From Copyediting to Proofreading: Distilling the Terminology

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From trim sizes to launch versus release date, publishing abounds in unique vernacular. Understanding the intricacies of the publishing industry is key to climbing your way up the bestsellers list, so diving into all the complexities is necessary. There are even multiple kinds of editing to navigate. Developmental editing, mechanical editing, content editing, proofreading—where does one start? 

Our focus here is on how copyediting and proofreading intersect. Let us start by asserting that copyediting is vital for making your book shine, so consider hiring a skilled copy editor.

Understanding your editors 

You know how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares? Editing is a broad term. Copyediting refers to a specific part of editorial development. It’s the major edit before proofreading, focusing on linguistic accuracy, style, coherency, consistency, and clarity. 

Copyediting, sometimes known as mechanical editing, focuses on refining your writing. The terminology can vary depending on your publication path—self-publishing and traditional publishing don’t have the same trajectory. In a traditional publishing scenario, you’ve already gone through content editing, which is sometimes called developmental editing or big-picture editing. That is where larger edits usually happen, such as tweaks to character arcs and rewriting swaths of text. Here, it’s more about what you write than how you write it. Content editors will address plot holes, inconsistent details, poor character development, and other issues related to the content rather than the language.  

If you’re going down the traditional publishing route, the publishing house arranges for copyediting. In self-publishing, you can hire your own copy editor. Get all major content or plot issues in your manuscript sorted out before you move on to a copy editor. 

It’s the copy editor’s job to improve the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax, along with other important aspects of your text. Awkward mistakes bow out, contradicting descriptions pick a side, and dialogue gets polished. If anything you wrote is unclear, your copy editor will flag it, and if you’re inconsistent with your writing style, they will work with you to ensure a smooth reading experience.

Working with a copy editor 

It might feel as if you’ve handed off your child. You’ve toiled at your computer, read countless books on writing, and summoned characters from the depths of your soul only to get back a text dripping with red ink. What have they done to your baby?!

Relax. Breathe. Actually, your copy editor is your new best friend. They make your story sparkle. With your own writing, it’s easy to miss typos and inconsistencies. A good copy editor will point out areas where your‌ words could hit harder and your paragraphs flow smoother. Every writer has little tics as well, such as words or phrases they overuse or cliches they fall back on. Your copy editor trims these, strengthening your work. Yes, it can be painful, but they’re there to improve your manuscript. Don’t take their criticisms personally—the revisions will allow your story to shine brighter than ever.

Other important copy editor duties:

Consistency: This encompasses content and prose. For content, imagine issues like Flora’s hair specified as red or blonde in different chapters, or her horse’s name changing from Valor to Honor. Did Valor die? Did Flora dye? Resolving such issues results in a coherent narrative that readers can follow easily. For prose, this is POV and tense congruity, as well as spelling, like American or British English—linguistic consistency conveys professionalism and makes for smoother reading. 

Factualness: Certain mistakes with spelling and dates might actually help catch factual errors, especially in nonfiction works. However, the scope of fact-checking is limited for a copy editor, especially if you’re working with more esoteric topics. For proper research, you need to collaborate with a fact-checker

Loose ends: Amidst sweeping edits, little details can sometimes get lost. A copy editor may flag dangling plot threads and overall continuity slips, but this is more of a content editor’s job. If you’re concerned about major plot issues, you should work with a content editor first. 

Finally, summon the proofreader

Proofreading is where your manuscript really starts to become a book. In traditional publishing, a proofreader’s job is multifold. One part is catching any mistakes the copy editor missed. Another is scrutinizing the layout. A “proof” is what the text will look like on the page, with chapter breaks, formatting, and numbers. Essentially, the proofreader is the last gatekeeper your manuscript has to pass through before it officially becomes a book.

While comparing the final printed copy to the edited manuscript, the proofreader scans for oddities such as numbering errors, incorrect captions, or text breaks. Any remaining typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes are also eliminated. A writer can attempt their own proofreading, but consulting a professional proofreader will ensure a cohesive text and layout. It’s difficult to proofread your own work because you’re too familiar with it—a fresh pair of eyes is invaluable.

A writer’s work is never done, but editors and proofreaders are there to lend a hand. For a book that matches the masterpiece in your head, it’s worthwhile to consider using the skills of a dedicated copy editor and a meticulous proofreader. Your efforts make you deserving of the best book possible. 

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