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From Karen Saunders

Your Branding, Marketing & Self-Publishing Coach

What’s the Difference Between Content Editing, Copy Editing and Proofreading?

Smart self-publishers have their manuscripts edited and proofread by professionals. To meet this need, we offer an assortment of editorial services, from content editing to proofreading. Our award-winning team of editors and proofreaders specializes in a wide range of genres with a variety of skill sets in both fiction and non-fiction. It’s so important to find the right fit for each client, and we feel it is our responsibility to educate our clients about the different types of editing and proofreading services.

As a visual person, I like to make analogies with visual images. I think about editing from the macro level to the microscopic level. For example, from the top of one of our Colorado 14ers you can see a blanket of trees, lakes and mountains for miles around. That’s the macro level. That’s my visual image of the content editing stage.

Content Editing Colorado mountains

Content Editing (also called substantive or developmental editing)

This is where an editor looks at your manuscript from the “big picture” viewpoint. A content editor keeps her finger on the pulse of the message while making sure the manuscript is well-written. She will ask these questions: Is the theme or plot of the book well-developed and organized? If it is a novel, is there good story-telling and snappy dialog? Does the story move at a good pace? Are the characters original and believable? Are the sub-plots well-integrated? With both fiction and non-fiction, are there contradictions, inconsistencies, factual errors or discrepancies? Is there an introduction and conclusion? Is the book written for the right target market and will it grab attention?

A content editor may review and return the manuscript to the writer with suggestions to re-write, move, delete or add sections, or perhaps she will offer to do that work herself. Content editing is more subjective than other forms of editing, involving a lot of thought and decision-making, whereas copy editing and proofreading are more rules-based.

Continuing to use my analogy, we move from the top of the mountain to the six-foot level. This is where our eyes are on the trail, we see the individual trees, leaves, rocks and dirt path. This is the copy editing stage.

Copy editing Colorado trail

Copy Editing

A copy editor will focus on grammar, syntax, sentence structure, accurate word choices, verb tense, capitalization, punctuation, missed and repeated words, paragraph and sentence length. She may suggest reorganizing chapter titles or subheads.

A copy editor will prepare a style sheet of word preferences and specific rules for the manuscript. For example, the author and copy editor may decide on a preferred spelling for idiosyncratic words, proper names, spelling out numbers, and using serial commas. This style sheet will be passed on to the proofreader to maintain consistency.

Content editing and copy editing are done while the manuscript is still in Microsoft Word. Our editors use track changes, so our clients can easily review, accept or make changes in Microsoft Word.

The final, approved manuscript is passed to our graphic designer to format in Adobe InDesign, which is our page layout program. At this stage, all the content is married with any graphics, photos and other inserts in the page layout file. Our graphic designer will export an Adobe PDF file for proofreading. Our proofreader will make electronic sticky notes to the areas that need review or have corrections.

Drilling down one last time, we come to the microscopic level. This is where you see the individual veins of an aspen leaf. This is the proofreading stage.

Proofreading Aspen leaf


Proofreading is typically done after the book is formatted. This is the last stage before the page layout file goes to the printer.

The proofreader will focus on finding any overlooked misspellings and typographic errors, along with checking the accuracy of page numbers, the table of contents, running heads, labels and captions on figures tables and other inserts.

Formatting issues are also caught at this stage, e.g., bad breaks due to hyphenation, too much or too little word spacing and/or line spacing, widows (a single word on a line by itself) and orphans (a short or final line of a paragraph on the top of a page), as well as inaccuracies in running heads or page numbering.

What Type of Editing Do You Need?

To produce a great book, all three levels of editing—content editing, copy editing and proofreading—are necessary. When we receive your manuscript, we ascertain how much work is still required and provide you with just the right editor on our team to complete the task.

Note: This article was copy edited by one of the award-winning editors on my team, Barbara Munson. I love what she did to polish my article!