Editing essentials: getting started in proofreading

Every so often an email will drop into my inbox from someone who is thinking about starting a career as a proofreader, and so I thought it may be helpful to write up some advice based on my own experiences. This will, therefore, be UK-centric and presume that you want to be self-employed. It has been a while since I took my first tentative steps towards building my own editorial services business, but I can still remember the swirling mix of feelings. Here we go:

Training

There is, I think, a popular idea that anyone who enjoys reading and who has a reasonable grasp of grammar can become a proofreader. That is a good foundation, but professional proofreading is complex – it is a skill that has to be learned. Training is key. I started with the Publishing Training Centre’s Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning course. As far as I’m aware, the Essential Proofreading: Editorial Skills One course is the current equivalent. I chose it because it’s an in-depth course that provides an industry-recognised qualification at the end, but there are other options out there. One is the proofreading suite from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (I am a tutor for the second and third courses). Anyway, I passed the PTC course with merit (I was less than one percent off a distinction mark – I ate a whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s Baked Alaska to console myself).

Many people start looking for work once they have completed their initial training, but I am a big ball of anxiety, so I felt that I needed to do more before I put myself out there. How could I ask someone to pay me for my work if I didn’t have confidence in it? So I took a sort of ‘bridging’ course from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (the previous name for the CIEP). At that time it was called Proofreading 2: Progress, but much of the material from that course is now in Proofreading 3: Progress. (Course providers like to have a shake-up every now and then!) That went well and I was able to join the mentoring scheme. I was beyond lucky to have Margaret Aherne as my tutor – she is a legend for a reason. The mentoring scheme is not open at the time of writing, but I know the CIEP plans to re-introduce it sometime in the future. I would certainly recommend it – it’s Margaret’s encouragement that gave me the confidence to take a skills test for a publisher, and that was when things really started rolling.

Join a professional body

One of the best decisions I made was to join the SfEP (now the CIEP). It provided a wealth of information and support, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. One of the great things the CIEP does now is discovery meetings. You can join one and ask pretty much anything you like about proofreading, editing, and the organisation.

Research

There are so many resources out there and it is worth spending some time going through them and making a plan. Your business plan doesn’t need to be Dragons’ Den level, but a basic outline is a good idea – having a direction and knowing what steps you need to make will help you to achieve your overall goal of a successful business.

If you’ve joined the CIEP, you’ll get access to all their wonderful guides. These are probably the most relevant for our purposes:

  • Going Solo: Creating your freelance editorial business, Sue Littleford
  • Marketing Yourself: Strategies to promote your editorial business, Sara Hulse
  • Pricing a Project: How to prepare a professional quotation, Melanie Thompson

I would also recommend the following:

Decide what to offer

Some people start as generalists, and that’s okay if it works for them, but it won’t give you a selling point. How are you going to stand out? There are thousands of people offering their services as proofreaders. What is going to make a client pick you?

When I was starting out, the obvious thing for me to do was to make use of the BA I’d gained in politics and international relations. I had specialist subject knowledge and I understood academic work. You may have a degree or work experience or a hobby that you could harness in the same way. Of course, I moved away from non-fiction and academic proofreading, but it gave me an opening and I was able to use that experience to position my business where I really wanted it to be.

Finding work

This is probably the bit a lot of readers will be most interested in. I don’t think there’s a simple answer here. It’s important to be market ready – that’s where the training comes in. But that doesn’t entitle anyone to work. We have to go out there (metaphorically, probably) and find it. Once I’d built a basic website, I started with online directories. As a newbie proofreader, you probably won’t have the experience required for an entry in some of the most lucrative directories, but you can build up to those.

The most obvious candidate is Find a Proofreader. This is where I got my first ever job. Anyone can join this directory, and there is a lot of competition, but it is possible to pick up good work and some experience here. Entries start at £35 a year (at time of writing) for proofreaders, so you won’t be losing too much if it doesn’t yield results, and you’ll get some SEO benefits from linking your own website to one that ranks quite highly in Google. Find a Proofreader has a sister site, Freelancers in the UK, but I didn’t find that as rewarding – others may have a different experience. If you took the PTC’s proofreading course, you can have an entry in their Freelance Finder database. I’ve never had any work from it, but I have heard that other people have. It’s free, though, and reciprocal links will be good for your website’s SEO, so it’s worth setting it up.

The next thing I did was invest in a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is updated every year, and it contains lots of information on the world of publishing. The part we are most interested in, though, is the comprehensive list of publishing houses – and their contact details. I sent lots and lots of emails and letters, and I made it on to a few lists. From there I found a publishing services company that I still work with now. This approach will take time, and the response rate is likely to be fairly low, but you ‘just’ need to get your details in front of the right person at the right time.

Summary

I’ve been a proofreader for more than seven years now and I am so very glad that I stuck at it in the beginning, no matter how anxious I was about the training or how demoralised I was by the lack of response to my marketing efforts. Other proofreaders will have similar experiences; some proofreaders will have completely different experiences. But I hope the above gives some insight into one way it was possible to get started in proofreading.

