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some explanation

Copy-editing or proofreading? The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading have clear and detailed definitions. We can do no better than, with thanks, reproduce their small print here ...


The tasks carried out during copy-editing will vary depending on the nature of the text, how and where it will be published, what work has or will be carried out by someone else, and practical considerations such as the budget and time available. Here are some typical copy-editing tasks.


  • Checking that all elements of a text or document are present, in the right order and are referred to in exactly the same way throughout. For example:

    • chapter/section titles match list of contents

    • numbered lists and chapters/sections are sequential

    • illustrations are all provided and match the text content, and appropriate captions have been written

    • citations correspond exactly to the details in the reference section or bibliography; all entries in a reference section are cited in the text.

  • Checking that any references to content or features elsewhere in the text (cross-references) are accurate.

  • Checking that basic facts and arguments are plausible, consistent and reasonable.

  • Querying any language that is non-inclusive or problematic from a legal point of view.

  • In fiction, checking that characters’ physical characteristics (such as eye colour) and names stay the same, making sure the timeline and the fictional world hold together, and keeping the narrative voice consistent (for example, making sure it doesn’t leap from first person to third person).


Correcting and making consistent

  • Correcting errors or inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, grammar, style and usage.

  • Checking and correcting spellings of names, for example of places or people.

  • Imposing consistency in use of, for example, italics, bold and capitals.

  • Improving clarity by rewording or reformatting text that is confusing or convoluted, or suggesting structural additions to help readability such as headings or lists.


  • Cleaning up the document before it goes for design/layout (for example by removing unwanted formatting and extra spaces).

  • Marking up the structure of the document (such as heading levels, boxed items, lists, figures and images). This is typically done using paragraph and character styles and/or tags.


  • Creating and populating information documents (such as a style sheet and instructions for the designer/typesetter) that those following them in the project will need.

  • Liaising with the author or intermediary on anything that the copy-editor cannot confirm alone, such as preferred points of style, approval of suggested rewording or the location of missing information.




In traditional publishing, proofreading is the stage in the workflow that comes after copy-editing – once the text is in layout and before publication.

Often the word ‘proofreading’ is used more loosely, to describe almost any editorial intervention and correction to a text. Because proofreading and copy-editing are different tasks and need professionals with specific skills, it’s important for both client and professional to understand which service the text needs.

  • A proofreader should help to ensure that a text is ready to be published. You can think of it as the final quality check.

  • Because the proofreader works near the end of the publication process, they are usually looking for remaining errors that must be corrected.

  • Unless they have been specifically briefed to do so as extra paid tasks, the proofreader will not be rewording sentences, making larger structural interventions such as reordering blocks of text or inserting headings, or fact-checking (but they may raise a query about anything that seems wrong).

Formats and markup

We work mostly with Microsoft Word, PDF, and good old paper (hard copy); all formats are fine, we will work in whichever way is most convenient to you. However, there are differences between format types that will have a knock-on effect in terms of the time spent on editing. In Word we will markup (highlight suggested changes) using Track Changes. This method has the distinct advantage that you can then view each and every change that we make and  have the ability to accept or reject them (sometimes this can be a mixed blessing). We use bespoke markup tools for PDF markup. PDF markup takes longer than using Word's Track Changes, but is more versatile in that it allows the editor/proofreader the freedom to implement British Standard markup symbols. Of course, the hieroglyph-like symbols we refer to will not suit everyone's requirements and for this reason we can either supply an editing-symbol key or simply explain our changes in plain English ... it's all up to you. 

Substantive editing

Here is a brief overview of an even more in-depth form of editing, so called substantive or developmental editing. The purpose of this kind of edit is to make your document; your novel, journal paper, memoir etc., functional for your intended audience. A substantive edit precedes both the copy-editing and proofreading stages, and is primarily an analysis-based  exercise, as opposed to the rules-based approach, common to copy-editing and proofreading. For this reason a substantive editor works more closely with the author than a copy-editor or proofreader might; substantive editing is a collaborative process that deals with the overall structure of the project. A typical checklist approach might be as follows:

  • Does the document work as a coherent whole?

  • Is the order and presentation of information logical (from the target audience's point of view)?

  • Is all necessary information included, and unnecessary information deleted?

  • Are the table of contents, internal headings, indexes useful? Do they contain terms that are useful to the target audience? 

  • Concerning say a website, are the navigation aids logical and useful in context? 

Other considerations include

  • Sentence complexity and use of active or passive verbs

  • Conciseness

  • Clear, logical development of ideas

  • Use of jargon or technical terms appropriate for the intended audience.

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