What is copy editing and proofreading?

In a nutshell
  1. Developmental editing is for authors who have an incomplete manuscript, and need help making it complete.
  2. Copy editing is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help making the writing ready to publish by making sure it is correct, consistent, logical, and suitable for intended readers.
  3. Typesetting/formatting is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help preparing it for publication in a specific format.
  4. Proofreading is for authors who have a complete manuscript ready to publish, and need a ‘final check’ for accuracy, inconsistency, error, and presentation of all necessary elements.

There are many different definitions used by editors or proofreaders for the same or similar services involved in book production. For example, sometimes developmental editing is synonymous with substantive editing, structural editing, or manuscript critique. The below are my definitions of the book production process, based on my experience and understanding.

Developmental editing

Developmental editing looks exclusively at the big picture aspects of a story: how the overall narrative works in relation to the structure, characters, plot, dialogue, themes, and concept of the story. It’s intended to make sure that it is as fully ‘developed’ as it needs to be, and can help give you guidance on where to take it from conception to completion. Developmental editors won’t read line-by-line, as with copy editors, but will focus on particular extracts or paragraphs within a given scene or chapter and will offer suggestions for improvement. In this sense, they work at the paragraph-level and not the sentence-level.

There are two main types of developmental editing: ‘substantive editing’ and ‘manuscript critique’. Substantive editing may involve substantial rewriting or restructuring, which can be taken as suggestions by the author. In this way, it is a heavy form of editorial intervention, for authors who may not be confident with their story or writing and could benefit from an expert editor. Some forms of substantive editing have differing levels of intervention. It could go on a scale that places it as a higher form of intervention than ‘line editing’, which looks more at improving the flow of writing at the sentence-level, and ‘copy editing’, which looks more at the technical parts of language than on improving the writing.

There is also a ‘manuscript critique’, which will offer a report in the form of an editorial letter, offering constructive criticism and feedback to guide the author by commenting on their strengths and weaknesses in structure, characters, plot, dialogue, themes, and concept. With this information, the author can then work on the problem areas themselves.

Copy editing

Copy editing involves making sure that the writing style is appropriate for the intended readership, the structure of the publication is logical and complete, and the writer’s message is clear. Some copy editors will offer suggestions on the structure and style of sentences where there is inconsistency, ambiguity, disrupted flow, or where there are issues to be raised.

Copy editors, as with proofreaders, correct and mark-up errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and use a style sheet and checklist to verify that all writing elements are consistent and make sense. However, copy editors are permitted to intervene more than proofreaders because they typically work on an unedited and unrefined version of the author’s manuscript, and there is therefore more scope for changes to be made. In situations where the manuscript requires more intervention, the copy editor will raise queries with the author to verify facts and better understand the author’s intention.

It’s the copy editor’s responsibility to make sure that:

  1. The writing is correct, flows well, makes sense, and is suitable for the intended readership
  2. Stylistic decisions are consistent according to standard conventions or preferred style
  3. Use of language is accurate such as word usage, repetitive or superfluous words, tense, and point of view
  4. The presentation is of the highest quality and consistent, setting the standard for readers’ expectations
  5. The writing of the manuscript is fit for publication and ready for designing, formatting, proofing, printing, and publishing

Copy editors traditionally work on a more incomplete version of the manuscript, before it has been designed and typeset/formatted. Proofreading comes in at a later stage, used as a final check that there are no lingering errors. The term ‘copy editing’ comes from when an editor, traditionally working for a publishing house, would glance at a ‘copy’ (unedited original manuscript) and work on a ‘proof’ (to-be-edited copy) side-by-side.


Proofreading requires marking-up errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, using a style sheet and checklist to verify that writing is consistent and makes sense.

Proofreading is a stage that traditionally comes after copy editing, and is used as a ‘final check’ to correct any lingering typographical errors, or even new ones that have been introduced if there have been multiple rounds of editing between editors and the author. Therefore, the proofreader reads for consistency and sense, and only intervenes when there is a discrepancy because they must keep in mind that they are working on a manuscript that is close to a published version and cannot afford to make any unnecessary or costly changes that could have repercussions.

Some of the textual elements a proofreader checks include capitalisation, hyphenation, spelling, style, abbreviations, time and date. Some of the design elements a proofreader checks include page numbers, running headlines, headings, tables, illustrations, captions, references, cross-references, widows and orphans, and footnotes.