The 5 kinds of editing: I need a proofreader, right? What’s a copyeditor do?


But first: an apology for all the confusion about editors

I’m going to apologise now for the entire publishing industry everywhere. We use the word ‘editor’ waaaay too much.

People with really quite different jobs all get called editor in the publishing world, from the highest to the lowest. It’s a mess and no one would have designed it that way from scratch. Then there are editors of video, film, sound… even your wardrobe and what goes in your makeup bag, if you read the right magazines. Everyone’s an editor! If you’re about to get your article or book published, you’ll have been dealing with one or more of the journal editor, academic editor, volume editor, series editor, acquisitions editor, desk editor, even the managing editor before your text comes out to me, a copyeditor.

So when someone reads an early draft of your work and says, ‘You should get that proofread, mate’, they’re avoiding all the confusion of ‘editor’ but they’re steering you wrong, in all probability.

Some clarity, please!

I’ve done you a handy A4 infographic that summarises the rest of this post:

That infographic and this post set out the five kinds of editing that people mean when they say you need a proofreader. Only one of them is called ‘proofreading’ and it always comes right at the end of the publishing process, right before the journal or book goes to print or is published online.

Developmental editing

This is the highest-level kind of editing, when the editor doesn’t even edit, insofar as they make no changes to your manuscript. They read, and think, and mull, and write up a report about what kinds of things should be changed to make the book work better (beta readers also do this, in effect, as will peer reviewers, but less skilfully, less objectively).

You now have quite a bit of work to do, probably, taking action on the recommendations.

Structural editing

I think you could call this turbo-charged developmental editing – the editor actually makes the changes that a developmental editor limits themselves to recommending. You’ll still have quite a lot of work to do, deciding on whether the changes are helpful or whether you hate them. If you hate them, bear in mind a decent structural editor will have sound reasons for making the changes they did. I’ll just warn you not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I’m sure dev editors and structural editors will want to shoot me, but I’m not altogether sure you need both of these, unless your book was rather a mess to start with and you struggled to implement the dev editor’s report. You know precisely what you mean to say because this is your specialist area. But have you put that in writing in a way that conveys efficiently what’s in your head to the rest of the world?

Line editing

This is a fairly new arrival in UK publishing, and is a much more common notion in the United States. In the UK a copyeditor will tend to include line editing within their copyedit without highlighting any distinction. A line editor may well not include copyediting tasks in their offer – or only at an additional fee. However, as the term is gaining ground here in the UK, a few words of explanation are in order.

A line editor will look at the flow of ideas (something that both the dev ed and the structural ed will have done) to see if, after all the changes in the earlier drafts, we’re left with something that tells the right story in a clear and logical way. They will look at sentence structure, vocabulary, and whether the content actually works.

Remember, even in scholarly nonfiction you’re telling a story, so it’s crucial the points of your argumentation are lined up in the right way.


A copyeditor takes the manuscript you thought was ready to publish and makes it ready to publish. We copyeditors represent the reader. Does this book work as a book? Is everything joined up properly – chapter titles with table of contents, captions with illustrations list? Are all the references there, do the links work, are the references themselves complete and are they styled as the publisher decrees?

The copyeditor will smoosh (technical term) the text around a bit to ensure it conforms to the publisher’s house style (as an example, I have a client that publishes only in UK English, with ‑ise spellings. Most of the manuscripts arrive in other Englishes, or in UK English but with ‑ize spellings. I get to put that right). Artwork might be renumbered by chapter and its position in the text moved so that it appears much closer to where it’s first mentioned. You get the idea.

As I said in the previous section, in the UK, ‘copyediting’ tends to include the line editing elements, too. The copyeditor does the lot.

How invasive it is depends on how closely you tried to follow the publisher’s house style, how smart you are about making sure your references are up to scratch,* how much effort you put into making sure the spellings and hyphenation in your artwork, whether that’s tables or figures, matches what’s in the text and conforms to the house style, and whether capitalisation matches the house style, and so on.

A copyeditor will also be looking at potential legal problems, primarily copyright issues with material reproduced from elsewhere and, sadly, libel.

When I copyedit, I often raise queries directly with the author and work to put their corrections into the text accurately, making any necessary consequential changes before sending off the files to the typesetter. Otherwise I just place my queries in comments bubbles, return the files and move on to the next project. Which of these I do depends on the publisher’s requirements.


‘Finally! We get to proofreading! That’s what I was looking for,’ I hear you mutter.

Well, maybe. The proofreader comes in when the manuscript has been typeset (or laid out, or designed) and reads the proofs (usually on PDF) against the copyedited manuscript with all the query answers incorporated. They’re looking at how the article or book looks on the page, and marks up problems that need fixing. They check the running heads are above the pages for the right chapter, that the page numbers are consecutive, that images have been reproduced correctly with the right captions and a whole host of other detail.

A proofreader is another fresh pair of eyes who is also looking at punctuation, spelling, grammar, logic, potential copyright and libel concerns, and making sure that everything is precisely as it should be before the book or article goes forward to actual publication.

Why so many people?

I’ve often said that the greatest advantage I have over an author is that when I come to their text, no matter its history, I’m a fresh pair of eyes. I don’t have any preconceptions of what the text ought to say. I read what it actually does say. And that’s what each level of editing does – it brings in another fresh pair of eyes to whittle away at the myriad little typos and handful of outright larger bloopers.

So when your mate says to you ‘You should get that proofread’, they almost certainly don’t mean that. And still, Google hits for ‘proofreader’ outnumber ‘copyeditor’ (which is where I fit in) by something like 9:1. Because ‘proofreader’ is a nice, clear term that we can all understand. Even when a proofreader is the last thing you need (pun very definitely intended).

* Want even more on this topic?

For help with that, check out the download on pre-empting the copyeditor by sorting out a lot of the referencing issues beforehand, as featured in the post How can I cut down on copyeditor queries?, also available on the Resources page.

Next, I’ll send you to the website of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading where you can download even more goodies.

First, there’s a 24-page PDF booklet called ‘Proofreading or editing? A quick guide to using editorial professionals’.

And there’s a rather shorter two-page factsheet: ‘Proofreading or copyediting?

And this three-page factsheet might help you understand what your editor or proofreader is talking about: ‘Anatomy of a book’.

3 thoughts on “The 5 kinds of editing: I need a proofreader, right? What’s a copyeditor do?”

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