Proofreading as a career – some pointers

26 Oct

Sometimes I feel that people think “proofreading and editing” is one of those things that anyone can do, that’s a good fall-back position if you’re looking around for something to bring in a few pounds.  I think it’s a common misconception that if someone is well-read and good at spelling, that’s going to transfer into something out of which they can make a career.  There is a bit more to it than that, and as I’ve had several people ask about it, it’s got to the point where it feels useful to put something down that I can direct future enquirers to.  So, if you’re thinking about being a proofreader and you don’t know quite what it entails, read on …

Get your terms right

If you think you want to be “a proofreader” then you probably don’t know what one is.  Sorry to be blunt!  But a proofreader is a very specific kind of job, where you check materials that are just about to be published.  It’s not going through a manuscript for a novel and commenting on it (that’s copyediting) or making suggestions on changes (that’s substantive copyediting) or checking the facts in an article (that’s fact-checking) or writing up an article from bullet points (that’s copy writing).  For more on all this, see my post on proofreading and copyediting or my skill set series.   OK: so what you want to be is a copyeditor.

Get the skills

It’s not that easy correcting someone’s grammar and making their sentences work.  Sometimes, it isn’t actually that much fun.  Of course I enjoy it, but see below for why it takes a particular kind of person. And you do need to have the theory behind the practice solidly backing you up.   One way to get the knowledge is to go on a course.  Do not look at any other courses apart from those run by the Society For Editors and Proofreaders or the Publishing Training Centre.  Yes, there are lots of other courses advertised in the paper, etc.  These are the two that the industry in the UK recognises, that publishers send their editors on.  The courses and exams are quite expensive, but so are the other ones.  SfEP has a useful test on its website that might help you decide whether you’re suited for this work.

An admission: I’m not a member of SfEP and I don’t hold their qualifications.  But, and this is a route you will need to take too, I have lots and lots and lots of experience.  Most of that experience, pre-Libro, was unpaid – editing and indeed proofreading for local publications, author friends, typing theses back in the old days before everyone had a computer.  Writing.  Writing press releases and marketing material.  Working with UK and US English.  I’m nearly 40.  Most of my working life has involved this kind of stuff.  Oh, and the English Lang & Lit and Library and Information Studies degrees helped a bit, too.

If you go into this business, you will still need to take specific tests from prospective clients, even if you have qualifications.  I tend to pass these tests with flying colours, so I can get away with not having the exams.  If I was doing this again, and I didn’t have any experience, I would take those exams.  I’m going to learn Indexing one of these days.  I’m going to take the courses and exams for that: oh yes!

Are you suited for the work?

You might want to have a look at my previous post on deciding if you’re suited to freelance work at this point. In general, freelancing in whatever area you choose will have common points.  Particular to editing are the facts that: you can’t usually do it with other people around, as it’s really concentrated work; it can be a bit repetitive if you’re working on one huge text or lots of things on the same subject (if you get into student work, clients tend to recommend you on within the same course); you really don’t get to choose the subject you’re working on, and it’s fairly rare to be something that you’ll be interested in on its own merits. There are plus sides to these points, of course: if you enjoy being alone, the first is fine, and you can take your marketing work, blogging, etc., to the local cafe; it can be soothing to press on with the same thing hour after hour; and you get to learn an awful lot about an awful lot of subjects, which can be handy for pub quizzes and the like!

And you’ve got to be happy to do this, day in and day out.  You might have to miss a cinema trip with your friends.  You might be poorly – but there’s not really sick pay as such (we’re lucky to have the NHS in the UK, of course – in other countries this point is even more important). Again, these are general points. In summary from the editing side of things: you need to be good at concentrating; nit-picky; good at going for hours with no distractions; good at finding odd topics interesting enough that you’re not wandering off to Twitter every five minutes; good at keeping to deadlines (it’s often someone else’s deadline you’re affecting if you run over time).

Dealing with clients

OK, I do have great clients who come through recommendation and send me work reasonably regularly.  But I still had to prove myself to them in the first place, and I still have to send in my invoices on time and do the work when I say I will.  You will need to be able to justify what you’ve done to someone’s work, make their work demonstrably better, come in to their deadlines, keep them informed.  It’s not just a question of sitting nicely at a desk and playing with a sentence or so, just like gardening isn’t all wandering around in a big hat with a trug, snipping at a rose every now and again. You need to market yourself, be cheeky, throw business cards at all and sundry – you can’t just sit back and expect the work to come to you.  Which brings me to my next point …

Building things up

It’s over two years since I launched Libro.  Only now am I thinking of going full-time.  Much of my work comes through repeat business (hooray for repeat customers) and recommendations.  But that’s hard work in itself.  If someone is kind enough to recommend your services to a friend, you have twice the pressure: do a good job for the client and make sure you don’t ruin their trust in the original client who recommended you.  You have to do a really good job to get these recommendations, in the copyediting that you do and in the customer care and marketing that you do.

