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Copy editing and proofreading are essential processes in the world of editing. They ensure that written works meet the highest quality standards and are error-free before reaching the reader. 

Although many people use the two terms interchangeably, copy editing and proofreading are distinct processes that each play a specific role in producing unimpeachably written content. 

To help explain the difference, allow us to paint a picture. 

Let’s think of the writing process as baking a cake. In this scenario, the writer is the baker—they create the batter and mix in all the ingredients you need to produce a delicious treat. 

The copy editor and the proofreader are part of the quality control team. They make sure the finished cake is perfect before leaving the bakery. 

Specifically, the copy editor is like a skilled pastry chef—they’ll help the baker make some adjustments to the baked batter through slight adjustments to make the final product taste amazing. For example, they might:

  • Add some simple syrup moisture (rephrase sentences)
  • Rearrange the layers for better structure (improve organization and flow)
  • Ensure the icing is spread evenly (check for consistency)

Proofreaders, on the other hand, play the role of a meticulous inspector carefully examining every inch of the cake for any imperfections. They:

  • Check for smudges on the frosting (check for typos)
  • Straight out the candles (fix minor punctuation errors)
  • Ensure the cake looks flawless (ensure proper formatting)

Their goal is to ensure that the final product is stage ready and impressive to anyone who sees it. 

Keeping these differences in mind, join us as we build your understanding of the editing process and further break down the differences between copy editing and proofreading to inform your job hunt. 

Among the topics we will be taking a deep dive into are:

  • The responsibilities of a copy editor
  • The essence and timing of proofreading
  • A comparison between copy editing and proofreading
  • Additional resources to help land your next job

Let’s dive straight in with a closer look at a day in the life of a copy editor.

What Does a Copy Editor Do? Explore a Day in Their Work Life

From the analogy above, you can work out that copy editing is one of the steps at the tail end of the editing process—after the writer has provided and made the major structural and subject matter changes to the written work. 

The copy editor steps in to ensure that the text tells the best story possible by improving both the small details and the big picture. They do this through edits that focus on accuracy, clarity, consistency, and readability. 

During their process, copy editors will check for:

  • Correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage
  • Basic fact-checking for data, statistics, historical details, and quotations
  • Consistent use of punctuation, capitalization, and number treatment
  • Timeline consistency and character details
  • Fix or flag confusing phrases

However, copy editors don’t make large structural changes to a document or rewrite large passages. They are typically concerned with checking details at the sentence level.

They ensure that the lower-level elements of a written work support the overall structure, message, and voice of the writer. 

To do this, copy editors may include improvements to different elements of a written work, including:

  • Word choice: where they swap out words with synonyms to improve the clarity and readability of a phrase or sentence. 
  • Style: they ensure that any linguistic choices are technically correct and stick to a writer’s or company’s guide, or a formal citation style like APA or MLA. 
  • Factual correctness: they look for, and resolve any factual errors in the writing, including details such as names and dates. 
  • Consistency: they go over the document and ensure the writer’s voice, characters, and style elements, such as the use of British or American spelling, remain consistent throughout the piece. 
  • Flow: copy editors may make minor changes to the sentence or paragraph structure to improve the reading experience. 
  • Legality: in some cases, copy editors will also look for potential legal issues, such as libel, and recommend corrections or changes. 

Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Proofreader 

From our bakery analogy above, we know that proofreading also happens towards the final stages of the editing process, usually after the copy editing stage, as a quality assurance measure before publishing.

Proofreading focuses largely on formatting, grammatical errors, and typos—basically ensuring that the final written work is well-put-together and entirely error-free. 

But contrary to popular belief, proofreaders are not glorified spell checkers. They meticulously comb through the text to ensure the copy editor did not miss anything, nor the designer introduced any errors to the final draft. 

Traditionally, proofreaders worked on documents that had been typeset and formatted. But in recent times, this has become less common, especially when working with self-publishing writers. 

