The difference between editing and proofreading

This is the source of some confusion among many people outside the book publishing industry who contract the services of an editor. What does an editor do as opposed to a proofreader? How is structural editing different from copyediting? Can I just use a proofreader to pick up all of the errors in my content?

Read on to understand a little more about the differences.

Structural editing

This is generally the first level of editing that is performed on a manuscript, or any other content for publication. Also called substantive or developmental editing, this is the ‘big picture’ editing stage.

When performing a structural edit on non-fiction text, the editor will look at the overall structure of the text, making sure the information is in the right order, checking that the information is clear and logical, and identifying any important information that may be missing. In a fiction manuscript, the editor will look at things like the plot, characters and pace.

The editor also makes changes to the language and tone where necessary to ensure that it suits the target audience, and to remove any inappropriate text.

Copyediting

Once the structural work is done, it’s time for copyediting. The copyeditor corrects errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, looks at the flow of the text, identifies any incorrect or missing information, and makes sure the language is appropriate for the audience.

The editor may also attach MS Word styles to the manuscript, which helps ensure a smooth typesetting or ebook creation process.

Proofreading

After the text has been typeset, a PDF or hard copy is presented to a proofreader for a final read-through before publication. If the text is to be published as an ebook, the proofreader is given the text in the relevant format (ePub, mobi, etc.), and content to be published online may be read on-screen.

The proofreader reads the text closely to catch any errors that have slipped through the editing process (this does happen!), ensures that spelling and word style decisions have been applied consistently, and checks that any illustrations or photos appear the way they are supposed to. They ensure that headings are shown correctly, and that paragraphs are indented or justified as required. They also check the small details such as page numbers and running heads or footers.

Proofreaders cross-check page numbers in the Contents page to ensure they point to the correct page number in the text. They also look out for awkward line endings, paragraph spacing that is too loose or too tight, and widows and orphans (short lines at the top of a page, single lines at the top or bottom of a page, or lines of only a few characters at the end of a paragraph).


Structural editing, copyediting and proofreading have distinct differences, and specific roles in the production process. All have their place, and in an ideal world, none of the three stages should be skipped. Your editor may perform both a structural edit and a copyedit, but a different person should always proofread the text, as a pair of fresh eyes will pick up errors that an editor who has been working closely with the text may overlook.

Do you have any other questions about editing or proofreading? If so, get in touch.

* This blog post first appeared on the website of KBA’s affiliate company, Spring Agency.