What Are Copyediting and Proofreading, and What Is the Difference Between Them?

t has come to my attention that when I say I have copyedited or proofread or researched a book, nobody really understands what I mean. Which is natural, considering that when one buys a book one sees only the finished product, which is neat and tidy, and one naturally assumes that it arrived from the author in the same condition. Therefore, instead of simply noting "copyedited" or "proofread," I've decided to start describing the scope of my work in greater detail.

What Exactly Does Copyediting Involve?

Basic Tasks

Every copyediting job includes some basic tasks. These are checking spelling, grammar, and punctuation--reading every letter, every punctuation mark--as well as coding the manuscript for the compositor (and sometimes making up the design memo for the designer, depending on which in-house production editor one is working with), checking facts and the spelling of proper names as far as possible without putting too much time into it (one has to remain aware of the budgetary constraints of the publishing houses), and making sure that the whole thing flows properly and makes sense, and that there are no contradictory statements between one part of the book and another.


Whereas a few years ago I used mostly the copy editor's four standard reference books--Webster's Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, Webster's New Biographical Dictionary, and Webster's New Geographical Dictionary--as well as foreign-language dictionaries, medical dictionaries, travel guides, maps, and other specialized reference books, such as books on actors and movies, the theater, music, and so on, lately I have been doing more and more checking of Web site URLs and doing other types of research online; for example, when I copyedited the memoirs of the widow of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, I went to the Aéropostale site and read all about the history of Aéropostale (for which Saint-Exupéry flew) in French and was able to check some of the names that way. Likewise, when I copyedited a book on floral arrangements in the White House, I was able to verify the spellings of certain plant names on growers' and retailers' sites. And when a book mentions a recently developed drug I go online to the manufacturer's Web site to check the exact spelling.

In some cases I also need to check mathematical calculations; for example, in one exercise book I worked on, there was an error in an early calculation that made all the subsequent ones wrong.


If I find inconsistencies in the text, or if there is something that isn't clear (sometimes people know so much about their subject that they leave out explanations that are necessary for people with a lesser understanding of the subject), I write queries in the margin or on detachable flags for the author to answer.

The Style Sheet

As I go along doing the editing, I keep notes on what is called the "style." This has to do with the following types of things:

1. Whether numbers are to be spelled out or stated in figures; for example, in book publishing numbers up to 99 are generally spelled out, as are large "round" numbers, such as three thousand. However, in a book that repeatedly talks about, and compares, the sizes of armed forces, it's generally preferable to state troop numbers in figures. Another example: In a general nonfiction or fiction book, one might write, "He spent three dollars on a pair of socks," whereas in a book on finance it makes sense to state all monetary values in figures.

2. What nouns and adjectives are to be capitalized; for example, "Prime Minister Jacques Chirac" but "the prime minister"; "Congress" but "congressional"; "U.S. Army" but "the army."

3. Which words can be abbreviated and which are to be spelled out; for example, "United States" when used as a noun but "U.S." when used as an adjective.

4. How references and bibliography entries are to be styled. There is a more or less standard styke, as set out in The Chicago Manual of Style, but each author does things a little differently and the style can be modified within certain limits.

To see a typical style sheet, click here.

The Name List

I also keep a list of all personal names used in the book, with an indication of whether I have verified their spellings or not. Sometimes, when names are transliterated (for example, from Arabic or Russian), there is no "right" way to spell a name (is it Yasser or Yasir Arafat? Yevgeny or Yevgeni Primakov? Masud or Mas'ud Barzani?), and then I merely keep a list of all the names and make sure the same name is spelled the same way on all occurrences.

In the case of a novel, obviously the names do not have to be verified, as they are made up, but it's a good idea to keep track of people's ages and personal appearances so that a character isn't, for instance, blond on page 3 and dark-haired on page 121. In one novel I copyedited, I found three characters with the same first name, which I felt was overkill, so I queried the author about that.

To see a typical name list, click here.

The Final Steps

When I'm done copyediting the book, I make up a final copy of the style sheet and name list in Word. I enclose a copy with the edited manuscript I send back to the production editor at the publishing house and also forward the electronic files to the production editor in case the print copy is mislaid and the production editor needs to print it out again. These documents will be used by a number of people: by the book's author when reviewing my editing of the book; by the production editor when s/he receives the manuscript back from the author after review, to make sure that the author has "followed style" in any handwritten corrections or additions to the original manuscript or, later, to the galleys; and by the proofreader when proofreading the typeset galleys.

And as mentioned above, as I am copyediting the book, I am also marking the design codes on the manuscript for the compositor to follow. Sometimes the list of codes has been made up in advance by the production editor; other times, I make it up myself and then e-mail it as a Word document to the production editor, generally a week or two before the copyedited manuscript is due.

To see a typical design memo, click here.

What Exactly Does Proofreading Involve?

Proofreading galleys is a little less complicated than copyediting manuscripts; I like to say that proofreading involves the eyes more, copyediting the brain more. On the other hand, no copy editor can know everything--and sometimes while one is concentrating on checking one fact, another mistake slides by unnoticed. Therefore the publishing houses depend on proofreaders to function as backups for the copy editors. I, for example, was asked to proofread a book on Venice that had been copyedited by a copy editor who didn't know Italian, as a backup for checking words and phrases in Italian and also because I have a whole stack of Italian reference materials at home, including an Italian encyclopedia on CD-ROM, in which I could check certain names and dates that the copy editor hadn't been able to find.

In addition to reading through the text and making sure that it corresponds exactly to the manuscript and that any changes have been made according to the style set forth on the style sheet, the proofreader also must check the page numbers and running heads, as well as look for and mark any "stacks" (the same word appearing at the beginning or end of three or more lines in a row).


To see more detailed explanations of what various jobs I did in 2002 involved, click on the relevant links on the main book list.

To read Lynn's résumé, click here.

To read kudos from some of Lynn's satisfied authors, click here.

To see Lynn's photo gallery, click here.

To contact Lynn, click here.

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