TypeTalk: Copy Editing and Proofreading

Q. What is the difference between proofreading and copy editing?

A. Any copy that is to be published, whether it be for print, the web, or even your own blog, should be carefully reviewed beforehand. Copy editing and proofreading refer to two distinctive kinds of review that are commonly confused or misunderstood. While there is some overlap between them, it’s useful to understand the differences in order to know what to do and when.

Here’s the scoop.

Copy editing refers to checking text for correctness, clarity, usage, consistency of style, as well as house style, if required. A copy editor usually makes recommendations, tracks the changes (usually in Word) so the client can accept, reject, or discuss them. Copy editing should be done before “typesetting” and before proofreading, unless it is done at the same time.

A copy editor’s goal can be summarized in the “five Cs” make the copy clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent. While copy editors should strive to deliver accurate copy in terms of proofreading considerations, proofreading might still be necessary (and is recommended) at a later stage.

A proofreader does the final check of text before it goes to the next stage, whether it be print, the web, or whatever media it is intended for. All text, including body copy, headlines, captions, titles, pull quotes, folios, etc., is checked carefully for spelling, syntax, grammar and tense, punctuation, extra spaces, and sometimes font size, styling and other characteristics.

While word processing programs can pick up many spelling and syntax errors (often referred to as a “soft” edit), they cannot read for context and therefore can either miss or “miscorrect” spelling in certain contexts. Even when an editor, designer and typesetter reviews for the above, errors can always slip into the final, no matter how many people have read and reviewed it.

For commonly used proofreading marks, see this cheat sheet from Copyediting and Proofreading For Dummies.

This step, while not an “official” proofreading term, is quite often overlooked, yet it’s very important to good typography. Typographic proofreading consists of checking for correct typographic usage and conventions, including accurate placement of smart quotes and primes (inch and foot marks), apostrophes, hyphens, en and em dashes, as well as hyphenation (including searching for the occasional hyphen that appears in the middle of a line). It can include checking for the appropriate usage and placement of register, trademark, and other legal symbols.

Typographic proofreading might also comprise reviewing the correct use of italics, bold face, and other stylistic treatments that might be dependent upon the media, whether print, the web, or other platforms and devices. Note that not every proofreader or copy editor is aware of correct typographic conventions and/or practices of their client, so be sure to let them know exactly what needs to be checked, and provide any style manuals that apply to the job or the client.

What does this have to do with the designer?

Everyone involved in the design and production of a piece should review it for obvious errors, which can slip by even the most diligent review. You might think it is not part of your job, but not only will you avoid having to fix errors that might be costly and possibly embarrass clients or employers, you will build trust by showing your concern with every aspect of the job, and you’ll come out a hero for making them look good.

While copy editing and proofreading are best done by professionals, not everyone has a budget for hiring a pro. In that case, someone who feels up to the task can undertake the job. While it is not advisable to do the final proofing of your own copy, you should be able to edit your work before you pass it off to someone else.

Erica Midkiff, a copy editor who is passionate about her craft, has some great tips in her article “How to Edit Your Own Work”. She says, “It’s important to be able to edit your own writing, though it’s a tough thing to do. Step away from your piece before you edit; when you return, you will look at what you’ve written with a fresh eye and catch more errors.”


The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style Online

Copyediting and Proofreading For Dummies

The Elements of Style

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Posted on: April 18, 2012

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

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