The Critical Differences Between Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading

Editors disagree about many of the finer points of their work such as whether to capitalize the word president (no, generally, but yes with President Lincoln), whether to spell out numbers (some styles say yes to every number lower than 10 or lower than 100), or whether to use the serial comma that preceded this clause (Chicago Manual of Style says yes). Some purists would argue that the headline should read among instead of between. But I digress.

Editors also disagree about whether to start a sentence with And. And of course editors disagree about what constitutes the levels of editing that are often labeled copy editing, line editing, and proofreading — or just simply editing.

For guidance, I turned to the authority, the Chicago manual. Yet even that widely accepted all-knowing guide doesn’t make a distinction among editing levels: “Manuscript editing, also called copy editing or line editing, requires attention to every word and mark of punctuation in a manuscript, a thorough knowledge of the style to be followed, and the ability to make quick, logical, and defensible decisions.”

New authors are often confused about what level of editing they need, and rightly so. Let me offer some insight into the differences in editing.

What to Expect with a Line Edit

In a line edit, an editor examines every word and every sentence and every paragraph and every section and every chapter and the entirety of your written manuscript. Typos, wrong words, misspellings, double words, punctuation, run-on sentences, long paragraphs, subheadings, chapter titles, table of contents, author bios — everything is scrutinized, corrected, tracked, and commented on.

Facts are checked, name spellings of people and places are confirmed. This is the type of edit I perform most often.

What to Expect from a Copy Edit

When an author says, “I just want a copy edit,” I ask what they mean. Again, there is confusion about what a copy edit includes. Most of the time, authors want that thorough line edit. If a manuscript is so clean, so squeaky clean, so perfectly written with lovely paragraphing and fine-tuned punctuation, then maybe the manuscript just needs a copy edit. Like never.

So let’s just agree that when someone says copy edit, they really mean a much deeper and more thorough edit than putting commas in the right place. A copy edit is the lowest level of edit. Sometimes a copy edit is a final step performed separately by your editor or someone else with fresh eyes after major editing has taken place. Some editors (like me) do copy editing all along looking for these types of errors, and a copy edit is part of the line edit.

What to Expect from a Proofread

Let’s say your manuscript is fully edited (no matter which level you chose, sometimes even a developmental followed by a line edit with the same or different editors). Your work will need a proofread either in manuscript format or after it is designed in pages as PDFs.

Should you proofread your own work? The short answer is later, if you’re in writing mode. The shorter answer is never. Why? Because it’s your work. And your brain plays funny tricks on you. It will fill in your words, and you’ll be completely shocked when a professional editor returns your edited manuscript. What? How could I miss that?

Most editors won’t admit this, but we, too, miss things. We’re human (or many of us are). So the question on the table is when to proofread.

I prefer to hire proofreaders to proof for absolute error when the manuscript is in final pages or PDFs. But you can also proofread before it goes into production (and into PDFs), just knowing that you do need another proofing of the PDFs.

Use a different person, a different editor, even someone who is a professional proofreader. This person brings a fresh set of eyes to the work and scours for absolute error such as name misspellings, wrong URLs, bad URLs, numbers that don’t add up in a table, double words, missing words, and those crazy stupid errors you as the author have missed and your editor missed, and you question your sanity. Those errors.

A proofreader doing the proofing at the PDF stage will also look for all these types of errors plus others: bad word breaks and hyphenation at the end of a line, hyphen stacks (many words hyphenated at the ends of lines, stacked), widows and orphans (single words or lines at the top or bottom of a page), wrong captions with photos, page numbering, missing and misspelled headers and footers, page numbering matches with the table of contents, lines too tight or too loose. Many of these production issues are introduced as pages are created.

Proofreading is not the time to revise, rewrite, or delete. Your interior page designer might actually kill you. At the very least, major changes in proofing in PDFs can be time intensive and expensive. Put in the work way before you see your baby in actual page layouts.

Parting Advice

As Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer said in his exceptionally fascinating book, Dreyer’s English, “My job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it … better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it … but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be.”

In editing world, even if editors disagree on what constitutes certain types of editing, we do agree that your manuscript deserves a professional and sound edit to make it free of typical errors of spelling and punctuation, with proper use of the right word, judicial paragraphing, logical chapter breaks and chapter titles, and prudent fact checking for accuracy — and, above all, consistency.

Sandra Wendel, a nonfiction editor of award-winning business/leadership, memoir, true crime, and self-help books, is the author of the new book, Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing, and the moderator of the Facebook page: FirstTimeAuthorsClub.

A picky nonfiction editor who helps authors write, polish, and publish their books. Author: Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing.

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