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Q & A for people looking to be a proofreader

Posted on 24th February 2013; reviewed and updated 24th January 2020

I know I'm not alone in receiving lots of queries from people looking to become a freelance proofreader or copy-editor so I decided to write a blog post with the aim of answering some of the more common questions. However, one of the key issues with this line of work is that different people furrow different channels, coming from different backgrounds and with different expectations. Consequently, I thought I'd ask a few other proofreaders with different experience to answer the same set of queries in the hope of providing more of a cross-section and to highlight the fact that there is no right or wrong way: there is only your way.

Full transcripts of the five questionnaires are linked at the bottom of this blog, but I thought I would summarise the details in a slightly shorter version here.

What made you want to be a freelance proofreader/editor?
As you might expect, everyone's answers were completely different, some with in-house experience, others with experience of writing and others taking a gamble while young and carefree. There is no right or wrong answer to this, though if you think it's a sure-fire way to make millions, you may need to re-assess.

What experience did you have and why did you think you'd be suitable?
It's surprising to see that not many of us had prior experience, but an interest in language, reading, writing and the publishing industry as a whole is useful. Doing a course to determine your own suitability may be a good starting point if you are totally new to the idea and don't have friends or contacts who have the time to really explain the ins and outs of the job.

What made you choose a certain training course and would you recommend it?
A common theme among SfEP members is the recommendation for the PTC distance proofreading course. Louise, Richard and I all completed this prior to/alongside setting up our businesses and would all recommend the course - we've got experience of publishers saying they will only use people who have done the PTC course, and though a lot of the work nowadays is hard copy, the skills and ideas we learned on the course are transferable to all work, including for businesses and students.

That said, as Nick highlights, other courses may be sufficient if you don't want to work for publishers, though having a degree (in any subject) possibly helps with working for students and businesses.

Charlie's not named and shamed the course he did, but gives an example of where some courses really aren't much help so it is worth doing the research first before parting with your cash for the course. I personally think that anyone with absolutely no background in the world of editing/proofreading may gain from doing the course before deciding whether to spend more time and money on alternative courses.

How people learn, how much time/cash you have, whether you want to be on the SfEP directory and what clients you hope to work for will all have an impact on what course suits you.

What is worth noting is that all five of us did at least one course regardless of whether we had in-house experience or not.

Edit in 2020: It's now over 12 years since I completed the PTC course, and not only have many new training offerings appeared on the market, but also the overall editing and proofreading industry has changed. I still value my original PTC training (updated to be called Essential Proofreading: Editorial Skills One) but with so many new options available, from big name organisations to individual experienced editors, I think anyone looking to become a freelance proofreader or editor now would be best doing their own thorough research. Another key suggestion is to ask potential clients what training or experience they want or expect.

What contacts did you have before you started out?
The main question I get (and know others asked here get too) is 'How do I find clients?' The harsh reality is there is no set answer to this and your skills and background will determine who you are going to target.

Most of us had no contacts at all and had to start from scratch so it can be done, but this is where the business planning and marketing skills come in - if you have no contacts and no desire to market yourself, this may not be the career for you.

Who/what was your key target market when starting out and how did you hope to attract them?
We all had a mix here but it seems that specialising or choosing a target market (even if it's an arbitrary one) is a good way to start. This means you can focus your marketing/CVs/cover letters etc. specifically to your target audience.

Direct marketing with publishers gets mixed reviews, though Louise and Richard have both had a lot of success this way. It's always worth making sure you have the relevant person's email address/phone number so that your email/letter/call gets to the right person. Also, think about how many other people take this option and try and make your CV/email stand out.

If you're aiming for business or student clients, a website is critical and then face-to-face networking may also reap rewards with local businesses, though word-of-mouth referrals from them will soon see your clients spread geographically (e.g. via a meeting in Leamington Spa and working for someone there, they recommended me to a business acquaintance in Yorkshire, and via a referral, that led to me working on files for clients in Washington DC and Nigeria).

