Summary: After the copy editing comes the proofreading. The fine art of catching what else is wrong with a document.

Copy editing. Proofreading. To the casual observer, even to a lot of writers, they are interchangeable. But this is not the case.

Copy editing is the art of taking a written document—be it a web article, dissertation, or book—and making it better. Tuning it up and fixing the grammar, punctuation, verb tenses, spelling, or anything else that may need a tweak. But even the best copy editor, even a professional editor, will miss something. It could be one little thing that’s so easy to overlook, such as a comma placement that, while still correct, changes the meaning of a sentence from what the author intended.

That’s where the proofreading comes in.

Proofreading is the art of finding the little things. Proofreading will find “on” when the writer meant “in.” It will locate the en dash where there’s supposed to be an em dash. Who even knows the difference between the en dash and the em dash? Why the proofreader, of course!

Naturally, the copy editor knows the difference, too. But the copy editor can get caught up in reading for content, fixing those run-on sentences and verb tenses and subject/pronoun agreement. Little things can fall through the cracks.

Proofreading also includes checking headers and footers, even boilerplate text, like a company letterhead in a business document, or the inclusion of “walruses” in a FEMA plan for the Gulf of Mexico (everyone knows there are no walruses in the Gulf of Mexico). Something may have appeared in print 100 times, but without a good proofread, it may have appeared in print wrong 100 times.

Proofreading catches the widows and orphans, too; those poor souls who hang out at the end of the column or at the top of the page, all by themselves.

It’s the Little Things That Count

A professional proofreader will make several passes through the copy, with an eye toward a different type of mistake each time. A “trip” for spelling, another for spacing, another for funky punctuation.

And if there’s one truth about proofreading—and copy editing, for that matter—it is that when you’re sure something is right, when you’re sure it’s clean, go back and check it again. There’s going to be some little bugaboo in there that you missed.
The best editors, be they book editors, dissertation editors, or a combination, like the editors found here at, are both the proofreader and the copy editor. And they actually believe that the devil’s in the details.

Their job isn’t done without checking every single little detail.

Originally posted 10/1/2010 and happily updated 10/28/2017. Thanks for reading!

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