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Editing is not the same thing as copyediting.
When you talk about making sure all the commas are in the right place? That’s copyediting. When you think about taking a red pen to a piece of writing? You’re probably thinking of copyediting. It’s something wholly different than editing-editing, and you should probably know the difference.
Here’s the biggest difference: editors (be they book, magazine, or newspaper editors) are way higher up on the totem pole than copyeditors. Editors make decisions about what goes into the publication. Copyeditors are relegated to the unglamorous world of commas and em dashes. In fact, most publications do not employ full time copyeditors (or CEs) anymore. Your typical CE is a freelance creature, paid not very well by the piece or by the word.
You should see my editor friends when people outside The Biz say, “Oh, you edit a magazine? So you know where all the commas are supposed to go, right?” Hackles. Up they go.
And rightly so, because most of my editor friends do not have the time or the patience for copyediting.
Copyeditors can, however, be paid to cross the line into editorship-type roles. Well-paid and experienced CEs can include in their list of skills fact-checking or an eye for style and flow. But editor-editors are the ones who make the major edits like changing the plot or argument of a piece.
Likewise, a proofreader is not the same thing as a CE or an editor. Proofreading is different from editing or copyediting because it’s mainly concerned with how the words lie physically on the page. When a normal, not-in-The-Biz person says, “I have to proofread this” I always think, “Oh my goodness, when did you buy a printing press!?”
Proofreaders, who can be the same person as the copyeditor, come in at the very end of the piece’s edited life, just before it’s printed. Once in awhile a proofreader will catch a mistake that the copyeditor missed; in those cases, the copyeditor is promptly killed with a machete. Unless the copyeditor and proofreader are the same person. Then he or she is only deprived of one or two fingers (on the non-dominant and therefore non-pen holding hand, of course). Proofreaders have to read the “proofs”, the early print-outs of the work, to make sure no word has been dropped, mangled, or added, and that all the lines match up to the intended work. It sounds antiquated now in the world of digital printing, but these things still have to happen to avoid costly printing mistakes.
If you still print on paper, of course.
Chances are, when you think of editing or proofing, what you’re really thinking of is copyediting. Those poor, macheted CEs. No one will ever know their sacrifice.
OK, so, to recap: editors are in charge of stuff. Copyeditors are only in charge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sometimes a few extra responsibilities. Proofreaders are in charge of making sure the finished product is correct. (This is all a very quick rundown, and for any editors, CEs, or proofreaders I offend by making their jobs sound simple, please forgive me; I only mean to help everyone else make sense of our crazy world.)