I have found myself diversifying over the years, so I now do transcription, writing, localisation from US to UK English and all sorts of other things. Do you have skills you can add in to your basic offering, that form a good portfolio (copyediting and clowning might work, but would be difficult to market, perhaps).  The other way to go is specialisation.  I’ve done this with my localisation work, building a reputation as someone who is good at turning US into UK English, and I know copyeditors who are very well-known in their field of, for example, editing medical journal articles.  But you need an outside speciality you can bring to bear on your copyediting work if you want to go down that route (for example experience in other jobs, your previous education …).

Is this for you?

So, a summary.  If you really want to make a go of a proofreading career, which we now know is actually a copyediting career, you need to:

  • enjoy working on your own
  • have a high attention span and a very high boredom threshold (I’m not saying that the work is boring: I love it; some people would be bored silly by it)
  • write a very high standard of English (oh yes, and everything else that you send out into the world has to be perfect or people will spring on it with glee!)
  • do a fairly expensive course or have demonstrably high levels of experience
  • be prepared to work very hard
  • be prepared to work on stuff you do not find interesting
  • be prepared to do all the usual freelance stuff of losing your weekends and evenings “just to turn this project round”
  • be prepared to do marketing and customer care and maths stuff as well as playing with the order of words to make the most elegant sentence
  • have other skills you can diversify into
  • or have a very particular skill you can specialise in

I don’t want to put people off, I really don’t.  But hopefully this has given you some insight into the kind of person you need to do this kind of work, and the kind of work it actually is.  Think of copyediting as a positive choice rather than a fall-back position, and you’ll be fine. Drift into it, and you might get some work and payments, but you might be happier somewhere else.


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30 responses to “Proofreading as a career – some pointers

  1. Alice Field (@AllesKlar71)

    November 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Interesting article and clarification, Liz. I envy that you’ve made a career (albeit part-time so far) out of a specific set of skills and I’d love to know how that started; I have another very specific set of skills that I think could be marketable… if only I knew how to start. It’s just one set of skills that I usually use within a wider PA/secretarial career, but if I could turn it into a more focused career in its own right, there could be something in it. Keen to tap your experience… Ta!

    • Liz at Libro

      November 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Alice. I’m pretty nearly full-time now with Libro, but I have diversified so I cover quite a wide range of skills now (see the skillset link on the category cloud for more info on all of those). You can see how I did it on my About Me page (link at the top) – a combination of having the skills there, realising what I could do, and working my way into a career, client by client. Not for the faint-hearted, and if you’re thinking of doing something like this, it’s worth looking at the “how to be a freelancer” articles I link to from this one, too. Good luck!

  2. Peter

    June 21, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Re: Get your terms right…One of the first things they tell you is that the word is ‘proofreader’ not ‘proof-reader’!

    • Liz at Libro

      June 21, 2012 at 11:53 am

      This is a fair point, although, personally, I would have contacted me privately about this rather than making a public point. In my defence, this was a style choice made when I set up the website and blog, and I know the usage was consistent throughout, because in the time between me seeing and approving this comment, I have been through the whole lot and changed all instances to the Oxford approved usage, “proofreader”, etc.

  3. travellingcoral

    November 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Reblogged this on travellingcoral and commented:
    It ain’t easy!

  4. Donal

    March 14, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Hello Liz,
    I have adopted Proofreading as my profession. Now my internship is going on in a [Link removed] in starting It was really hard for me to proofread a complicated document but now i have started enjoying my work and i am performing well..

    • Liz at Libro

      March 14, 2013 at 7:25 am

      How enterprising of you to post a link to another proofreading company on my page where I am trying to help people learn about the career! I’m all for supporting colleagues in this area, and often link to trusted colleagues pages and recommend overflow to them, but don’t you think this is just a little bit rude?!!

  5. Donal

    March 18, 2013 at 8:09 am

    Hello Ma’am,
    I have shared that link because that website also contains a blog section which i consider worth reading for novice proofreaders like me. That’s all. It was the only intention of mine. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    • Liz at Libro

      March 18, 2013 at 8:19 am

      Thank you for your response. As you will see, I did leave your comment up rather than deleting it. I will put your note in with that comment for tidiness’ sakes.

      • Kathy

        March 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

        Is the phrase ‘tidiness’ sakes’ correct? I can see the belonging connection between the two words, i.e. for the sake of tidiness, but this composition of words doesn’t sound right. I am not a proofreader, merely a layperson interested enough to ask questions. Is the ‘s’ needed on the end of sake, for example? Please expand on this point, as you do work with words for a living – I am interested in learning more about the English language. Thank you in advance.

        • Liz at Libro

          March 6, 2014 at 6:07 pm

          Thank you for your comment, Kathy. I have expanded a little on this in my post on the apostrophe here: – to be honest, I don’t think that the s is needed on the end of sake in my previous reply to a comment on this post (I scoured the post itself, but I believe I only wrote it in a reply to a comment). This is why even editors need editors – we are not perfect. But the tidiness’ sake part still stands. I was going to go and amend it, but that leaves your comment looking odd, so I’ll leave as is. I might add a [sic] though. Consider yourself awarded a prize for finding such a comment to make in my writing!

