Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: Definitions, Skills, and Duties

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated August 28, 2022 | Published July 26, 2021

Updated August 28, 2022

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Each stage in the editing process is important to publishing readable and effective written content. Copy editing and proofreading are two stages that people often confuse with each other. Knowing when to perform a detailed copy edit and when a proofreader typically reviews content are important steps in refining your writing. In this article, we discuss the skills and responsibilities of copy editors and proofreaders and explore the differences between a copy edit vs. proofreading.

What is copy editing?

Copy editing is preparing written content for publication and the copy editor is a professional who can work in any industry who assesses and edits the written material. They often read a manuscript, check for grammar, spelling, and facts, and ensure that it's readable and matches any stipulated style guide. This stage usually comes after an editor completes a developmental review. Sometimes, a copy editor rewrites and reviews material through production.

A copy editor has several responsibilities, depending on the specifications of their role. Most perform the below tasks regardless of their employer's or client's need:

  • Proofread: one of the most common tasks of a copy editor is to proofread a text for grammar, spelling, and syntax errors. Copy editors might proofread a text one or several times to make sure the content is error-free.

  • Check facts: copy editors verify the correctness of facts within a piece of writing such as statistics, references, and dates. If facts are incorrect, they may make the change directly in the content or send it back to the author for review.

  • Apply style: each company, task, or piece of written content has a specific style to apply. A copy editor verifies that the tone, voice, and word choice align with a client's expectations.

  • Query authors: while copy editors check for errors, there may be some areas that are unclear or misleading. Copy editors often use online editing or commenting tools to send queries back to authors or developmental editors.

  • Arrange layout and format: copy editors might also arrange the layout of certain pages, including where to place images, advertisements, and other media. Similarly, they can ensure the text, headings, links, captions, and more are all formatted correctly.

  • Rewrite text: copy editors either suggest that authors rewrite large amounts of text, or they might rewrite sentences and paragraphs themselves. When rewriting, they may include a question or comment for the author to review.

Copy editor skills

Building and strengthening the following skills help you succeed in a copy editing career:

Excellent writing skills

To be successful, a copy editor has a deep understanding of the language they edit. Copy editors must be able to read copy and determine if it logically and clearly communicates information to the targeted audience while sticking to the style guide's requirements.

They have to make sure voice, tone, and structure are correct, and they must possess the ability to rewrite content to make it flow more naturally. To do this, copy editors understand how syntax, word choice, and punctuation can affect the tone of a piece. They must also understand how rules change depending on the required writing style (i.e., APA, Chicago, MLA).

Related: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Ability to connect

Although a copy editor focuses on content, it's just as important for them to connect with others and possess interpersonal skills. Copy editors often work directly with writers and clients, so having compassion and the ability to build positive relationships with others is a highly valuable skill in this field.

Copy editors provide support and guidance to writers, offering encouragement and understanding. They also maintain professional relationships with clients and in-house leadership. Similarly, they understand the audience of the written piece to suggest edits that connect them with a company.

Creative thinking

Copy editors often generate creative headlines and lead-in sentences to grab the attention of readers. They might also take a common topic that many others have already covered and write about it with a fresh perspective. Both tasks require creative thinking. Copy editors working in advertising and marketing rely heavily on creativity and curiosity to develop exciting copy for website landing pages, company branding, and other content used to influence a target audience.

Related: 7 Steps To Improve Your Creative Thinking Skills

Attention to detail

During this editing phase, the copy editor catches the smallest errors, from missing punctuation to subtle spelling issues. This requires them to have strong attention to detail. It's important that they can switch between various style guides depending on the job, so a comma might be appropriate in some copy but in others, they may remove it.

Related: How To Be More Detail-Oriented (With Definition and Resume Tips)

What is proofreading?

Proofreading is often the last editing stage for written content before it's published. Proofreaders may verify correctness against source material or against the style guide to ensure the copy editor corrected everything. Some tasks that a proofreader performs are very similar to the copy editor, though there are typically fewer errors for a proofreader to find. Some of their tasks include:

  • Reviewing for correctness: proofreaders also work with a client's style guide and verify that grammar, spelling, syntax, and structure are all correct. Proofreading is often the last check before releasing content to the public, so it's important that the proofreader reviews everything carefully.

  • Checking for plagiarism: sometimes, a proofreader might put written content through an online plagiarism checker to verify the material is original or properly cited. If the proofreader finds content that is too similar to another source, they may send it back to the author or copy editor to rewrite sections.

  • Fact checking: proofreaders perform an additional fact check on the written content to ensure the copy editor had verified everything. Accurate fact reporting is important to build credibility with your audience.

  • Verifying there are no formatting issues: sometimes, a copy editor completes their work with word processing software and then imports their written work into another program. Proofreaders have to check that the layout matches the edited material, no errors such as spacing issues arose, and that all content is available.

Related: Some of the Best Proofreading Jobs (With Skills and Salary)

Proofreader skills

Proofreaders share a lot of skills with copy editors, as they both ensure written content is correct and effective. Here are some of the key skills that can help proofreaders excel in their role:

Writing and editing

Writing and editing are skills that both copy editors and proofreaders need to excel. Though proofreaders may rewrite less content than copy editors, they still have a thorough understanding of writing rules and style guides. Proofreaders also markup documents, so knowledge of editing marks like carats, deletion marks, and new paragraph indicators is necessary. Applying these marks consistently ensures the writer or production team clearly understands what you recommend they update.

Computer efficiency

Computer efficiency in proofreading might mean editing on different platforms, using different tools. For example, you might proofread a website and provide comments in a separate document. For another job, you may use markup tools in certain file formats and be aware of features like notifications, comment resolution and version control.

Related: Computer Literacy in the Workplace: What You Need To Know

Resourcefulness

A proofreader explores the different resources available to them for the different tasks they complete. For example, you might develop research skills as you fact-check on different internet sources. Similarly, you might have to research certain spelling variations depending on a style guide. You don't need to memorize every language rule for each unique style. You might learn one or two of the most common styles, and be ready to research and use additional resources to ensure the work matches those guides.

Copy editing vs. proofreading

Although they perform a lot of the same tasks, there are some key distinctions between what copy editors and proofreaders do. Here are some reasons both copy editing and proofreading are often necessary when writing new content:

Placement in the editing process

Copy editing comes first in the editing process. This is the first detailed review of every sentence to ensure accuracy and market readiness. Proofreaders complete their tasks after this to ensure they catch anything the copy editor may have missed.

Distinct roles

It's important that different people perform the copy edit and proofread of the same project. This approach lets two people review the same material, doubling the chance that they can produce content that is error-free. If the same person were to proofread their edited material, they may make assumptions that another person would not. For example, they may skip fact-checking a date if they assumed they've completed this task for all dates and statistics.

Level of detail

Both roles require attention to detail, but copy editing is often a lot more in-depth editing with more corrections, reviews, and rewriting. Companies might encourage their content authors to draft their ideas regardless of grammatical correctness. This means the copy editor has to bring out the meaning using their line-edits and revisions.

Proofreaders require an attention to detail, too, as they check for more than what automatic spelling and grammar checkers might catch. They can look for additional spacing, use of punctuation, and overall adherence to the style guide. Because copy editors sometimes make additional changes at their stage, the proofreader may find errors introduced at a later stage.

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