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Why proofreading? Charlie Hankers

Posted on 24th February 2013

Charlie Hankers, copywriter, copy editor and proofreader
Freelance since 1997

charlie@gpuss.co.uk
www.gpuss.com

What made you want to be a freelance proofreader/editor?

I don't think I had even considered it until I saw an advert in a newspaper requesting people who were good at spotting errors. The advert turned out to be for a mail-order course, even though it looked a bit like a job. I thought it was something I'd be good at. Indeed I was already doing it in an unofficial capacity for the company I worked for - I'd have documents shoved under my nose all the time. It was a photographic lab, by the way. It was the mid-1990s and they were just beginning to branch out into digital imaging and graphic design.

What experience did you have and why did you think you'd be suitable?

None whatsoever! Apart from the abovementioned 'course', I was simply throwing myself into the job. It's just something I thought I could do and I suppose I was young and foolish enough to try it.

What training did you do before starting out and why did you choose that option?

I suppose I need to describe the course I studied. I paid about £100 if I remember correctly, and what I got was some stapled-together photocopied pages in a brown envelope. One set had the proofreading symbols and some basic instructions on their use; another was a 20-page manuscript; and finally there was an answer sheet. I had to read it, spot the errors and mark it up. Yippee. I was a qualified proofreader. Or so I thought.

I consider myself immensely lucky to get my first work from a Manchester-based typesetter, Servis Filmsetting. They are a real quality outfit with great people, experts in their field, and they work for first-class publishing houses on academic and legal works, fiction, guide books... everything, really. I learnt more in my first week with them than I did from the course. I think they took me under their wing a little bit; and over time they gave me more complicated jobs to tackle until about a year in I could do anything. I freelanced for them for the best part of a decade, so you could say my training was on-the-job. Because all the work was comparison proofreading, I'd get to see the original manuscript with the editor's marks as well as the galley proofs. This was an education in itself.

What contacts did you have before you started out?

Very few. Once I had decided to seek this kind of work, I sent out a few dozen speculative letters to publishers and typesetters and hoped for the best. (This really isn't sounding very professional! But hey, I was young.) The vast majority were ignored.

Who/what was your key target market when starting out and how did you hope to attract them?

It was almost exclusively publishers. It never occurred to me at the start to look for work in other places. Anyway, I wanted to read books. It was only when I made my first website, gpuss.co.uk, in around 1997 that work started to come my way from other businesses. The penny dropped; I didn't have to work for publishers. I was proofing websites, pamphlets, brochures and such like. That said, I did get quite a lot of work from small independent publishers who found me through the website.

How have you built on those contacts/developed your business since then?

I've never written speculative letters since those first days. As I say, I consider myself lucky in that respect and I don't think my case is typical, but a single client got me through my first year - they were very busy. All my business since then has come from the website or from connections made through businesses I've worked for. I'm a terrible networker; I've been to networking events and I'm no good at butting in to other people's conversations to talk about myself. I realise that a lot of people are good at this, but I'm just not. I have taught myself a lot about web marketing.

I wrote a proofreading course in 2003. It's aimed at people like me - those not uncomfortable dealing with English but who perhaps need some help developing the skills required of a proofreader (i.e. it's the opposite of the course I did). It's based on my own experiences and deals heavily with punctuation and typesetting.

My biggest career step was probably my lurch into copywriting. I started doing this around 2000 and now I write more than I proofread. It's mainly commercial copy but I've written a few books for people too.

You're not a member of the SfEP - do you feel you are missing out on anything as a result or are you a member of other groups or associations?

I'm not in any other groups and, as you already know, I'm not in the SfEP. There was never any particular reason for this; I've always had a steady stream of work and I didn't see how joining such a society could help. I don't think I'd have enough time to develop a profile in a society; I could only spread myself thinly. I guess my forum is a kind of group, although I'm trying to develop it into something more akin to a cult.

What, if any, negatives are there to being a freelance proofreader/editor?

Oh, there are negatives. Ignore what I said up there about steady streams of work - of course there are down times. My clients don't all have a weekly meeting to decide who sends work to me when. But the flipside is that there are also times when I'm putting in 12-hour days to keep everyone happy. The Hemingway quote "Write drunk; edit sober" sort of applies here, only with fatigue substituted for drunkenness. In other words, do the editing when you're bright and breezy and write when you're spooning instant coffee into your nostrils - you can always edit it the next day.

I do worry that after being my own boss for so long I am probably unemployable, at least in the minds of certain employers. I've had a few contracts that resemble full-time work, 9 to 5 jobs in an office for several consecutive weeks, and I can gladly report that I was fine and everyone loved me. Just in case you're a potential employer googling me in 2015.

What are your top tips for someone looking to start out?

  • Be aware of your own failings and knowledge gaps. We all have them but they're balanced out by positive knowledge. Always be straight with clients; they would rather have you admit weaknesses than try to wing it.
  • Network in a way that's comfortable for you. Remember you're born into a network (family) and join networks semi-voluntarily throughout your life (schools, neighbourhoods, clubs, people you get the train with). Make sure everyone knows what you do. I have won some lucrative work through playing an online motor racing game, for example, simply by 'meeting' a business owner on there. Yes, I let him win. Networking isn't just about business breakfasts, but if you think you can cut it with the crumpeters, go for it.
  • Be prepared to strike deals and cut your fees if economic times are tough or if you're not getting work. Your fees might be part of the problem. Needless to say, don't work for peanuts (that rarely works out) as proofreading is a skilled job, but recognise that it is relatively competitive and that your rivals can nowadays be anywhere in the world. Pricing is always a lively topic on the forum, and there's an element of cloak and dagger about it, but never forget that you need to be competitive as well as profitable.

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Written by Kate Haigh.