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Should you live the proofreading 'dream' too?

Posted on 10th January 2011

I receive a lot of emails asking me for advice about the realities of what it's like to be a proofreader so I thought I would write this blog to unearth some of the truths in case anyone reading this is tempted to the dark side. I hope this will be objective and honest, I am not specifically trying to sway your decision either way, and if you want any more information, do not hesitate to contact me directly.

If you have no experience and no friends or contacts within the publishing industry, then this may be your first stumbling block. When I was doing my proofreading course, I had a friend who lived nearby who was a freelance proofreader so in addition to the support I got from my tutor, I had a friend to talk to when I had any queries and a few bits of small work passed my way to practise on. I had also done in-house work so knew a lot of the practical sides of proofreading, I just then needed to consolidate it by learning the official symbols and getting a qualification to bolster my CV and credibility.

My course took me eight months to complete. I was a conscientious student but the tutor needed time to turn the work around so I couldn't have completed it any quicker. I then continued to work to build up my reserves of cash to ensure I could afford some barren months (then I went travelling for a year, not quite relevant or essential for your career path), returned to the UK and spent six months saving up a bit more (the travelling cost a little more than expected, the photo of the iceberg has a lot to answer for) planning and sorting setting up...

If you don't have proofreading experience per se but have worked in the pharmaceutical industry or legal profession for example, then getting a proofreading qualification and specialising in these areas can be lucrative. Your experience in these professions would make you preferable to a generic proofreader who hasn't specialised in these areas. Not that I know first-hand, as I don't have experience in those fields...

I have already written a blog about the pros and cons of freelance work and obviously, they're very relevant to this. Learning to deal with the feast and famine of freelance work can be tricky, for example all the work I had booked in for November fell through so I was left thumb twiddling almost all month. Then I had to work over the Christmas and New Year period as one of my best clients had some urgent work crop up. Yes, I could have said no, but then what if the new proofreader they found to do it became their preferred supplier – I would not only have lost the cash for that job, but potential future earnings too. So yes, you are your own boss and you can pick and choose work, but the repercussions can be immense so sometimes you just have to do it.

Months like my November aren't rare either; if you're becoming a proofreader as your sole income with no financial backing (be it in savings or an 'other half') then you may need to think seriously about the reality of covering your living costs. Yes, one can earn a decent wage, the SfEP states it is possible to earn £25k, but that's not going to happen overnight. Earnings are limited, there's only so many hours in a day, and to be honest, proofreading for more than four or five hours per day can be very tiring on the eyes so the reality of how much work you can take on will depend on those factors too.

Don't get me wrong, I love my job, have found some great clients so all is going well (touch wood) but it's not always so rosy. In short, I would say:

  • If you're coming to proofreading with no previous experience and no contacts in the industry, do some serious research. It will take you time to get a qualification and time to build up some clients so it really isn't something to jump into.
  • If you've got experience in the past, or are still in the industry and are looking to go freelance, then you probably don't need to hear my views, you know the gamble and you know yourself if it's a good one for you.

Written by Kate Haigh.