There are a lot of terms for the person responsible for editing another person’s content. You can be a Copy Editor, a Proofreader, a Content Editor, a Managing Editor. Sometimes even a plain old Editor edits the copy. What gets confusing to me, when there are so many titles that encompass a few specific tasks, is what they really mean across the board.

If my definition of the term is different than yours, there’s a chance expectations won’t get met. On the flip side, this miscommunication can also lead to me looking like a snobby ass who’s doing too much to your content to ‘fix’ it.

I typically have a lot to say when I read someone else’s work. This includes my keen eye for finding typos, which I sadly do often in published materials too (yes, I talk back to books when I find a mistake.)

So, how do you avoid this confusion?

First, before we muddle the job terminology as it applies to one’s position, here’s what I think the difference is between say a proofreader and a copy editor.

A proofreader is only checking for grammar, spelling and punctuation. The assumption is that the copy is correct as far as substance goes and it just needs that final polish.

A copy editor gets a draft at an earlier stage. They need to do the proofreading stuff AND need to look at formatting consistencies, highlight awkward passages and sentence structures, make boarder edit suggestions and help the piece look and sound its best. This is a much bigger job.

Someone may ask you to copy edit their work, but they really want you to just proof it. You have to be careful and make sure you understand if their definition matches your own.

Shortly after college, I worked with a well-known author as a research assistant. It was a totally random connection made by me getting in her face after a reading and asking if she needed help. She did, I helped, and then she gave me the draft of her book to look at. It was pretty much done. Any edits I had should have been on the proofreading tip, but I was in my 20’s, thought I knew it all, and added edits like a copy editor.

I believe I got a thank you, a mention in the acknowledgements section and that was the last we spoke. Looking back, I definitely overstepped.

This experience taught me to be wary, and to ask for role clarification.

Fast forward 20 years and I get asked to edit books on two different occasions that a friend has written. With the first book, I was the unofficial, first-round editor. The author had someone else do an edit ‘officially.’ For the second book, it was all me.

This time around, I very clearly asked her how much editing she wanted me to do. I had been asked to be the copy editor, but I wasn’t sure if that meant helping with structure and formatting, or just checking for clarity and grammar.

Luckily, I got to do all the editing, and working together, I feel like we created a polished and professional book that will help a lot of people.

Both situations I reference happened outside of a full-time job. I think, when you have a job title, with spelled out responsibilities, this confusion isn’t so rampant. The problem is more apparent for freelancers. Every client has different needs, different opinions on capitalization, commas and editing definitions. The trick is to ask, never assume that editor means doing it all. Ripping something apart and rewriting it, even if you make it better, isn’t worth it if you’ll offend your client.

Given all this, my preference is always to be the editor. Correcting grammar is great, and I do that a lot with my own work, but I really enjoy being more involved with the creation of a piece. Even if I’m not the author, collaborating to tweak and perfect their content, being able to make suggestions and get excited about their ideas, is so powerful. I love that push-and-pull and cherish every opportunity I have to edit.

It’s especially rewarding working with a younger person, newer to the writing game. I like to think that I’m teaching them something in the same way those who edit my content continue to teach me. It’s that ‘thing’ about writing — you could write and rewrite forever, the work never has to be done, but with a strong editor, you find that place where your writing feels good.

Based on my own experiences, I can honestly tell you that a good writer is really someone who continually works on their craft and spends time both creating work of their own and editing the work of others. It’s a great way to keep your writing fresh by opening yourself up to other styles and voices. You can read everything there is out there, but when you’re editing you’re truly seeing it, and that can leave a lasting impression that makes you better at what you do.