Hopefully, there is enough information on this website to give you an insight into what a proofreader does. But what does a copy editor do?
The reason there is often so much confusion about the responsibilities of proofreaders and copy editors is that there is a certain amount of overlap.
Often, particularly in a smaller publishing house, the copy editor will also perform the tasks normally associated with a proofreader, i.e. seeking out and rectifying inaccuracies (spelling, grammar, punctuation, arithmetical gaffes and so forth).
One simple way of creating clear blue water between the two roles is to recognise that proofreaders focus on accuracy, whereas copy editors concentrate their efforts on quality. Now, obviously, a lack of accuracy in a piece of writing will almost certainly reflect badly on the overall quality of the work, but a copy editor deals almost exclusively in terms of quality.
A copy editor will make sure a piece of writing flows, that it ‘reads well’.
A copy editor will remove clichés and redundancies.
A copy editor is likely to be far more engaged with the subject matter and may question the value of a particular sentence, paragraph, page or chapter.
Where a proofreader leaves their opinion on the doorstep and deals in hard facts, in issues of literal right and wrong, a copy editor is far more likely to make subjective value judgments and enter into debate with an author.
This latter quality, this willingness to engage and opine, whilst making for a good copy editor, explains why effective copy editors frequently make for very poor proofreaders, particularly in a fast-turnaround environment.
So, for proofreader, think ‘accuracy’. For copy editor, think ‘quality’.
I appreciate this is hardly a detailed job spec for each of these functions, but roles and responsibilities are likely to change from one publishing or media environment to the next. I think you’ll be much better armed with the general distinction outlined above than something too detailed and, consequently, inflexible.
Whether you’re looking for a career as a proofreader or a copy editor, you’ve definitely come to the right place.