Proofreading vs Copyediting vs Markup - what's the difference?

“Proofreading” is a catch-all term used by most non-translators, including the clients of translators, to describe all actions aimed at improving the quality of a text. This term is often used incorrectly. In a nutshell, preparation of a document’s final version (post-translation) can be divided into three* stages: copyediting, proofreading, and markup. How do they differ and which one did you actually have in mind? I’ll try my best to briefly explain this topic.

Dictionary.com defines copyediting as “editing (a manuscript, document, text, etc.) for publication, especially for punctuation, spelling, grammatical structure, style, etc.” while proofreading is defined as “reading (printers’ proofs, copy, etc.) in order to detect and mark errors to be corrected.” Similar definitions can be found on Wikipedia: copyediting is “reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose” while proofreading is defined as “the reading of a galley proof or an electronic copy of a publication to detect and correct production errors of text or art.” Of course the references to galley proofs and physical typesetting are rather outdated, but you may have noticed some differences in the overall meaning of those definitions. Dictionary.com defines markup as “detailed instructions, usually written on a manuscript to be typeset, concerning style of type, makeup of pages, and the like.”   This information can pertain to formatting (title, subline, subsections, subheadings, footnotes/endnotes, tables, images, graphs and their descriptions/locations in the text, information about fonts, italics, bold text, etc.), print aesthetics, design of columns, technical and typographical errors and how to correct them. Sometimes, companies specialising in the publication of texts use the following terms: “first reading,” second reading,” and “third reading.” Those terms refer to, respectively: copyediting, proofreading, and markup.

Simply put, copyediting covers the broadest range of tasks – it includes proofreading (checking for linguistic errors – spelling, punctuation, inflection, syntax, vocabulary, or stylistic errors), verifying substantive accuracy (checking sources and names) as well as normative accuracy (e.g. checking if the footnotes are properly aligned). Moreover, copyediting is performed to ensure the message is conveyed well – stylistically, logically, and compositionally consistent. As you can see, copyeditors have a lot more work to do than proofreaders since they not only have to be well-versed in language rules but also must have some knowledge and experience in the subject matter of the text they are reviewing. Proofreading – done separately despite being part of copyediting – guarantees that a text is completely free from linguistic errors and ready to be published in this regard. A proofreader must be a language expert but does not necessarily need to be well-versed in the subject matter of a given text. Markup (usually called “post-DTP”), performed after typesetting, is performed in order to identify and remove typographical errors.

Which one should you choose? Can you sacrifice one in favour of the other? Well, yes and no. It all depends on text verification arrangements made with contractors. As I’ve already mentioned, copyediting is the widest and most challenging process (as well as the most expensive and time-consuming). Therefore, all texts delegated to copyeditors should be free of linguistic, substantive, and logical errors to the largest extent possible. Authors of highly specialised texts can choose just proofreading if they are certain of their texts’ substantive correctness but are not sure about their language quality. In those situations, authors can order just proofreading services and not concern themselves with checking the substantive correctness of their texts since they take full responsibility for that aspect. This is often the choice when dealing with texts pertaining to niche areas or those that require advanced, specialised knowledge on a particular topic. For those texts, one may confidently assume that it would be rather difficult to find a copyeditor possessing a level of specialised knowledge comparable to that of the text’s author. However, if you expect to receive a file that is print-ready or can be published on the Internet without any additional work, I should make it clear that you don’t want to order just copyediting and proofreading – you will also need markup/post-DTP services.

Of course no sensible person expects their clients to learn the nuanced differences between those processes. Clients just want to receive properly verified files. On the other hand, if you order the wrong service you may be surprised that it does not cover what you were counting on. That’s why it’s worthwhile explaining and learning about these differences to avoid misunderstandings or frantic last minute work to meet the looming deadlines.

*In practice, companies and translation agencies rarely offer separate markup/post-DTP services. This means that copyedited texts may require additional typesetting and page makeup work if they are to be printed.