Are You a Proofreader or a Copyeditor?

This post may be controversial.

More contentious, maybe, than the debate over the serial comma.

I’m talking about proofreading.

Not editing. Proofreading. They’re different, you see.

“The proofreader is the eagle-eyed person who makes sure that any silly typos along the way get fixed, that a weird line break gets unbroken, that a chunk of text that got inadvertently removed gets put back.”[1]

That’s how the authors of What Editors Do describe the role, noting, “The object of proofreading is to check that copy was set correctly, not to evaluate or edit the content.”[2]

Reading that, you may ask yourself (or yell at the screen), “What am I supposed to check, then, if I’m not looking for grammatical errors?”

Let’s consult That Wonderful Book with the Orange Cover.

The Chicago Manual of Style sections 2.110–2.118 outline many issues that can crop up after a publication has been typeset and advise proofreaders to check the following:

  • Spelling errors (“remain alert for the kinds of errors that are typically missed by computerized systems for checking spelling . . . such as it’s where its is meant”[3])
  • End-of-line hyphenation
  • Consistent typeface and font among chapter numbers and titles, subheads, text, extracts, figure captions, and other elements
  • Page numbers
  • Running heads
  • Illustration and table placement
  • Overall appearance (e.g., conformity to design specifications)

Of course, CMOS also notes to proofread “for sense,” but cautions, “Any rewriting, however, must be limited to the correction of fact or of gross syntactical error, since all source checking and substantive and stylistic changes should have been done at the editing stage.”[4]

The Copyeditor’s Handbook puts it even more bluntly: “Do not machete a manuscript or rewrite a document unless you are explicitly asked to do heavy editing or rewriting. If the author’s sentences are clear, correct, and serviceable … let them be.”[5]

Written by manager of Dragonfly’s Business and Technical Editing Department, Cynthia Williams, and edited by Joanna MacGugan, copyeditor.


[1] Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, “The Self-Publisher as Self-Editor,” in What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, ed. Peter Ginna (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 253–254.

[2] Carol Fisher Saller, “Toward Accuracy, Clarity, and Consistency,” in What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, ed. Peter Ginna (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 112.

[3] The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 2.111.

[4] The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 2.118.

[5] Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), 33.

Red pen editing

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