Editing and proofreading – what’s the difference?

Woman covered in Post-Its is holding documents and looking confusedThe first draft of a document is usually something like the proverbial first pancake: a less-than-ideal shape, a little thin in some parts and undercooked in others.

OK, I’ve stretched the analogy, but you get the point. The best pieces of work don’t appear fully formed and perfect on the first try. It can take multiple rounds of checks, feedback and changes before you have something you’re proud to submit.

You might be looking for a colleague or contact to help you whip your work into shape – or perhaps you’ve been asked to do this for someone else. Either way, you’ll need to establish whether this is a matter of editing or proofreading. But what’s the difference?

So editing and proofreading aren’t interchangeable terms?

No, these aren’t simply two different words for the same thing. And, in fact, you can also split ‘editing’ into more than one kind: substantive editing and copy editing.

The three terms describe three different processes of checking and improving documents, which happen in a particular sequence. So it’s not a case of one versus another: all are useful and serve separate purposes.

Here’s what each process entails.

Substantive editing

This takes the highest-level view of the document and is the first part of the process. You can think of it in terms of analysing the substance of the document – as the name suggests – rather than the finer detail of how the content is expressed.

Assessing the overall document

So, here you will look at the overall structure, content and length. You’ll think about whether the document is fit for purpose, keeping in mind the intended audience, publication and goals.

This can involve asking yourself questions like: is the structure logical? Does one part flow into the next, with the ideas developing in a way that is easy to follow? Are the arguments consistent? Is the language or jargon appropriate for this audience? Is anything missing?

Look too at the format: are there particular requirements it needs to meet for this publication? Is the navigation logical and helpful? Is the contents page complete? Are the illustrations effective, and would the document benefit from more?

As well as restructuring, you may rewrite or rephrase paragraphs (maintaining the author’s voice as well as you can) and introduce or improve connecting sections to smooth out the flow from one part to another.

An analytical approach

A good way to understand the essential difference between this process and copy editing is that in the latter you are mostly checking the work against certain defined rules – grammar, punctuation, spelling and style. But substantive editing involves more analysis and evaluation.

This can mean you’ll have some back and forth with the writer on your judgements rather than making changes outright. But you can agree your approach with them before you begin.

Copy editing (also called sub-editing)

This is the next stage. Here you are not so much critiquing the document as a whole or the strength of the ideas it presents, but instead zeroing in on how the ideas are expressed.

You can think of checking copy editing’s four Cs, making sure the document is:

  • clear
  • concise
  • correct
  • consistent.


Clear and concise

Check that each sentence makes sense and whether any need making clearer or more succinct. You may do this by:

Make sure that all abbreviations are explained on their first use. And if the document includes illustrations or tables, check that they are referred to in the text and have helpful captions.

You can also mark up suggested amendments to layout – whether that’s adding or removing subheadings or indicating where new illustrations should go.

Correct and consistent

Take your eye to the punctuation, grammar, capitalisation and spelling to check they’re all accurate. And if the organisation has a house style guide, be sure to have it to hand to check the document is consistent with its guidance. Reference the guide to confirm the organisation’s rules on choices that have no universal right answer. This includes matters like choosing to use UK or US English and double or single quote marks, whether to hyphenate the word ‘co-ordinate’, and whether employees should write ‘Trustees’ with a capital ‘T’.

And while you’re thinking about consistency, come back to those illustrations and tables and check they’re correctly numbered in both the text and the captions. If the document contains references, check that they’re complete.

Although you’re not taking the same high-level view of the document’s content as you would with substantive editing, you may still comment on or amend the content in some ways. You can smooth out awkward sentences or transitions where these weren’t caught at the earlier stage. And you might also take responsibility for checking certain details, such as:

  • the accuracy of names, contact information or facts
  • errors in continuity
  • potentially libellous claims.

Again, clarify with your colleague whether this is included in your scope. Essentially, the aim with copy editing is to give as little as possible to do at the proofreading stage.



At this final stage you’ll be looking at the finer – the finest! – details of the document. People best suited to proofreading are eagle-eyed and have a comprehensive grasp of punctuation and grammar. This is the last chance to catch anything that’s slipped through the previous processes or been introduced along the way.

In traditional publishing, proofreading is done on an example of the printed manuscript – otherwise known as a ‘proof’. This means it’s possible to identify problems with the layout as well as mistakes in the text. In business, the same can apply for the all-but-final version of a laid-out report, proposal or even marketing email.

As a proofreader, you won’t do any rewriting and you’re not responsible for the substance of the content itself.

If the substantive editing and copy editing have been done well, proofreading should consist of checking the following.


Check that:

  • all text and illustrations are where they should be and correctly numbered and labelled
  • font use is consistent, eg the headings and subheadings are in the correct type
  • there are no lone lines at the top of a page (known as ‘widows’) or lone words on a line (‘orphans’).


Correct and consistent (again)

The checks here include those the copy editor would make in the same category (no-one’s infallible!). But you’re also looking for:

  • typographical errors (such as transposed letters or accidental use of homophones, like using ‘there’ instead of ‘their’)
  • extra spaces
  • inconsistent use of bold and italic.

You’ll find a more detailed guide to proofreading (plus a downloadable checklist) in this post.

Defining the scope

As you may have spotted, there is some overlap between the processes: substantive editing and copy editing can merge into each other, and so can copy editing and proofreading.

But avoid trying to proofread while doing substantive editing. You’ll need a different kind of focus for each.

And, given that even editors disagree about exactly where the boundaries between the three lie, don’t worry about terminology if you’re arranging edits or checks with a colleague. Instead, simply list out the exact scope of what you or your colleague will cover. This approach will also avoid the potential for bad feeling where one person believes another has overstepped their bounds.

You can also check out a practical guide to in-office editing here.

Happy checking!

Looking for some in-house support with editing or tailored training in proofreading for your team? Get in touch to chat about your needs.

Image credit: WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock

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