Copyediting or Proofreading: 5 Steps to Determine What You Need

copyediting or proofreadingIn the past few weeks I’ve received queries from several writers about my editing services. “How much do you charge to edit a 110,000 word novel?” and “What will it cost to copyedit my nonfiction book. It’s about 300 pages.”

These seem like perfectly reasonable questions, don’t they? The problem for me, as an editor, is that they are too vague. Editing is a very broad term that covers every function from development through line editing to proofreading—soup to nuts in editorial services, so to speak.

When you’re on a budget (and really, who isn’t?), it’s important to plan for your upcoming expenses. Your editorial budget should not be an exception!

All writers who publish—whether traditionally, independently, or through assisted publishing—will need some level of editorial services. When you plan to seek an agent or query publishers directly, you should use at least one professional editor before you submit. In the case of self-publishing, the responsibility for editing falls entirely on your shoulders, and you may want to seriously consider a wider range of editorial services before your work goes live.

You might need several different types of editing (at various stages of the project) before a final proofread. The hard part is knowing what editing service to ask for.Let’s examine those two queries:

The first (about a 110,000 word novel) asked about “editing.” We’d assume, since the writer has a word count, that he/she isn’t looking for developmental help—but we might be making a mistake. We really have no way of knowing whether or not this novel has even been started, and it’s equally possible that the author is ready for a final proofread before submitting the manuscript. There’s no way to tell from the query. It’s possible that the über-planning author just wants to know for budgeting purposes. I wrote back and asked what stage the author was in the writing/editing timeline.

The second query, requesting “copyediting” for a 300-page nonfiction book, seems more specific, but again, we might be jumping to conclusions for two reasons: first, because each one of those pages could have anywhere from 200 to 600 words on them; and second, because many writers ask for “copyediting” when they mean “proofreading.”

Even if you think you know what type of editing you want or need, give the editor a little peek behind the curtain to help him or her determine if that’s really what you are asking for. Share on X

So how does a writer know what to ask for? It’s not difficult, really. Just follow some simple guidelines:

1.    The industry-standard word count for a page is 250 words. Regardless of whether you single or double-space, use a 10-point or 14 point font, use one-inch margins or squeeze as many words as possible on a page to save paper when you print out your WIP, your quotes from professional editors are based on 250 words per page, so always specify total word count, not page count, when requesting a quote.

2.    Even if you think you know what type of editing you want or need, give the editor a little peek behind the curtain to help him or her determine if that’s really what you are asking for. Remember my second query, the one for the 300-page nonfiction book? Although the author was asking for copyediting, he was a bit confused about what copyediting is—and after a few emails back and forth, I was able to determine that what he really wanted was proofreading, which is quite different.

3.    Different editors excel at different types of editing. The editor(s) you contact might not be right for you. For example, if you are looking for developmental help with a submission to an academic journal, I am not your best choice as an editor because that isn’t my area of expertise—but I’ll be happy to provide a no-obligation referral to one of my associates. However, if you need content and line editing for your self-help book, I’m happy to provide a sample edit to show you how I can help (and it also shows you how I work so you’ll know if we are a good match).

4.    If you’re uncertain about the type of editing you need, don’t worry about labels—just be able to articulate what type of help you’re looking for. In a post for, Chuck Sambuchino writes:

Know if you’re in a hurry to get feedback. Know if you want an edit that’s heavy on copyediting and proofreading, or an edit specifically to analyze the pacing/tempo of your writing. Know if you want the editor to take a closer look at some section that’s bothering you. If you’re seeking a nonfiction book proposal edit, for instance, it would help if you knew that you wanted the review to mostly focus on your marketing plan and platform, provided you felt that was the weakest section. If you do not give specific instruction, the editor will take a broad approach to the work.”

5.    Bookmark this post so you’ll always have a simple description of the differences between copyediting and proofreading.

  • Copyediting: looks at the line-by-line details, including consistency of the storyline, syntax, correct tense throughout, correct sentence structure, and word usage. May also include some reorganizing if necessary, as well as pointing out lapses in logic or sequential errors. Major development of the work and self-editing should be completed before this phase. For a more detailed explanation, read How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Copyediting.
  • Proofreading: checks the final version of the manuscript before publication. This phase of editing focuses on corrections, not revisions, making sure there are no typographical errors or layout inconsistencies. Also checks for punctuation, spelling, cross-referencing of page numbers and other details in the manuscript, and notes any glaring errors. For more about proofreading, read How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Proofreading.

Whether you publish traditionally or independently, you’ll probably work with an editor at some point in your process, so understanding the difference between copyediting and proofreading can save you time, money, and a few sleepless nights. When you’re ready for a professional to look at your work, I hope you’ll keep me in mind—I’d love to help you say it the way you mean it!

Happy Writing!


photo courtesy of

If you enjoyed reading this, please subscribe to my blog and never miss a post! It’s easy: Just enter your email address on the right side of this page. And please know that I’ll never sell, share, or rent your contact information—that’s a promise!

And if you want more great writing and publishing information, check out my Facebook page at Change It Up Editing and Writing Services, where I share all kinds of interesting articles and links.

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.


17 thoughts on “Copyediting or Proofreading: 5 Steps to Determine What You Need”

  1. I’ll come back to this post whenever I need to explain the difference between the two. I’m not an editor, but I do edit and proofread a lot of content as a tech writer and instructional designer. These tips can help me explain the differences in the engagement level and expectations.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Jill, and I’m so glad you found this helpful. I’ve published a number of blog posts about different aspects of editing and proofreading that you might find helpful–feel free to poke around in the archives, or if you’re looking for something specific you can always e-mail me at

  2. Candace,
    Thanks for the clarity. I’m not at the point of readiness to need an editor, but when I get there I’ll at least know what to ask for.

Leave a Reply