Proofreading vs. Copyediting

Folks seemed to get enough out of my take on copyediting that I thought I’d talk a little bit about proofreading.

First, let’s define the terms, because what is called “proofreading” by folks outside the publishing industry is usually copyediting instead. The copyeditor works on the book at the manuscript stage, marking grammatical and spelling mistakes, querying inconsistencies and awkward phrasing, verifying facts, preparing a style sheet, and keymarking the manuscript for design. The proofreader works on the book at the galley proof or page proof stage, comparing every word of the manuscript with every word of the proof, verifying correct word breaks, making sure that all editorial changes were input, and (with some publishers) verifying that elements were set according to design specifications.

Proofreaders are not supposed to make substantive changes to a manuscript (a copyeditor shouldn’t even make substantive changes without querying) or go against the style sheet provided by the copyeditor, but they do serve as an additional reader. No one–no author, editor, copyeditor, or compositor–is perfect, so the proofreader is expected to pick up any mistakes the others missed. While copyeditors are expected to complete about ten manuscript pages an hour, a proofreader (in fiction) is expected to complete ten to twelve book pages an hour–and book pages are usually much more dense than manuscript.

Proofreading is a tough job. Even for someone with a good memory like me, it’s difficult to hold more than a few words in your head at a time without leaving out a comma or mixing any of the words up–confusing an east for a west, for example (a very common compositor error when books are reset)–so you can only read four or five words from the manuscript before comparing it to the proof. It’s intensely time-consuming and tedious.

How do proofreaders manage to do so much in such a short time? Well, perhaps someone out there can truly manage it, but I never could. I haven’t accepted proofreading for years because I ended up spending far more hours than I could charge on every book I did. From years spent conscientiously supervising copyeditors and proofreaders, though, I can verify that many proofreaders make do by simply not proofreading: they read the proofs but trust that they were set from disk and don’t compare the manuscript and proof word for word. This approach is very problematic, though, and can lead to errors because a) it often happens that the disk doesn’t contain quite the same version as the manuscript, for various reasons; b) it’s easy to miss changes that should have been input, because you don’t have a finger each on the manuscript and the proof at all times (the only way I could ever proofread accurately); and c) the book sometimes hasn’t been set from disk at all. I suspect that the proofreaders who don’t take such shortcuts simply resign themselves to losing their butts on wages, the way I did.

So be appreciative of your proofreaders. They are your last line of defense against mistakes in your novel.

36 thoughts on “Proofreading vs. Copyediting”

  1. Yes, be appreciative of your copyeditor and proofreader, but when it comes down to it, the author has a responsibility to eyeball her own manuscript for copy and proofing errors at the copyediting stage and the page proof stage. ;-)

  2. AMEN! Every time I see some writer say, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; that’s what copyeditors and proofreaders are for,” I cringe.

    The statement is true, yes. But too many wannabe writers take it as a sign that they can get away with slipshod writing and typing. And I want to cry, “the c/e and proofer are human, too!”

    There are several well-known authors who have publicly complained about their copyeditors not catching punctuation or spelling mistakes. And I aways want to ask them, “If you noticed it now, why didn’t you notice it before you turned in the manuscript?” I guess while under deadline, the author may not be as contientious, but dammit people, if you want something done right…

  3. From personal experience, it blends. Frex:

    “Snakes,” he said. “Winged snakes. A big nest of them.”
    His voice had a smooth melodious overtone of a much prettier, much kinder man.
    I raised my hands. “Sorry.”

    This bit is from memory – at random. I am going to go to the other pc and check on this part. Here is the original:

    “Snakes,” he said. “Winged snakes. A big nest of them.”

    His voice had a smooth, almost melodious tone of a much prettier, much kinder man. I raised my hands. “Sorry.”

    As you can see, I was very close to the manuscript. Some passages I can probably quote if you started them for me. I don’t have a phenomenal memory, but I’ve edited manuscript at least 6 times and now I have to go over it one more time. I noticed that I don’t really read anymore – my brain just supplies data. And once I am done cuttin 40 K of content out of the manuscript, I will have to go over the draft one more time to knock out mistakes I put into it this time around. I didn’t see the mistakes and I even followed Deanna’s advice and went over it by touching every word with a pen.

