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Why proofreading? Louise Harnby

Posted on 24th February 2013

Louise Harnby, proofreader
Freelance since 2005


What made you want to be a freelance proofreader/editor?

I'd worked in publishing for many years, though in a marketing capacity. I loved my in-house role but my job required me to be in the office from nine to five. Additionally there was a lot of international travel involved. The company I worked for has a wonderful philosophy with regard to care for its staff, but after I had a child I wanted still more flexibility in my work/home life arrangements. Editorial freelancing was the perfect way to combine my love of publishing with my domestic preferences.

What experience did you have and why did you think you'd be suitable?

I had a background in publishing, social science publishing in particular. Although I was a marketeer, I'd always worked as part of a team comprising colleagues from production, acquisitions, sales, distribution and finance. This gave me a solid grounding in the business of publishing and how publishers operate. I also have a degree in politics. Combined, my educational and career backgrounds had taught me the language of the social sciences and the language of publishing. I felt that with the right practical training, I could strategically apply this knowledge base in order to access a specific sector of the editorial freelancing market.

You did the Publishing Training Centre's course - what made you choose that course and would you recommend it?

I would indeed recommend it. There a many options for editorial training in the UK and choosing the right one for you is, I believe, an important step to get right. For me, the PTC's distance learning course was the only option for three reasons:

  1. The PTC is one of only a few publishing industry-recognized training providers. When I set up my proofreading business, I'd elected to specialize in the social science publisher market. I therefore wanted training that my future clients would respect.

  2. The course is assessed. This was important to me because while I had a lot of publishing experience, I needed to learn how the practical skills of mark-up and the conventions of layout that publishers expect their freelancers to know. There are no second chances in this market - you're only as good as your last job - so getting repeat work from publishers would hinge on my being able to proofread to the rigorous standards they demand. I wanted to be sure that I was fit for purpose, that I understood not just where my strengths were, but my weaknesses, too. Receiving regular feedback from a tutor on my completed exercises was crucial to achieving this and enabled me to iron out any creases before I started working with clients.

  3. The distance-learning basis of the course enabled me to complete it in my own time and convenience, which fed back into the flexibility issue I mentioned earlier.

What contacts did you have before you started out?

I had one contact - the publishing company for whom I'd worked. This was useful, of course, but it didn't mean that work fell into my lap. I did have names though, and so I used this information as an opportunity to ask for a test. This comprised proofreading a journal issue that had already been worked on by one of the publisher's established freelancers. They were able to compare my work with the end product and assess me on that basis. The feedback I received was excellent and enabled me to be entered into their freelance database. It was some months before I received any paid work opportunities, though.

Who/what was your key target market when starting out and how did you hope to attract them?

Publishers were my key market because of my educational and career background. My primary method for contacting them when I was starting out was emailing or writing to their production managers. First, I would find out the name of the person in charge of hiring proofreaders and editors. That enabled me to personalize my correspondence and generate quick results because I was confident I'd got to the right person.

How have you built on those contacts/developed your business since then?

Every client I work for is asked for a testimonial. I use these references to sell on to other publishers. Some people feel shy about this but I'm not sure why - it's perfectly acceptable business practice! Publishers get hundreds of requests from new editors and proofreaders every year, so giving the contact a reason to look at my letter and CV was key. However tailored my letters are to each client, the foundational message is always the same - I know what publishers consider valuable, so I make sure I have what they need and then tell them about it. In my market sector that means:

  1. Experience: I can demonstrate that I'm familiar with this type of work; they won't have to hand-hold me because I've done the job on 300 previous occasions.
  2. Skills: I need to show them I'm comfortable with academic subject matter (in terms of layout and content), and able to proofread on paper and onscreen, use BSI mark-up appropriately, follow often complex briefs, implement house style, meet deadlines without fail, and know when and when not to intervene.
  3. References: Their colleagues based in other presses trust me to do a good job; this gives them confidence that I'll do the same for them.

What value do you personally get from your SfEP membership? How was it as an associate compared with now being Ordinary/Advanced?

For me the primary benefits have been the networking opportunities and the ability to advertise in the Directory of Editorial Services as first an Ordinary, and later an Advanced member. A few publisher clients have picked me up via my listing, but I receive regular work from them so the value lies in the extended relationship that developed rather than the number of leads. In terms of networking, I've made new friends online and off, via the SfEP's member-only forum, the local group that meets once every couple of months, and the less formal social-media networking platform (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) that the Society has increasingly taken advantage of.

Being an Associate was a useful initial step when I was starting out because of all the advice and support from a number of wise and experienced colleagues. The main disadvantage of entering at Associate level was the lack of access to the Directory. I did therefore seek to upgrade to Ordinary as soon as I met the relevant criteria. For Advanced level this meant investing in still further training, but you can never learn too much and I feel the investment was a wise one and something that I would have done as a stand-alone element of my continued professional development.

What, if any, negatives are there to being a freelance proofreader/editor?

I'm not sure that I can think of any negatives, as such, but I do think there are challenges. Being a freelance editor/proofreader means you have to wear a lot of hats. It's not just the editorial work; marketing, accounts, website administration, networking, training and IT management have to be dealt with, too. All these things take time; in some cases getting a handle on them requires learning new skills. So there's a lot to deal with in addition to the handling the manuscripts or files your clients send to you.

What are your top tips for someone looking to start out?

  • Think of yourself as a business owner first, and a freelancer second.
  • Do your business planning at the outset to avoid surprises further down the road.
  • Be a specialist - focus on your personal knowledge base (e.g career experience, educational background) and use this to inform your market research.

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Written by Kate Haigh.