copy editors

Copy Editors and Proofreaders: What’s the Difference?

Ann O'Brien

May 5, 2022

Are you confused by the differences between copy editors and proofreaders? In this article, we’ll look at the different types of copy editors you may want to use when you write a book.

Types of Editors

In the publishing world, there are five types of editors who will take your book and polish it to perfection:

  • Developmental editors help you prepare a book that you want to present to a publishing house or a book agent. If you’re self-publishing, you won’t need a developmental editor.
  • Structural editors assess your book in its initial stages to see if it seems promising.
  • Line editors focus on the wording, organization, and flow of your text.
  • Copy editors help you maintain consistency and readability.
  • Proofreaders are the eagle eyes who catch grammar and spelling mistakes.

You may think you’re a good writer who doesn’t need an editor. Most professional writers use them, however, because an editor is a detached, objective observer who can spot flaws in your manuscript.

It’s important to know what you’re getting when you sign up for editorial help. In a Writer’s Digest interview, writing instructor J. Thorn noted, “Many writers, including the biggest publishers in the industry, optimize the revision process by using a team of editors because one will almost always identify issues another may miss.”

What Line Editors Do

Many publishing companies once had them on staff, but today, most line editors or book editors are freelancers.

Line editors get that name because they go through your manuscript line by line to improve the wording, flow, and style. You may want a line editor to work on a specific chapter, refine a description in a scene, or improve your dialogue. A line editor can also take an entire rough manuscript and polish it until it’s ready for publication.

As you might imagine, line editors are creative and skilled, and good ones are in high demand. Most of them won’t do basic fact-checking or checks of consistency. For that, you need a copy editor.

What Copy Editors Do

A good copy editor is an invaluable help to any writer. If you want to be sure your book is readable and cohesive, it’s worth it to hire one.

Make your book readable

If your book is poorly organized, a copy editor will suggest ways to reformulate the plot or move paragraphs around. The ultimate choice is yours, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to their suggestions.

Maintain consistency

Copy editing helps authors maintain consistency. Internal consistency refers to the way the same personality traits, settings, and names stay consistent within the story. For instance, if a character is described as tall and blue-eyed in one chapter, the copy editor makes sure that same character doesn’t suddenly become brown-eyed in a later chapter. If a character goes to Tokyo in one chapter, the copy editor makes sure we know when they return.

Internal consistency is important. As the writer of a book, you may feel you know your characters, plot, and settings so well that there’s no way you would flub these details. However, it happens all the time. Some writers try to prevent these mistakes by creating detailed reference sheets for their characters. They can help, but a good copy editor will use those reference sheets to make sure nothing gets past them.

External consistency relates to things like historical facts, distances between cities, and whether a particular building existed at the time of the story you’re writing. If your novel is set in 1850 and your characters go to the Eiffel Tower, a good copy editor will inform you that the tower didn’t open until 1889.

Maintain style

Most newspapers, magazines, and book publishers have their own style sheets and standards. Newspapers, for instance, typically use the Associated Press style guidelines, and scholarly journals may use Modern Language Association or the Chicago Manual of Style. Others have their own in-house guidelines.

A copy editor will make sure your manuscript fits the publisher’s style guidelines. This may not be a concern if you’re self-publishing, but it’s a necessity if you plan to present your book to a professional audience.

Fact check

In many publishing houses, copy editors also check facts. This is most common in newspaper publishing, but it also happens in scholarly publishing and other places where accuracy matters. They check the author’s references to make sure the facts are supported by the sources.

Keep language up to date

If you’ve used outdated language in your book, a copy editor will correct it and make sure you are using language that reflects modern usage. This is important because you want to be sure your words have the same commonly accepted meanings that they do among most English-language readers.

In an article titled, “What Copy Editors Do and How They Save the World,” a published author explains:

“Copy editors of novels keep quotations precise; historical details accurate, and journeys from Land’s End to John O’Groats taking longer than a couple of hours. No matter what the flying fingers of the novelist heading for THE END may do in writer’s exaltation, copy editors keep us sane. I salute them.”

What Proofreaders Do

In every published article or book, the proofreader is the final checkpoint. Proofreaders are detail-oriented and meticulous. They don’t just find spelling mistakes. A skilled proofreader shares many skills with a copy editor, but their focus is on the final, printed form of a book. A proofreader will check for the following.

  • Punctuation: Did you use a period when you should have used a question mark? Did you use the wrong type of dash? A proofreader will spot this and correct it.
  • Spelling: Spelling trips up a lot of people, including professional journalists and others who work with words every day. Proofreaders have a talent for spelling and often consult various dictionaries to make sure your words are spelled correctly, even if you’re using specialized terminology.
  • Grammar: If you struggled with grammar in school, it could show up in your book. A skilled proofreader will spot incorrect grammar and keep it out of your book.
  • Syntax: Although they’re not technically line editors, proofreaders can spot incorrect or clumsy syntax. A proofreader may suggest a rewording that makes your meaning clearer in a particular sentence.
  • References: If you’re using references in your book, a proofreader will make sure they’re formatted correctly and are accurate. If you refer to a study on page 13, for instance, the proofreader will make sure that the reference shows up in the right spot.

Why do you need professional proofreading? As a writer, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. Many published books find their way to print with glaring mistakes of grammar and spelling. This is embarrassing to the author, and it makes your book appear unprofessional and low-quality.

As professional proofreader Jennifer Kay Davies says, “If you’re a self-publishing author, whose books likely haven’t been subjected to three or four rounds of editing, you are going to need, at the very least, a professional proofreader. After spending months, possibly even years, writing your book, you’re going to want it to be of a professional standard, even if you’re not going down the professional route.”

When to Hire Editors

You can hire an editor at any point in your writing process. These services all cost money, and you’ll have to decide how much of an investment you want to make in your book.

Do you want some help structuring your book or making it more readable? Hire a line editor once you have a rough draft. Do you want to be sure your book is a polished, high-quality manuscript? Copy editing is necessary.

If you feel confident about your writing abilities, however, you may only need a professional proofreader to go over the final draft before you self-publish it.

At Publishing Xpress, our focus is on helping authors look good in print. Once you’ve completed the writing, copy editing, and proofreading, bring your book to us for printing. Check our online pricing calculators to get our book printing rates.

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