    I’m not advocating sloppy work. But I do feel compelled to point out that copyeditors exist for a reason and some, like Deanna, improve manuscripts by leaps and bounds.

  4. Did you Sheila’s editorial in the latest Asimov’s (October/November double issue)? She gives credit to the people behind the scenes–not only the proofreader, but the art director, associate editor and production manager. Nice to see. Kind words that are way too rare.

  5. Oh, I don’t disagree. I was thinking of a particular author who complained over punctuation in first pass. She’d turned in a ms., she read the copyedited ms., and then when she got first pass, she was upset at the lack of commas. The publisher apparently wanted to charge back some $500 of the typesetting cost to her. I happen to know that correx cost about $1 each at a compositor, so we’re looking at hundreds of changes.

    I’m sure Deanna would agree that punctuation is one of those subjective things. If an author has a persistent quirk, woe to the c/e who dicks around with it. I got the distinct feeling that had the c/e put all the commas in, this author would have complained about the c/e mucking up her ms. with all these commas.

    And the whole time I was reading the blogtoversy, I was thinking, “Okay, I grant that the c/e should watch for proper comma use. But if you are adding several hundred in first pass, that means you didn’t want them there a couple of weeks ago and have now changed your mind. Don’t blame the c/e for that.”

  6. Whoo yeah! The only time I ever got thanked in an Acks page for my job (as opposed to for being a fellow writer/supporter) was when the people at Large Organization That Wrote The Book asked the editor to include the names of people who did a lot of work on the book.

  7. OK, where to begin…?

    I do both proofreading and copy editing, but more of the former. What I find, these days, is that everything tends to get kicked downstairs, no doubt mostly because of workers overburdened because of belt-tightening at large publishers. So what happens?

    The overworked editor doesn’t always get to go over things as well as he or she might like to. So it goes to the copy editor, who may be a conscientious one like you, or may be far too lackadaisical (don’t get me started on this subject). Or may be rushing to finish. So what happens is that the proofreader gets the proofs full of uncorrected typos, plot inconsistencies, and (especially) egregious lack of fact checking on the most basic things. (This situation is often compounded by the author doing major rewriting, refusing to deal with queries, etc.) So the proofreader ends up doing a little less than copy editing and a little more than proofreading…In my case, this may be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point, because often the person assigning me the book will give it specifically to me because he or she knows that I will clean up the mess that the previous people left. I’m not talking about a few little unresolved odds and ends, or a couple missed typos. I mean major lack of attention.

    There are many good copy editors and proofreaders, including a bunch on LJ, and there are a lot who aren’t so good. It’s hard to be good; I don’t need to tell you that.

  8. I know exactly the instance you’re talking about, and I agree. Additionally, that particular author is renowned for complaining about every little change her copyeditors make, so it’s quite likely that the copyeditor was simply trying in vain to please her.

    Yes, punctuation in fiction is extremely subjective. Personally, though, I don’t hold an author responsible for mistaken homonyms and such–they are hired to do their job, which is write the story, and I’m hired to do mine, which is take care of their errors. They don’t have my special skills, and I don’t have theirs. It’s my job to fix the minor errors in the wonderful story they were paid to write. That doesn’t mean, however, that a mistake that comes out in a book is necessarily my mistake–the error could have occurred somewhere else in the production chain.

  9. I didn’t see that; that’s really nice. When I was at Harcourt, it was commonplace to ask authors to put the entire production chain in the acknowledgments.

  10. And this is exactly why I don’t take proofreading anymore, Robert. I determined, finally, that the real reason I was being hired was because I was a better copyeditor than the person they’d hired to copyedit in the first place! It sounds as though the same holds true for you. My advice to you, if you can possibly pull it off, is to stop letting yourself be used that way.

  11. Well, maybe I was coming across the wrong way, but the fact is, I don’t necessarily mind doing this. We do get paid by the hour….:-) And I don’t have to do a lot of the organizing stuff that is a necessary part of copy editing. It’s still more like just reading the book; it bugs me when i have to pause and write down the names of a whole bunch of characters, when I want to keep reading…

    Though, of course, copy editing at many places gets a higher rate…Anyway, I manage…

  12. It’s intensely time-consuming and tedious.

    Nooo, proofreading is the good job. It’s less stressful and more satisfying than copyediting. I miss it.