How have you built on those contacts/developed your business since then?
Testimonials and word-of-mouth referrals are important for building on the client base. Don't be afraid to ask for these at the end of every project with a new client - many people say they struggle to write marketing material for themselves so why not let your clients do it for you?

Interestingly, we all have a website and find that work often finds us and as a result we don't do that much active marketing. Again, Louise, Richard and I find our SfEP membership has helped us build our client base, but online directories, building up your website and tweaking SEO will also help.

What value do you get from SfEP membership? If you're not a member, are you a member of other groups and do you feel you're missing out on anything?
For those of us who are members of the SfEP, our status as associates was useful for the advice we got via forums and the local groups, but we all feel that upgrading was worth the effort as we get decent leads and work via the directory.

Interestingly, Charlie and Nick, both of whom aren't members, cite time/effort as the reason for not joining and this is worth considering. You don't have to be proactive in the Society, but as Nick says, you get out what you put in and just by joining, even at Professional level and therefore eligible for a directory listing, it won't guarantee you work. LinkedIn groups and other social networks may provide the friends and contacts you need/want, not to mention the numerous general freelance communities/groups you could join if you don't want to join the SfEP.

I don't want to read too much between the lines, but Charlie and Nick as non-members also offer copywriting, whereas Louise, Richard and I offer copy-editing and proofreading alone (Richard's also an author but that doesn't have a regular revenue stream). It may well be that for people focusing just on the proofreading/editing, membership of the SfEP has more value whereas if you're offering other lines of work, perhaps it's less significant. Who knows?

What, if any, negatives are there to being a freelance proofreader/editor?
Negatives or challenges are obviously going to crop up in any job, and being a freelance editor or proofreader is no exception. The main themes are:

  • There are downtimes and troughs where no work means no money - sometimes these can last a day or two, sometimes a month or two. Having savings or financial back-up is advisable for any freelancer regardless of how long you've been working.
  • Conversely, there are peaks of work that may require doing long days or working evenings and weekends. You can of course say no, but then will that client use someone else on all projects in future?
  • It can be lonely and the success or failure of your business rests (almost) solely on you. Some people may see the 'peripheral' tasks of marketing, admin, IT etc. as a challenge, or worse still, a negative element. Others will see this as a positive (says she, the spreadsheet geek).

Top tips
Here are the summarised top tips from Charlie, Nick, Louise, Richard and me:
  • Think of yourself as a business owner first, and a freelancer second - remember you need other skills for the business to succeed e.g. marketing, admin, IT and finance.
  • Do your business planning at the outset to avoid surprises further down the road.
  • Be a specialist first and diversify later.
  • Be aware of your own failings and knowledge gaps. CPD and having the funds to build on your skills is an essential part of keeping the business going.
  • Network in a way that's comfortable for you. Options include social networks, SfEP local groups and breakfast meetings.
  • Be prepared to strike deals and cut your fees if economic times are tough or if you're not getting work but do not work for peanuts. Some people have worked for free to get experience/references but this doesn't work for every freelancer or every publisher/business.
  • Have some web presence and get testimonials and reviews from clients for your website/directory listings. With strong competition and people wary about paying someone they've never met, having reviews adds legitimacy and eases clients' fears.
  • Read widely about editing and proofreading. There is a lot of information out there.

I hope this blog and the PDFs help answer some of your queries if you're just starting out. These views and opinions are solely those of us five and I am sure many other freelancers will have different responses and ideas. New training options always come onto the market and older versions change so what was right for us when we were starting out may not be right for you now.
If you still wish to contact me/us for advice on starting out in the industry feel free to get in touch but please be specific in your queries.

Why Kate chose to become a freelance proofreader
Why Nick chose to become a freelance proofreader
Why Richard chose to become a freelance proofreader
Why Charlie chose to become a freelance proofreader
Why Louise chose to become a freelance proofreader

Written by Kate Haigh.