Kateproof offers an affordable and efficient proofreading service

Should you live the proofreading 'dream' too?

Original version posted on 10th January 2011; heavily edited and amended 9th June 2020

I often receive emails asking me for advice about the realities of what it's like to be a freelance proofreader, and in the wake of Covid-19, I seem to be getting a glut of enquiries. I thought it was therefore a good time to edit this post to bring this up to date and hopefully make it more useful for those people looking to set up a freelance proofreading and/or editing business. I appreciate some people are being forced to look at freelancing options or changing career paths, and that pressure and urgency might make some of what I say less valid, but I will carry on anyway and hopefully you the reader can pick and choose elements to take away and ponder, and perhaps choose to ignore other aspects.

If you have no experience and no friends or contacts within the freelance proofreading and/or publishing industry, then this might make the transition quite hard (but not impossible, and I imagine setting up any business would be hard, so it's not meant as a deterrent). When I was doing my proofreading course (the course has been updated and amended since I did it in 2007/08, but I believe this is still regarded as one of the most comprehensive proofreading courses, available via distance learning), 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, but I needed to consolidate it by learning the official symbols and getting a qualification to bolster my CV and credibility.

Since I was starting out, numerous courses have become available, many of them online, so it is definitely worth reviewing options. Some of the courses now focus more on specific sectors, such as fiction editing or line-editing, which might be more worthwhile if this is the genre/market you're hoping to get into. My course took almost a year to complete, with quite a lot of time spent waiting for the tutor to return the modules. Shorter, more instant courses might help you gain the confidence to make a start on setting up while perhaps completing more comprehensive training alongside. Although working on hard copy is less and less common, the skills taught in the more traditional courses really do give a great foundation of the industry, how the publishing process works, and of course the nuts and bolts required to do a thorough job.

Social media has come a long way, and there are lots of online groups to share information, ask questions and feel part of a community of likeminded professional proofreaders and editors. Rather than emailing me for my one perspective on becoming a proofreader, it might be better to join some of these groups and ask questions, read older posts and get involved. What works for me might not work for you, so it's definitely worth trying to get a bigger understanding of the industry.

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.

Some key points

One of the main comments I see in emails from people keen to become a proofreader is that they hate typos and spot loads when reading. This is all well and good, but perhaps surprisingly, spotting typos is not the only thing to consider in this line of business. I don't want to repeat Louise Harnby's wonderful guest post about what is involved in offering a freelance proofreading service but thought I would mention some of the other things a proofreader needs to consider:
  • It goes without saying that the job involves correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, some of those punctuation elements, for example, are not things that are necessarily taught at school or things you will have consciously considered before, such as where punctuation goes relative to quotation marks and whether to use a hyphen, en dash or em dash.
  • Formatting has changed a lot with the technology advances of recent years, so marking up files using Word styles might now be more common than manual mark-up using BSI symbols. Understanding kerning, leading, widows, orphans and general publishing norms (which of course change so need to be kept abreast of) is essential, whether working for publishers, self-publishers or even academics.
  • I work on a variety of texts and love this, while others focus on more specific sectors, be it academic or fiction. Whatever sector(s) you choose to focus on, it's essential you understand the nuances of writing, editing and proofreading for that. Punctuating and formatting dialogue, including dialogue tags, is very specific, and it's essential if working on fiction that an editor or proofreader has a grasp of that. It might be that an author wants to play around and break the rules, but the rules need to be understood before they are broken.
  • Carrying on from the above, it's essential to understand that the author might not want to follow rules or norms, and it takes confidence to help them achieve this but also to know when to push back and say when you think something does not work. The way to word the queries and comments will also likely make or break your repeat custom base, not to mention your word-of-mouth referrals, both of which are essential for the maintenance of your business.
  • It's important to understand the differences between developmental editing, critiques, copy-editing and proofreading, to name but some of the publishing processes. Working out which skills you want to hone and offer is important, not only for your own job satisfaction but also to ensure you're clear about what you're offering to whom (you might edit and proofread fiction but only want to proofread non-fiction, for example).
  • I believe there are low barriers to entry with proofreading, which makes it a popular option for people thinking about changing career, especially if they enjoy reading. But reading all day for work is not the same as reading for pleasure. I primarily work on screen, making use of macros and software. I am significantly more productive now I am back in my own home office (after a few years spent travelling and working) so setting up a decent workspace, making sure you have the best monitor you can afford/fit, having up-to-date software and reliable home internet will all have a big impact. All this is in addition to marketing, finance, admin and business planning skills required for the long-term success of your freelance proofreading business.

Hopefully the above is a taster of things to consider before/as you make the leap. Of course, the training and learning doesn't stop once the freelance business is up and running, but it's probably best I don't overload you with details of CPD, tax, business reviews and business maintenance at this stage. I have many other blog posts about the realities of being a proofreader, so I suggest you review those too, especially the Q&A series with a few colleagues, including all the PDFs, and the follow-up series after we'd all been in business for a while.

Written by Kate Haigh.