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Publishing houses, web sites, newspapers, magazines, and freelance writers all may use copy editing, line editing, and proofreading to improve their written work. Many times the duties overlap, but each is a distinct process. Copy editing and line editing deal with larger issues, such as flow and accuracy of material, whereas proofreading is employed to ensure a piece of writing is free of mechanical errors.
Copy editing and line editing are sometimes used interchangeably because their purposes overlap. In fact, line editing may seem to be copy editing at first glance, but it focuses on polishing the author's writing in a way that will improve the writer's overall impact and style. A line editor edits a piece line by line, focusing on tone and flow. Line editors take into account the writer's intended message and suggest improvements in word choice, tone, and transitions to increase the impact of that message. Line editing is also sometimes called stylistic editing.
Although both copy editors and line editors work to correct a piece while maintaining the author's writing style and voice, copy editing does not focus on the writer's intended impact. Copy editing is designed to ensuring the written piece is clear and concise, that the tone is appropriate for the intended audience, and that it has the proper format or adheres to the appropriate style guides. Copy editing may also involve fact checking. Often, however, newspapers employ separate fact checkers. The layout of articles in magazines or newspapers, the writing of headlines and captions, and the selection of artwork may all fall under the category of copy editing.
Proofreading is always the last step in a good editing process. It is also the simplest, but requires a sharp-eye and attention to detail. Proofreading deals with grammar, spelling, and typographical errors. Copy editors and line editors will also look for proofreading issues as they edit and may be responsible for the proofreading on a given publication. Proofreaders may also be employed, particularly at newspapers.
Exact definitions of each process vary from publication to publication. Most editing services, however, will lay out detailed explanations of what each editing option entails at their service. Editing services and freelancers usually charge by the page or the word. Pricing increases both with depth of project and with the type of editing involved, so proofreading is the least expensive option, while line editing is the most expensive. Many pieces will go through several revisions before the editing process is complete.
Someone once suggested that I pursue a copy editing career because I was so good at proofreading other people's work. I sent out resumes to the leading publishing houses, but they apparently had all the professional copy editors they needed. I now do some freelance copy editing through an online job matching service, and I'm working fairly steadily these days. The growing self-published electronic book market has created a need for affordable copy editing services for first-time authors.
I used to offer copy editing and proofreading services to earn extra income while working on my creative writing career. I would routinely ask clients if they wanted me to edit or proofread their manuscript. They almost always asked me to explain the difference.
I'd say that copy editing meant I would go through the entire manuscript line by line and make changes to the dialogue or descriptions as I saw fit. The finished product might not sound like the author's original work, but it would be much more marketable. Professional copy editing was the best way to go if the ultimate goal was commercial publication.
However, if a college student hired me to look over a research
paper or a five paragraph theme, I called my services "proofreading". If I proofread a manuscript, I would still read it line by line, but all I would do is correct mechanical and spelling errors. I wouldn't try to rework the client's basic ideas or opinions. Proofreading was a lot easier for me than copy editing, and I could usually get a lot more proofreading clients. Only a handful of people may need a copy editor, but a lot of college students need proofreaders every semester.
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