Your Copy Sucks: You Don’t Even Know What “Edit” Means

type writer keyPlease consider this a gentle nudge in the direction of proper usage. I am not angry with you, dear thing. Almost everyone makes the same mistake time and time again. But for your elucidation:

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.)

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  • ashley_writes

    In my six years working for a major newspaper, I never heard of a “proofreader.” That must be a magazine/book publishing title. You're right on the nose with editors and copyeditors.

  • Isabela

    I was a proofreader for a major newspaper, and I lost count of how many times *I* was the one who caught egregious errors in the copy just before it was supposed to go to print.

  • Looks like every newspaper is different. (Below comment.) Oh, our weird world!

  • Oh no! How awful.

  • rahsf

    There's a bit of a twist on this that I've found in online communications. As a proofreader, I was responsible for placing the content and formatting it correctly, plus all of the work of the copy editor. But the copy editing was extremely limited; only blatant errors were corrected. I think the two jobs have become one in the same, at least a few years back when I did it. And having some html skill didn't hurt either. Just enough to fix the page when the content management tool did something funny

  • Wow, that's enlightening, because at my last job, I was called a Proofreader (and paid that way), but I proofread jobs from the early copy stages all the way through to the end, meaning the proofs from the printer. So, I guess I was the copy editor and the proofreader. Thanks for clearing this up! I just got a retro-promotion!

  • Gretchen

    I think you're omitting intermediate stages between editor tasks like making “decisions about what goes into the publication” and “changing the plot” and copyediting tasks like grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

    This is sometimes called “line editing” and sometimes “developmental editing.” This editor focuses more on meaning and style than on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

    Today, the copyeditor often does the line editing along with the copyediting. Just as the proofreader often has to fix some copyediting along with the real proofreading.

  • This was humorous and helpful post, but I don't think this post goes deep enough. See my response:

  • DLK

    Not to be anal (but I am), but the prioper expression is actually “one and the same,” not “one in the same.”

  • This was humorous and helpful post, but I don't think this post goes deep enough. See my response:

  • DLK

    Not to be anal (but I am), but the prioper expression is actually “one and the same,” not “one in the same.”

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  • envymyindependence

    Oh pshaw. These distinctions only matter to people who care about whether the person in the corner cubicle has suffered sufficiently to earn it or whether their own window has a prettier view of the rat-ridden alley than the next drone's cell window. In the real world, when I move a comma, I'm editing and while I do that, I may copy-edit and even proof and in the end it's entirely up to me whether I take a break or not…