What are proofreading, copy-editing and editing?

Written by Rhiannon

The difference between an edit, a copy-edit and a proofread is something that we get asked to explain a lot at Accuracy Matters. Often our clients know they need help with their report or website, but they don’t know what kind of help would be best.

If your company requires proofreading, copy-editing or editing at any point on a project, it’s good to know which service you're looking for so you can get the right team in place in good time.

I like to think of the different types of editorial intervention as being a bit like gardening. What do I mean? Well, Cicero wrote: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’ The link between gardening and the words on a page (or screen) might not be an obvious connection but bear with me…

Gardening is essentially cultivation of the ground for various different reasons (to grow vegetables, to make your patch look pretty, etc.) and there are many different tools out there to help you garden. To me, editing, copy-editing and proofreading are the cultivation of words and messages – and there are also tools to help you with that. To succeed at either requires some level of skill.

When we proofread, we check the spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency and layout of your final designed document or web page. I like to think of proofreading as like weeding: without getting on your hands and knees and getting in there, your garden will not thrive. Just as weeding removes competition for light and nutrients from the plants you want to grow, proofreading removes the irritating spelling errors and rogue apostrophes that ‘spoil’ your work. Both weeds and errors are irritating distractions that need nipping in the bud (pun intended).

When we copy-edit, we check spelling, grammar, punctuation, clarity and consistency before copy is designed or typeset. And we tend to make more copy change suggestions to improve clarity. So this happens at an earlier stage. It’s weeding – plus a bit of thinning out of congested plants and moving around of other plants. But it’s definitely not about overhauling a border entirely; this would be the next stage.

When we edit we review draft documents more substantively, editing for structure, tone of voice, choice of language, key messaging and more. Sure, we also check for spelling and grammatical inaccuracies, but editing is a much deeper level of editorial intervention. In gardening terms, this is on a par with taking an overgrown and floppy border and bringing it back to life – pruning, dividing, taking out plants that are past their best and maybe adding in a few new ones.

This means that clients who want help with editing need to approach us quite early on in the drafting of their work since we need to be involved from the start; for copy-editing we also need to see the work at an early stage; but if we are proofreading this happens towards the end of the process. 

While you may struggle to find a ‘gardener’ to help you out, we’re fortunate enough to have a team of experienced editors, copy-editors, proofreaders and writers in our shed* who can work remotely or as part of your team. To make things clearer, we’ve produced a series of handy checklists so you can get everything in place.

Still not sure what sort of help you need? Just email hello@accuracymatters.co.uk

*Many of whom are also green-fingered!