Proofreaders, Copy Editors, and Editors: Different Roles and Critical Tasks

by Randy Murray on March 12, 2013

Marco Arment, someone who is doing very interesting work in both software and publishing, recently posted a piece on his blog. Something in it caught my attention. It wasn’t the topic of the article. It was this footnote:

A good magazine’s editor would have made me revise it, but single-author blogs don’t usually have editors — this is one of the factors that can distinguish good magazine writing from most blog writing.

“Calm down, Marco: micropublishing is about more than just The Magazine”

Indeed. The tools of today’s Internet allow virtually anyone to publish. It does not, however, insure that their writing is clear and means what the writer intended.

Too many see traditional newspapers and magazines and think of only the beginning and end of the process: the writer and the printing press. They don’t see or think of all of the roles in between. Only the writer and the press are visible. All else is unimportant.

Unfortunately when most people find that they can also take things that they write and publish them online, they don’t consider what else they need.

There are three main roles that are often lumped into the same category by the unknowing crowd. It’s something that they call an “editor.” But the roles are very different, require different skills, and you need all of them if you want to write and publish at a professional level.

  • Proofreader: in publishing, this is the final task. Proofreaders search for imperfections in the words and punctuation. They identify misspelled words, missing commas (or overused ones), and lost sections of words. They are looking for errors. This is the final step before publishing.
  • Copy Editor: writers, good writers, are rarely the complete package. More likely, especially if they are like me, they are rather raw bundles of talent, ideas, and styles. What they produce in their first draft is not ready for public consumption. A copy editor is a partner, someone who may or may not care about the commas at this moment, but who does care about what the writer is trying to say and how they are saying it. They test the ideas, they try and help the writer to bring clarity to that message, and they question the value of what the writer is saying. A good copy editor will help a writer untangle ideas and sentences. A great copy editor will challenge the writer and sometimes tell them, “This is utter crap. Write something else.” No matter how talented the writer, they need someone besides themselves to help shape the work.
  • Editor-In-Chief: The editor of a publication is the person responsible for that publication. They are the ones who choose what will be published, and, more importantly, what will not be published. They shape the messages of the publication over time. For the self-publisher, this is the same person as the writer. For professional publications the editor rarely writes. If an editor does take on the role of writer, someone else will step into the editor role. The editor-in-chief is the gatekeeper.

From my perspective the self-publisher can merge their role as writer with only two of these three other roles before their writing product suffers. In the best case the writer can also work as proofreader at the end of the process. Here, on this site, I am the writer and editor-in-chief. I do perform the final proofreading, but I am not my own copy editor. If you enjoy what you read here and have enjoyed it over time it is because I have a top-flight copy editor. Penny challenges me. She argues with me. She sometimes insists that what I’ve written is not right, not good enough, and not clearly thought out. She is not infallible, but she is the next thing to it.

If you aspire to write and to publish I urge you to expand your team beyond just yourself. “I can’t afford it” is not a valid excuse. “It takes too long,” is an admission that your standards are too low. Your work will suffer if you do not build a team as carefully as you construct your work. If you are careless about your work, if you don’t care enough, you will publish without testing your work, without making it the best it can be. Urgency is not an excuse for bad writing. Authenticity isn’t increased by errors and muddy prose.

The three editorial roles are as important as they’ve ever been. It’s your job to find a way to get them all done right. Only then will your writing work begin to reach its full potential.

The Proofreaders, Copy Editors, and Editors: Different Roles and Critical Tasks by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard March 13, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Was that typo on copy editors intentional? ;-)

Good point: most people don’t understand how valuable editors are in the creative process. It’s like in software development: product managers and code reviews can keep things optimally bounded.


Randy Murray March 14, 2013 at 7:22 am

Alas, the fault is entirely my own!


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