  6. kams

    May 21, 2013 at 6:53 am

    very impressive….. i started work for proofreading…wanted to know if it would glamorous my life, i mean money and all. :)

    • Liz at Libro

      May 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      I’m not sure that it’s particularly glamorous work – I earn enough money to live on, but only by diversifying what I do to cover other kinds of work, too.

  7. Amanda

    June 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Liz, I can’t help feeling you’ve reposted this blog for me! Thank you! ;) The good news is, I passed the ITI’s proofreading test (on their Orientation Course for new translators) with flying colours! So fingers crossed! :)

  8. Kabbyik Mitra

    September 14, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Hi, my name is KABBYIK MITRA, from India, i am a post graduate in business management from Manipal, Karnataka, India, as far as my knowledge is concern, i am very good in English language and grammar and very fond of national and international literature, though i have a different background, but i wish to take up a career in proof reading, as i have more than 7 years of experience in different path like marketing, sales, backend operation, customer services and soforth, but wish to take up my career as a proof reader was my past long interest, and i have also done a basic proof reading course from my city (a short term one) and i came to know regarding the basic and the fundamental of proof reading, it is really very interesting and i like to do in my future, i just wish to know whether i need a advanced level course in proof reading and or need to work in this area first to acquire the knowledge and if it is helpful with any online course or offline one ? Looking forward for a quick and positive reply.
    Thanks…………..Kabbyik Mitra

    • Liz at Libro

      September 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Hello Kabbyik, thank you for your comment. I hope that I’ve covered what you need to know in this post on proofreading as a career. It’s also worth looking at what potential employers in your area (geographical area and area of interest) are asking for, and making sure that you match those requirements. Looking at job adverts or pinpointing potential customers and looking at their recruitment pages should help you here. Good luck!

  9. Steve Cann

    October 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks so much for all the info on here Liz, and for being so generous with your knowledge.
    As with you, I have no proofreading qualifications as such, but I do have a lifelong love of the English language, spelling and grammar.
    I have recently successfully completed proofreading two new novels for a friend, and these are now published on Amazon.
    I’m hoping I can extend this work out to other writers and authors, as I feel my work is of a very high standard.
    How do I go about advertising and setting myself up? And what do I charge clients? And where do I advertise? Hope you don’t mind all these questions – thanks so much if you can enlighten me on any of this.

    • Liz at Libro

      October 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you for your message, Steve, and I’m glad you’re enjoying your work. There is lots more information about setting up your business and marketing yourself on this blog: have a look at the menus on the right hand side to help you navigate. You might also be interested in my other blog which details my own experience running my business (at – click on Business on the right to get to those posts among all the book reviews, etc,) and I have also written a book on that process, details of which are on the librofulltime blog.

  10. Rebecca Bennett

    November 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Liz,
    Thank you so much for this, I read it with avid interest. I am thinking of doing a proofreading course as well as becoming a member of SfEP, I don’t want to be cheeky but I just wondered whether it would make more sense to do a PTC basic proofreading course or a SfEP one? Or in fact would it be best to do both? I just thought they might cover the same material and therefore would be best investing in just one?
    Sorry for the many questions!

  11. Sylvie Hone

    January 15, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Hello Liz,your blog(is that correct?) or interesting article on proof reading stood out,when I decided to find out more about this profession-I confess to my ignorance of not knwing it was actually a profession.I thought,rather like copy writing or just similar to reading and correcting spelling,grammar etc.This I understand,as I taught English for nineteen years in Zimbabwe,to senior school students.
    Massive retraining courses are requred for me to undergo before I could teach here,and the whole structure of education so far removed from my experience,that its no longer a sensible option,I would be too strict,impatient with apathetic children,just totally unsuitable.Plus I’m told a degree in child psychology(a karate black belt)are practically a must.
    Proof reading sounds good,I’m quite pernickity and pedantic! Though I definitely cannot afford expensive…or even cheap courses.Would it be an idea for me to approach local newspapers,to see if they require someone with a reasonably good command of English.Or,try foregn interpretation,for local councils.I need all the help and advice you can spare.Thank you Liz.

    • Liz at Libro

      January 15, 2014 at 7:00 am

      Thank you for your comment, Sylvie. I think that contacting local organisations in the first place is a good idea. If you have a good command of another language, interpretation can be a good second option (think AND rather than OR, after all, I do lots of other things than proofreading). You might like to look at the SfEP site that I link to in the post and take their free test to see if you are suited to the work. Good luck!

  12. ragavi

    April 10, 2014 at 5:41 am

    i need proof reading job to work from home ,pls send me details which company is genuine to give such a work and payment

    • Liz at Libro

      April 10, 2014 at 5:50 am

      Dear Ragavi, I would suggest reading this post you have commented on and my other ones in the careers section for guidance on how to go about finding such work. Best of luck with your new career.


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