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Do you need to know BSI symbols when proofreading for non-publishers?

Posted on 26th January 2014

I often hear from people looking to start out as a freelance proofreader and the queries can range from quite generic ones about how to find clients (which I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer for and definitely no magic wand) to more specific ones, like recently when someone asked if knowing the BSI proofreading symbols is necessary when working with students and business clients.

In answer to this specific query, I'd say that though most independent authors, students and business clients I work with use Word and the Track Changes function or PDF and sticky notes, some (though this has only happened once or twice) may prefer to send a hard copy or a PDF for me to mark up with BSI symbols. With paper-based work, if the client doesn't know the symbols, adding a top sheet at the front of the file to explain some of the more widely used symbols may make things much easier, especially if there are quite a few changes and not much space for your squiggly handwriting.

I'd also emphasise that your business is an evolving entity so though you may plan to start out working for businesses and students, a traditional publisher/journal client may get in touch at some point and offer you work that requires you to use BSI symbols and it would be a shame to turn that work away.

Finally, and maybe it's an unfair bias of mine as I do know and use them, but knowing the BSI symbols suggests you've had official training or decent experience of using them and this can only add to the validity of your proofreading business. It's unfortunate but there are lots of proofreaders out there offering the service who have never worked in the industry or done any training so anything you can do to help you stand out from the crowd will only be of benefit in the long run.

If you've learnt the symbols in the past but don't feel overly confident with them, I suggest finding a quiet time in your schedule and reacquainting yourself with them. The CIEP sells a quick reference card for them (cheaper if you're a member) so it's possibly worth getting one.

Edited in March 2020 after the Society for Editors and Proofreaders became the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

Written by Kate Haigh.