader

On Reddit, a user once posted a picture of a tattoo going down their forearm. It read, “No Regerts.” 

Whoops.

Had the tattoo artist also been a proofreader, they might have noticed the mistake. This is why before most of us put anything to final ink, we’re happy to enlist someone who can give our work a final check for errors.

What Is a Proofreader?

Proofreading has a more limited scope than copy editing. Proofreaders are like hunters of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. If you accidentally put two periods instead of one or if you misspelled “regrets” with “regerts,” the proofreader will leap into action.

What Does a Proofreader Do?

A “proof” consists of a last-pass from a proofreader. It’s the last step before an article, a story, or a book is ready for publication. 

Copy Editor vs Proofreader: The Final Verdict

A copy editor’s job is to help a writer choose the right words. A proofreader’s job is to make sure nothing else technical (like incorrect spelling) distracts the reader.

In some cases, an editor can provide both styles of editing, or even higher-concept edits. In other cases, the copy editor and the proofreader can be two different people. 

Either way, the goal is always the same: polishing that manuscript to a high shine.

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