Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Copy editing or proofreading?

What’s the difference between copy editing and proofreading? Some people use the terms interchangeably, especially outside the publishing world. Often, people ask for proofreading when they actually need copy editing. (It hardly ever goes the other way around, because few know what a copy editor is.) Who does what?

Let’s rewind. In magazines, the editing process begins with structural or substantive editing, done by a story’s top editor, or handling editor. This is the person who assigns a story to a writer and then works with him or her to shape its content, structure, tone and flow. Any editor who assigns and/or performs structural editing on a story can be called a top/handling editor — this is separate from job titles like senior editor, associate editor, etc.

Next comes copy editing. The copy editor gives the story a deep, line-by-line edit to polish it for publication. Copy editors look for problems with grammar, punctuation, usage and style (including adherence to a magazine’s house style). They also ferret out issues related to consistency, clarity, readability, logic and organization, and flag possible factual errors. If a story needs substantial changes, the copy editor consults the handling editor, who may also check with the writer.

Factchecking is usually handled in conjunction with copy editing — sometimes before the copy edit, sometimes after (I’d say the rougher the copy, the more important it is for the copy editor to review it first). A researcher (staff or freelance) verifies the copy’s accuracy by retracing the writer’s footsteps, then discusses changes with the handling editor or copy editor.

The story, whipped into shape, then goes to the art department for layout. (Graphic designers may also receive an earlier version — often the same one the factchecker gets — so they can plan the layout and order images.) There’s typically back-and-forth between art and copy, or art and the handling editor, to fit the story to the layout, fill in stuff like captions and credits, and clean up the copy flow (gaps, bad breaks, widows, orphans) and design (say, inconsistent leading or missing indentations, drop caps and turn arrows).

Finally, proofreading. When the proofreader (staff or freelance) sees the layouts (or proofs), the final article copy has been flowed in, and the display copy (cover lines, heds, deks, callouts) and other elements (captions, credits, bylines, etc.) are in place. The pages should be as close to perfect as possible, especially since making changes at this stage can be expensive. The proofreader, who ideally is bringing “fresh eyes” to the process, looks for lingering errors and points them out to the copy editor. Corrected proofs become the printed magazine.

The roles of handling editor, copy editor, proofreader and factchecker can overlap, especially at smaller publications. A handling editor on one story might be the copy editor for another, or the whole team might proofread a story. A solo magazine editor might do it all or hire a freelancer to factcheck and copy edit.

These days, there’s a lot of opportunity for freelancers in this process, for both print and web. When I started working at Chatelaine in 2001, the copy department had a copy chief, an associate editor, a freelance copy editor who came in during production, and a full-time factchecker (me). When I left in 2005, we had all that plus another associate copy editor and a second full-time factchecker. Now that many magazines outsource at least some of these roles (recall the cuts at Reader’s Digest in 2010 and more recently at its French-language title Selection), a copy department that big — actually, the existence of a copy department at all — is quickly becoming the stuff of fiction. (In five years, Bright Lights, Big City will read like a fantasy novel.)

Better to outsource these steps than skip them, though. Maybe it’s because I started my career as a factchecker and copy editor, but it makes me nervous when editors go with a “light check” or “light copy edit” rather than the full treatment (especially if we’re talking about print) because they’re pressed for time or money. It’s not often that I see copy free of factual and/or technical errors. The mistakes will inevitably be hiding in the half you don’t check, so bring in fresh eyes if you can!

- Jaclyn Law
About Me
Jaclyn Law

Jaclyn Law is a writer and an editor with more than 17 years’ experience. Formerly copy chief at Chatelaine and managing editor at Abilities, she has freelanced full-time since 2006. Her clients include magazines, websites, non-profits and corporations. Jaclyn is president of the Toronto Chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada.
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