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Is Freelance Proofreading the Job for You?

Posted on 1st August 2012; minor edit in June 2020

If you've read my other blogs, you'll know what I consider to be the pros and cons of the freelance life, but I thought it would be interesting to share someone else's perspective to help prospective proofreaders make a more informed decision before taking the leap. Thanks to Louise for this guest blog...

Freelance proofreading isn't just about having an eye for detail. Being able to spot spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes will only get you on the first rung. You'll also need to be able to follow your client's instructions - ignore the brief at your peril!

Just as important, however, are the ancillary aspects of freelancing - you still need to get your business up and running and that will require the wearing of many hats. When deciding whether to do this job on a self-employed basis, consider the following:

1. Have you carried out training that is appropriate to the clients you're targeting?
Some clients, like publishers, expect you to mark up using industry-standard proofreading symbols (e.g. BSI proofreading marks) so that you can communicate your amendments quickly and clearly to professional typesetters. You will have to pay attention to layout issues (recognizing and dealing with widows, orphans, and bad word breaks). Non-publishing clients will probably want you to work in Word and be familiar with the Track Changes function. I recommend you visit the website of your national editing/proofreading society to find out what training it recommends to ensure you're fit for purpose.

2. Can you market your business?
Knowing how to sell yourself will be critical if you are to build up a solid client portfolio. You'd be sensible to ensure you have a website outlining your services. Other forms of promotion will also be necessary, including advertising in key directories, cold-calling, and letter/CV mail-outs. What you decide is most effective for you will depend on which market sectors you are targeting. If you're interested in reading more on the joys and pitfalls of various aspects of editorial freelance work, and how to access those markets, take a look at the Work Choices archive on my own blog.

3. Can you network effectively?
If you don't like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, online discussion groups or face-to-face contact, then this job probably isn't for you because:
a) face-to-face networking may be essential if you want to make contact with some client types;
b) getting to know people can generate work - if colleagues come to understand your specialist areas you may get recommended by them or they may sub-contract work to you. In my seven years as a freelance proofreader I've received work from colleagues and handed out key contact leads and job opportunities to people whom I've come to know and respect through networking. I know for a fact that these leads led to regular work for three colleagues in the past two years;
c) networking is a wonderful way to meet fellow freelancers and share ideas. Kate and I have never met in the "real" world [Kate's edit: we have now! We met socially for a weekend camping (!) and again at a CIEP conference]. About a year ago we connected through Twitter. Since then, she's given me insights into aspects of editorial freelance work that I'd hitherto been ignorant of, introduced me to some of her colleagues, and shared her expertise with me. I hope I've been able to reciprocate.

4. Are you disciplined?
Not everyone gets to proofread material that is interesting all of the time. The content of some sets of proofs may be quite dry; cross-checking hundreds of text references against a bibliography isn't particularly thrilling. And in the publishing world, the deadline is not something to be missed. If you're not disciplined enough to sit down in your home office every working day and hit that deadline without someone looking over your shoulder, even when the job isn't setting your soul on fire, get an office job.

5. Are you happy to work alone?
Unless you live with someone who's also work-based in the home, chances are you'll be on your own. Introverts often enjoy the solitude of freelancing. However, those who tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum need not be deterred - there are ways to kick back with colleagues (see my article on editorial freelancing and working alone) but you should be comfortable with spending large chunks of your working day on your own.

6. Do you have strong relationship-building skills?
Whichever sector you're working in, you'll be dealing with people. Building strong relationships with them is essential. They need to feel you are friendly, responsive, and open to constructive feedback; you need to feel they are respectful towards you and that you are confident about politely querying any ambiguities in the brief. No client wants to deal with unfriendly proofreaders who are poor communicators and undiplomatic in their approach. You'll have to be comfortable dealing directly with the likes of students, authors, project managers, in-house production editors and business people, by phone, by email and perhaps face to face. Good liaison skills are a prerequisite for freelance proofreading.

7. 'Time off'
One of the best things about being a freelance proofreader is the ability to take 'time off' when you want to or need to. I put those scare quotes in for a reason, however. Remember, if you do this job you're a business owner, so when you're on vacation you won't be proofreading but you'll still be managing your enterprise. I have a young child who's currently enjoying the six-week school summer hols. I couldn't face a month and a half of evening work, feeling it would impact on the state of my health and the state of my marked-up proofs, so I chose not to take on any proofreading work for the month of August. Today (1st August) is my first day of 'time off'. My child and I did drawing and rather dodgy model-building, watched a film, and walked the dog. We had breakfast, lunch and tea together. It's early evening now, she's in bed, and I'm watching the Olympics with my partner. I haven't been anywhere near a set of proofs because I'm on holiday. I have, however, corresponded by email with client A, who's been poorly; I've responded to client B's email offer of a job in early September; I've taken a phone call from client C, who's booked me in for another job in September; I've corresponded with a colleague on Facebook about directory marketing ideas and SEO; I've scoured Twitter for interesting editorial and publishing news; and I'm now writing this blog post for Kate. OK, so not every day of 'time off' is quite as busy as this, but the business still needs to be maintained even when my red pen is off duty.

If the above seven points don't have you running for the hills, then freelance proofreading may be just the job for you. It takes hard graft, solid business planning, determination and patience to build a successful proofreading business in what is a highly competitive market. A good eye for detail simply isn't enough. However, the flexibility of freelancing and the joy of being paid to work with words are not to be underestimated. I'd not have it any other way!

Written by Louise Harnby, a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.