As you’ve probably just discovered, a search for ‘copy-editing vs. proofreading’ brings up hundreds of different results, from ‘line editing’ to ‘proofreading’, and words such as ‘developmental’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘beta reading’ get thrown around, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused. If you’re unsure where to start with getting your manuscript edited, it’s worth understanding the difference between the two main areas: copy-editing and proofreading.
‘Copy’ refers to raw, unedited text, so a copy-edit is an edit carried out on your manuscript immediately after you’ve finished drafting it. It’s generally what most people are referring to when they say ‘editing’, and it’s a key part of the process of writing a novel. An editor should have excellent knowledge of language, grammar, punctuation, and current editorial standards. They should also have good general knowledge and may specialise in different genres.
Why get my work copy-edited?
A professional editor will take your manuscript from a rough draft to a polished, finished product. They will do this by looking at all aspects of your writing, from flow, pacing, characterisation, plot, description, dialogue, punctuation, grammar, and formatting. An edit covers both objective (i.e. errors and typos) and subjective (things that aren’t wrong, per se, but need improving) areas. Your editor provides an additional perspective on your novel – they may be able to make suggestions you wouldn’t have thought of – and will also know how to appeal to your target audience, which is important if you are planning to publish.
No two editors will approach your work in exactly the same way, so it’s worth finding out exactly what kind of service you’re getting before you pay for anything. Some editors will focus more on the wider aspects of the novel (e.g. plot and characterisation), which is often referred to as ‘developmental’ or ‘structural’ editing; others may prefer to takeeach individual line and look at it carefully to see whether it can be improved upon (‘line editing’). A good way to see whether you like an editor’s tone and approach is to request a short sample edit, which should show you what kind of thing they will pick up on and the suggestions they give to fix it.
Proofreading is a very different service, though at first glance it may seem to be the same thing. A proofreader will read your book and keep an eye out for typos or errors that have not been caught during an edit. Because they are focusing on removing objective mistakes, a proofreader is unlikely to comment on subjective areas of the book, such as characterisation, repetition, or word flow. Instead, they will pick up on the small details, such as incorrect punctuation or spelling errors. A manuscript can be proofread multiple times by different people, and will usually benefit from at least two proofreads – the more the better, as this eliminates the chances of any mistakes being missed.
Why get my work proofread?
Whether you are planning to have your book self-published or send it to literary agencies or traditional publishers, the last thing you want is for it to contain any typos or errors. Literary agencies receive hundreds or thousands of manuscripts a year; their standards must necessarily be high, and they will not look twice at a sample that is badly written or unprofessional. If you are self-publishing with a company or website, you may well find that if your writing is not of a high standard, you will struggle to sell many copies and may even receive negative reviews. Even if you feel you have a good grasp of grammar, have run the manuscript through editing software, or have had your friend/cousin/colleague who is a librarian/secretary/English teacher proofread it, you should seriously consider paying a professional proofreader. Someone whose job is to spot mistakes is far more likely to get rid of them all, and you may not even realise what kind of errors your work contains. If you are unsure whether your work requires proofreading, again, it may be worth submitting a sample to a proofreader before you decide to pay them.
As you can see, copy-editing and proofreading tackle writing from ‘both ends’, so to speak, and so it is not recommended that you skip either step. If you only pay for an edit, you risk small errors slipping through, and though your work will be of a much higher quality, it will not have that level of polish that is to be expected in professionally published books. If, on the other hand, you choose to only have the manuscript proofread, you risk plot holes on a wider scale – continuity errors, unrealistic or out-of-character events/actions, and a narrative that may have slow or unnecessary sections. Any manuscript will benefit from both.
Image by Alexandre Duret-Lutz