    I can verify that many proofreaders make do by simply not proofreading: they read the proofs but trust that they were set from disk and don’t compare the manuscript and proof word for word.

    Hmm. I don’t think anyone who knows what he/she is doing would cold read unless that’s the only option. I’ve found that cold is slower and more difficult than comparison because the brain tends to lapse into the wrong mode. (Others in this line have told me that they have the same problem.)

    Thing is, professional proofers won’t to do it for dirt, so I suspect that many who are proofreading these days don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what to watch for or where to watch for it. The publishers get what they pay for.

    I suspect that the proofreaders who don’t take such shortcuts simply resign themselves to losing their butts on wages, the way I did.

    Proofreading was my primary line for years. Depending on the material, side-by-side can go pretty fast. (I use two blank index cards. Staying on track with only two fingers sounds difficult.) Fiction proofs fly, but technical and textbook proofs can crawl because they have a bazillion different elements to check, some of which need separate runs.

    If you can find work at a fair page or budget rate, life is spiff. That’s why I don’t do it anymore. :P

  13. So do you find that you can charge well more than the twelve book pages per hour without fuss on the part of the production editor? I didn’t mind proofreading for a long time, until a new manager of production at one company told me I was charging far too much and insisted on limiting the amount I could charge.

  14. To each their own. I love copyediting. :-)

    I’ve never tried index cards–I find that I have to put a pencil or finger down on each word to make sure it’s spelled correctly–otherwise my brain just fills in what’s supposed to be there.

    Your basic point is the same as mine, though: with most publishers, the job doesn’t pay well enough for what it requires.

  15. What exactly is a style sheet? I tried finding an online definition without much success. Closest was, “The style sheet establishes standards for consistent use of terms and elements.” But they didn’t provide examples (or say what an element was).

  16. I don’t know where that was, but I haven’t ever had a complaint, and I have often charged at 10pp/hr or less. The people I work for generally understand what they’re giving me and what a realistic per-pg rate is. There are one or two places that just out-and-out pay per page, but I don’t work for them too often.

    And incidentally, that goes for copy editing, too. I just ce’d a relatively short nonfiction book that was pretty messy and had really, really messed-up notes. I went the extra mile, looked up a lot of citations on and amazon and so forth, and sorted out as much as i could. I charged accordingly, and i don’t think anyone minded.

  17. A style sheet will list usage (serial comma, yes or no; how possessives of words ending in “s” are formed [James’s or James’], when numbers are spelled out and when they are given as figures, etc.); will list at least the principal proper names of people and places; will list any unusual words or variant spellings; and will usually list design elements (anything that isn’t ordinary prose text) for the designer’s benefit. And anything else unusual–say, “the kidnap note on p. 74 is full of misspellings; this is intentional.” For a short nonfiction book, the style sheet might be very brief; for a long, serious work of history, or a complicated family saga, it might be 20 or 30 pages…

    As a reader, you don’t see the style sheet; the copy editor writes it and only the production staff sees it.

  18. Thank you! I wish the online definitions had been so accurate and clear.

    How, may I ask, did you get into copyediting? I ask because my command of spelling and grammar is excellent, and of style pretty good, and I always thought copyediting would be a possibility if I weren’t doing what I am doing. Thank you again, in advance.

  19. Well, i basically got into copy editing through being a proofreader. When you proofread, you see the things the copy editor did (and, sometimes, didn’t do–see above). I would always look carefully and see what was done to a MS. Typically, there will be three sets of hands on it: the editor, the copy editor, and the author (responding to the first two, and/or doing additional rewriting). The production editor (the person who oversees the process of copy editing and proofreading) and the legal department may also make changes. Besides the markings on the MS. and the style sheet, there will be queries, either directly on the MS. or typed up separately. If the latter is the case, the proofreader won’t always see them, but often they’re included anyway. If they’re on the MS., there will often be several responses, kind of like graffiti on a bathroom wall. Anyway, watching this stuff, first as a proofreader and then as a production editor, gave me a good education in how to do it myself.

  20. Interesting. I’ve never been paid for my work in this area, but I’d been led to believe that ‘proofreading’ is going through and checking that everybody used the homonym they meant to, had commas where they belonged, etc, whereas ‘copyediting’ was a far more elevated task for which I ‘was not qualified,’ involving structural analysis and flow and feel and all kinds of magick incantations that, not having an English degree, I could not be expected (poor thing) to wot of.

