Do You Need a Proofread?

I see this discussion a lot on message boards like Reddit and Kboards: if your manuscript has been copy edited, do you need to get it proofread, too? The short answer is yes, most likely. I’m an enormous advocate of doing two or more editing passes. In this post, I’ll outline why.

How Editing Works in the Trad Publishing World

In the world of traditional publishing, a book goes through at least two phases of editing. Most often, it will go through three or more.

First, the book receives a developmental edit. This improves the big-picture, structural aspects of a book like plot, character development, scene structure, and so on.

Next comes copy or line editing (or both), which improves sentence-level things like grammar, clarity, and readability.

Finally, the book will be typeset and then proofread. The proofreader picks out the last remaining input errors before the book is published.

The Indie Difference

Indie authors are on a budget. Producing a quality book is expensive, and in most cases, authors are fronting the money for covers, editing, formatting, and marketing from their own bank accounts.

However, as the indie scene develops and the self-publishing industry matures, competition is getting fierce. A good product is more important than ever, and the best way to make a good product is to mimic how traditional publishers produce books. That means doing more than one editing pass.

Why You (Probably) Need Two (or More) Edits

The differences between developmental editing, copy/line editing, and proofreading are enormous. They also build on each other like the layers of a pyramid. If the bottom of a pyramid is shaky or incomplete, the rest will tumble down.

I don’t do developmental editing, but some sort of developmental work is important. Developmental editors are very expensive, so I often suggest that indie authors seek out alpha or beta readers to review their first drafts. Both are usually cheap and often free, and they’ll point out parts of your story that need improvement. If you can afford developmental editing, though, it’s worth it, because you’ll get much better feedback. (I can recommend a good developmental editor if you’re in the market.)

Now, why do you need to separate copy editing and proofreading? In nine out of ten cases, I strongly recommend that my clients purchase a copy edit and then a proofread. Like I noted above, copy editing and proofreading are two layers in the pyramid. Without doing both, the structure is incomplete.

“But, Bodie, why can’t you do both at one time? Shouldn’t the copy edit fix all the mistakes?”

Yes and no. Copy editing and proofreading require the brain to do two very different things. Copy editing looks at sentence-level issues relating to grammar and syntax and pays attention to issues with consistency and usage. Proofreading, on the other hand, looks exclusively for mistakes—for example, “from” vs. “form,” an extra “and” here, or a missing “of” there.

While I copy edit, I make every effort to ensure that the text is error-free, but the problem is that the human brain is conditioned to identify patterns. It’s also darn good at remembering things. Consequently, if I rework the grammar or syntax of a sentence and then immediately reread it to fix any remaining input errors or typos, my brain sometimes won’t see them. In other words, when my brain is in copy editing mode, it will contextualize tiny errors and make them part of the bigger picture. Unless I take a break and switch to proofreading mode, I won’t physically see a tiny mistake, even if I reread the sentence fifty times. (That actually makes it worse.)

Here’s an example of what I mean. Right now, your brain is in reading mode. Thus, you’re probably able to raed thsi setnecne enve thoghu teh worsd aern’t spellde rihgt.

Copy editing and proofreading should be viewed as two independent but necessary steps in the process of producing a book. Consider this analogy. Let’s say I have holes in my living room wall. To fix the problem, I need to (1) cut out or tear down the existing drywall, (2) put up new drywall, and then (3) plaster and paint. To simply throw on a coat of paint won’t fix my walls. They’ll look a bit better, sure, but they won’t be fixed. Alternatively, I need to put the new drywall up before I can plaster and paint it.

Think of the stages of editing the same way. Address the structural/developmental aspects of your story first (i.e., tear down the old drywall). Then copy/line edit to improve the grammar and readability (i.e., put up new drywall) before proofreading to correct the final mistakes (i.e., plaster and paint).


Can this get expensive? Yes, it can. Like I mentioned above, you can usually get good feedback on your story, character development, dialogue, etc. from beta readers. When it comes to polishing your text, though, don’t forego proofreading after line or copy editing. It’s going to cost a bit more to do that second and final editing pass, but the end product will be much improved and more professional. I try to keep my copy editing price low to encourage authors to also get a subsequent proofread. Indeed, most opt to do just that, and they’re always happy with the end product.

A word of caution: be wary of editors who claim they can do more than one of these three stages at once. That’s promising too much. When I hire a contractor to fix my walls, I don’t expect him/her to do everything in one step. Similarly, your editor(s) should be approaching your manuscript like a contractor would approach my walls: methodical and step by step. Finally, you wouldn’t leave your walls unpainted, so why would you skip the proofread? You put a lot of work into your book, so give it the thorough attention it deserves.

Get Free Email Updates!

Sign up now and receive an email when I publish new content.

I will never give away, trade, or sell your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.