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 be 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.