Many people don’t understand the difference between copy editing and proofreading, and that’s just fine. Unless you’re paying for one or the other. If that’s the case, you should know what you’re paying for. Actually, in my opinion, if you’re parting with your hard-earned, you should always know why!
In a nutshell, copy editing is less intensive than a full structural edit, but far more involved than a proofread. Beware though – there is no such thing as a “simple” copy edit. The line between copy editing and substantive or structural editing (which is far more detailed again) is often blurred, so if you want to hire a copy editor, make sure you are as clear as possible about what you want when you engage them.
A copy edit is typically done to ensure consistency within a manuscript to a specific editorial style. This can include things like making sure headings are in the right font and placement, punctuation and spelling is according to the editorial preference, image placement is correct, and so on. It can also involve activities like helping to maintain the authorial voice, maintaining tense and person, and suggesting alternate words to improve understanding or help to set a scene. It’s invaluable for ensuring flow throughout your text. Copy editing is a line-by-line job; attention to detail is crucial. But it is also a whole-of-document job, because there is constant thought about fit, placement, and accuracy. It can happen at almost any stage of the publication process, although it is generally undertaken towards the end, and always before the final proofread. Copy editing should cost more than proofreading, simply because it’s a more detailed edit, and more editorial decisions will be made by a copy editor than a proofreader.
Conversely, proofreading involves little decision making and occurs (usually) after typesetting in the traditional publishing process. In the modern publishing era, proofreading is typically carried out just before final publication. It’s the last line of editorial defence. The proofreader checks to make sure that the manuscript is free from error, that all the copy editor’s changes have been incorporated (when accepted by the author or managing editor), and that the document is complete. Proofreading is also a line-by-line job where attention to detail is again critical. Imagine a manuscript as a whole page full of zeros. Somewhere in that page, there’s an o. The proofreader’s job is to find that single o in amongst the sea of zeros and correct it before it’s too late.
Be very clear when you engage someone to provide you with editorial services what it is you want from them. Expect to pay more for a more detailed job like copy editing than you would for a less intensive job, such as proofreading. Make sure that the quote you receive outlines what service will be provided, either a final end price, or a range, and how and when you’ll be expected to pay. Although editors can be very generous with their time, don’t expect someone you’ve hired as a dedicated proofreader to copy edit for you, or vice versa, if that service isn’t part of your agreement. Your editor should be happy to give you some kind of written agreement detailing the kind of work they’re offering to do for you – and what steps both of you can take if the actual work differs from what has been agreed.