    I would love to work in the field, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what qualifications are required/desired, or where to even start acquiring them. I work on a volunteer basis in fanzines, for an unpublished-novelist friend, and did for many years check every issue of the Journal of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (a peer-reviewed herpetological scientific journal).

  21. It was with RH, but with a previous production manager. He actually made me go to page rate for a while. I’d been averaging about 10 mspp. an hour, and he told me that while they were extremely happy with my work and didn’t doubt that I was spending that much time, it was more than budget could allow. After that, I stuck with charging 12 book pages an hour no matter how much time I spent on the book. (I often lose money when doing copyediting, too, by charging no more than the prescribed page rate of 10 mspp an hour, but at least copyediting pays more.)

  22. It’s extremely difficult to break into copyediting. I proofread for Del Rey for years before I was able to do copyediting for them, despite the fact that I had plenty of experience copyediting fiction. There are some companies I’m still unable to break into, despite almost fifteen years in the business, fantastic references, and multiple letters of recommendation.

  23. I got into copyediting by having experience supervising copyeditors. I, too, proofread for years, though, before being given fiction copyediting jobs.

  24. Wow, that blows my mind. I’ve done both copy editing and proofreading for them for many years. i know there’s been a bit of belt-tightening lately, but I’ve never had any complaints about either the quality of my work or the amount I charge. (Now, about getting it done on time…well, I’m a lot better now…),

    I do sometimes bite the bullet and charge a little less than i could (as I usually put it, it’s not fair for me to charge them for the time I spent banging my head against the wall); and sometimes if I’ve breezed through because i felt I could, the opposite might be true. And i think everyone involved knows this, whether they want to admit it or not.

    I’m interested to know who this was who did this to you, but this might not be the right place. You can email me at the address in my user info if you want. (Hey, you know they post about freelancers on their internal email–why can’t we do the same about them?)

  25. I’m a proofreader/copyeditor at a large advertising agency, and I used to do textbooks before that. A lot of times in my current job proofreading is like diffusing bombs; not only do you have to watch against copy errors (from the writer) but also from the technical side of things. If there’s an error in an ad that appears in, say, The New Yorker, it’s the proofreader that the hammer is going to come down upon. It also helps to know a little about the printing process too (how works are physically printed).

    As a fiction writer, I definitely think my profession has helped me with my writing too.

    Anyway, just some random thoughts.

  26. I started out working on textbooks, too–at Harcourt College. I’ve been specializing in SF/F for more than a decade now, though.

    Copyediting does help with writing. Conversely, writing has made me a much stronger copyeditor. :-)

  27. No, not really–I know at least one copyeditor who doesn’t have a bachelor’s. Some publishers base your hiring only on completion of a test. In-house experience really is a gigantic help, though.

  28. Could you decipher this question I received on a copyediting test PLEASE!!!!!

    What kind of dedicated passes might you perform on a typeset book in galleys?

    I cannot figure out what this person is saying–hopefully someone out there can help.


  29. I understand “dedicated pass” to be a pass where you’re looking for only one thing: an inconsistency you’ve come across, for instance. That would vary by book, though, so I’m not sure that’s the meaning they intend. In proofreading, you would do at least one pass to compare the manuscript with the galley proof. I like to do another pass as a “cold read”–for the sense of the book.

    Hope that helps at all!

  30. It seems a bit belated, but I just came across this. I hadn’t realized that copyeditors and proofreaders checked by hand. I worked in textual editing this last year on academic texts, and the pages to be proofed were scanned into a computer, automatically collated with the copy text, and any differences were printed off on a separate sheet of paper with the variations marked. The variations were then the bits of proof that needed to be checked. Each proof sheet was checked by two proofreaders against the copy text, and the final version was corrected. There were also multiple manuscript versions that all needed to be checked against each other, twice.

    Is this a common method in proofreading, or is it very particular? It was on the critical edition of one of Joseph Conrad’s works for Cambridge. Perhaps it would be too time-intensive for most publishers? I was assigned the position as part of a research assistantship while working on my master’s in English literature, so I’m not sure how common this is. Any thoughts or comparisons would be very helpful, since I’m looking at working in the area once I finish my degree.

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