What’s the difference between a copywriter and a proofreader?


A guest blog by Gill Pavey of Wordhouse Writing Services

Wordhouse-160WFrom time to time I am contacted by people enquiring about my services, who clearly have absolutely no idea what a proofreader does. I’ve fielded various eyebrow-raising questions and it’s become something of a conversation stopper at social gatherings when talk turns to occupations, as everyone goes quiet as soon as I say the word proofreader. I don’t know why; proofreaders have been around for centuries in one form or another and I suspect that copywriters also get similarly inappropriate enquiries. There are also people who are unsure of the difference between a proofreader and a copywriter, so here it is from my perspective.

Proofreaders and copywriters have different skills, and in some respects they are opposites. A copywriter is a highly specialist writer who works mainly in a technical, sales or marketing arena of the commercial sector while a proofreader is a specialist in the English language in almost any context working on anything from academic papers to a novel.

Copywriting clients are more often businesses, but a proofreader’s client list may not include any businesses at all, apart from publishers. They appear at opposite ends of the process of generating text – a copywriter is in at the beginning and proactive, the proofreader arrives at the final point before it is published or printed and acts as a quality control measure.

On the other hand, there is an overlap of skills at the boundaries. A copywriter is likely to have some knowledge of proofreading via a module of their training; many proofreaders are also writers of a sort, and they may write copy for their own flyers or website. However, the reality faced by even the most competent technician who leans over into another specialism is that perhaps it’s not really what they are best at. Proofreading as a part of formal copywriter training is likely to be limited to what is most relevant to copy writing; spelling, grammar and punctuation, without the more obscure parts. This is a common perception of the role of the proofreader: to point out errors in these areas and correct or mark-up the text accordingly. Of course this is within the job description; in fact, it’s quite a lot of it but it doesn’t stop there.

With roots in the traditional book and magazine publishing world and depending on the material, the proofreader’s work may also include checking that captions are under the correct illustrations, chapter titles haven’t changed on the contents page, the decision between “-ise” endings and “-ize” has been consistently applied, and the same font has been used throughout unless expressly directed otherwise.

The list goes on; for example, a proofreader may have to ensure compliance with a style guide of up to 40 pages, or make up their own to check consistency and resolve any conflicts of style over “rules”. Mark-up can involve applying BSI approved marks to the pages of hard copy manuscripts, or correcting a Word/PDF document on-screen. There may be a wide range of writing styles from one document or manuscript to another and some will require particular, subject-specific knowledge. From theses to blockbuster novels via blogs on pig farming, all need to be viewed slightly differently. A proofreader carries beyond where the straightforward checkers of spelling, punctuation and grammar leave off, and provides the quality control function that ensures that someone else’s written words are up to standard.*

Both professions are still going to get enquiries for jobs that really are not for them because people don’t understand what each service provides. We are both specialists in the world of words but a little information and advice given to callers together with a willingness to point clients towards each other from time to time, might help.

Gill Pavey MSc, ACMA, GCMA, Dip. Proofreading, SfEP Associate

Gill Pavey is the founder of Wordhouse Writing Services, providing proofreading and copy editing services to businesses, academics, students and writers.

*For more information on proofreading, visit www.sfep.org.uk/pub/faqs/fproof.asp

7 Responses to What’s the difference between a copywriter and a proofreader?

  1. This is very true. As a copywriter, I am often asked if I can “proof” something. Clients think that this will mean I’ll substantially rewrite large chunks of the text. They also think it is a quick and cheap job. I don’t think the differences will ever be clear to people outside the sector though, so we just have to keep explaining.

    I shall save this blog post as a quick link to send them in future!

  2. Thanks for your comment Andal. Leave it with us and we’ll write a follow-up blog on the subject.

  3. I’ve done both, but I look at proofreading mostly as fixing grammar/spelling mistakes and also as a book designer having to find the space to muscle in a photo where the authour wants it, suggest making changes to the text to make it larger or smaller as needed yet not losing the original meaning of the text.

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