Because proofreading is effectively the last step in the editorial process, there are specific tasks a proofreader will engage in to ensure a high-quality final proof. These include:

  • Correcting grammatical errors such as misspelled words, inconsistent or incorrect punctuation, and capitalization
  • Comparing the proof copy to earlier drafts to ensure all recommended changes were applied, all sections present, and no missing pages
  • Ensuring consistent style elements like the layout, fonts, and spacing; and the design specifications are executed correctly
  • Fixing awkward page breaks, page numbering, and indexing

However, by no means do these tasks represent the full list of responsibilities of a proofreader. You see, some tasks vary from industry to industry. For example, in journalistic and other non-fiction works, a proofreader may also need to fact-check certain information. 

But in essence, a proofreader’s job is to ensure a high-quality and credible final proof, ready for publication and distribution.

If this sound like the kind of editing work you’d like to get into, check out Small Revolution for some insider tips and tricks to kickstart your proofreading career

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading: Understanding the Subtle Differences

While copy editing and proofreading share some commonalities, there are some key differences you need to understand before sending in your job application. These include:

The Timing of the Edits

Typically, the copy editor comes in before the document is typeset and put into the final format. However, the proofreader looks over the writing one final time to correct any minor errors that may have occurred during the typesetting process.

If there are too many errors in the final draft, the proofreader can send the document back for another round of copy editing. 

You see, the proofreader is effectively the last line of defense for catching any errors before a written piece goes to press or is published online.

The Scope of Work

Copy editors focus on changes that improve clarity and readability. This involves reviewing and correcting the spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, and consistency. 

On the other hand, proofreaders focus on minor errors such as typos, and other inconsistencies that may have slipped past previous editing stages, as the last step before publishing. 

That said, with short works and digital pieces of writing, freelance editors sometimes offer a combined copy editing and proofreading service. You can learn all about this in our guide: Getting Paid to Edit Papers: Your Quick Guide to Freelance Proofreading

The Onus of an Error-Free Product

The copy editor does their best to catch every error before passing the document on to typesetting, or more recently, the design team. The goal of copy editing is to improve the overall quality of a written piece by making it clear, concise, and easily understandable. 

However, the burden of ensuring an error-free final product arguably lies with the proofreader. This is because the goal of proofreading is to catch the errors that may have slipped through previous editing stages.

Any inconsistencies that remain after the proofreader is done will appear in the final published text. 

Build Your Copy Editing and Proofreading Skills and Land Your First Job

There you have it—everything you need to build your understanding of copy editing and proofreading. Now you’re ready to pick your best fit, take the editing world by storm, and land your first job

But there’s just one thing. To truly stand out in competitive job markets, you may need to build your skill and employ some industry tips and tricks to help ease your job search.

This is where Small Revolution comes in. Small Revolution is an online learning platform, library, and bookshop for freelancers, or indeed anyone looking to build an online career. 

We offer a host of resources, articles, and courses that will set you up for success in your next job. So check us out on and discover the secrets you’ll need to kickstart your copy editing or proofreading career.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of copy editing and proofreading? 

Copy editing and proofreading provide writers and publishers with several benefits, including:

  • Improved content quality
  • Increased credibility
  • Enhanced readability

The copy editing and proofreading process further ensure that a written work is concise, easy to understand, and error-free, therefore suitable for publication and mass distribution. 

Should you get a copy editor or a proofreader job? 

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between copy editing and proofreading, you’re better placed to determine the best fit for your skill set. 

Remember, copy editors do in-depth editing while trying to enhance the “bigger picture” in written work. Proofreaders make sure that a written piece is error-free and ready for the masses. 

That said, there are small online-based companies that provide a market for freelancers who offer a mix of the two services. 

Can you earn money from proofreading? 

Absolutely! You can earn between $15 to $45 an hour, or an average of $51,391 per year as a freelance proofreader, with the possibility to make even more depending on your skill and certifications. 

Check out our piece: 4 Best Proofreading Jobs Online for Beginners to learn how to convert your skill into income and kickstart your proofreading career. 

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Katrina McKinnon

I'm Katrina McKinnon, the author behind Small Revolution. With two decades of hands-on experience in online work, running eCommerce stores, web agency and job boards, I'm now on a mission to empower you to work from home and achieve work-life balance. My passion lies in crafting insightful, education content. I have taught thousands of students and employees how to write, do SEO, manage eCommerce stores and work as Virtual Assistants. Join our most popular course: SEO Article Masterclass