Black Cat does #IndieAuthorChat

I was the guest for the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Twitter chat on Tuesday 6th August 2019. The chat takes place every Tuesday, using the hashtag #IndieAuthorChat, and is hosted by the lovely Tim Lewis of Stoneham Press. We had a great hour talking about proofreading for indie authors. If you weren’t able to join us, you can catch up using the Twitter Moment or read, below, a transcript of the questions Tim asked and my answers:

Q1: How does proofreading differ from editing?

A1: Proofreading is a type of editing, but it is a lot less interventionist than a copy- or line-edit. I think of proofreading as making the smallest possible changes to make the text as correct as possible.  Proofreading should occur right at the end of the publishing workflow – it’s the final polish and is not a substitute for a thorough self-edit and professional copy-edit. The SfEP has a handy fact sheet to compare proofreading and copy-editing.

Q2: How much difference does format (print, eBook, etc) make in terms of proofreading a manuscript?

A2: It shouldn’t make a huge difference. It will be more about what the author finds easiest to work with and how much labour they want to put in to checking and adopting changes. Indie authors tend to ask me to mark up a Word doc, which isn’t proofreading in the traditional sense (that’s checking typeset proofs) but is easy to manage. Don’t be afraid to ask for a paper or PDF proofread if you want one – a properly trained proofreader will have the ability to do this. The cost will probably be higher but they will be checking the text and the format in as close to its final state as possible.

Q3: What is a style sheet and why is it important in editing and proofreading?

Black Cat Editorial Services_ talking proofreading on #IndieAuthorChatA3: A style sheet is SO IMPORTANT. A style sheet is a document that collects all your style preferences. You can see a very basic example on my website. It is essential for editing and every editor you work with should provide one for you. If they don’t, ask to see what they compiled. Style sheets are needed to ensure consistency throughout the text, and provide the author with an at-a-glance summary of what has been done and why. I extend mine to record character and location details, and often include a chapter-by-chapter synopsis to help me keep track of events. If you engage a proofreader, it is in your interests to provide them with the style sheet the copy-editor compiled for the project. It’ll save a lot of time and possibly confusion, and should make proofreading cheaper for you.

Q4:  How do you work with an author – what is the process of getting your manuscript proofread like?

A4: The process is quite straightforward, but I need the author to give me as much information as possible, really. Be upfront about what you are looking for. Send me a sample so I can see what needs to be done. If I don’t think a proofread would best serve you and the project (i.e. it needs a deeper level of edit) I will tell you. There is a small amount of paperwork involved (I ask clients to sign a project agreement) and I will require a deposit to book my time. Proofreading is usually(!) straightforward so the client may not hear from me until I’m finished. However, I’ll email if I do need to consult on something that’s not easily dealt with. I’ll send over the marked-up document and the style sheet, and a sign-off form for the project. I’m available to answer any related questions and will do my best to assist.

Q5: How much should an author pay for proofreading and what factors affect the cost?

A5: This is a tricky one. It depends. If the text is in excellent shape, and the client provides a comprehensive style sheet, I’d charge around £7 per 1,000 words. If we are looking at something complex that needs to be done within a tight time frame, I’d charge £10–12 per 1,000 words. It’s all about time. The longer it takes, the more I charge. My pricing isn’t at the top end of what you could expect to pay. The SfEP suggested minimum is £25.00 per hour. Format, time frame, complexity, level of intervention – these will all affect the cost.

Q6: What is one thing you wish all authors understood about proofreading and editing?

A6: What a question! Well, one of the important things for me is that authors understand that we are a team. Don’t be afraid to give me as much information as you can. Tell me what you want to achieve. If I don’t know, I can’t tailor my editing to support you.

Q7: How can people find out more about Hannah McCall and Black Cat Editorial Services?

A7: You can check out my website (https://blackcatedit.com/) or follow me here on Twitter (I’d love it if you did).


Got your own questions about proofreading? Feel free to leave a comment below. Thinking about joining ALLi? You can find out more here.

Simple fixes: how to solve four common punctuation problems

Black Cat simple fixes_ four common punctuation problems(1)Punctuation can be a tricky beast. There are so many potential pitfalls and rules that should be followed, but there are some easy wins, some minor tweaks you can make that will elevate the standard of your writing. Here are four easily rectified errors I come across a lot. And they are errors to watch out for even if you are going to work with a copy-editor – or perhaps I should say especially if you are going to work with a copy-editor. If I look through a manuscript and see I don’t have to make these corrections all the way through, I’m going to charge less. So, let’s grab that low-hanging and money-saving fruit.

Ellipses that aren’t

EllipsisEllipses are the ‘three little dots’ that are used to indicate an omission or a trailing away of speech. In typeset text an ellipsis is not usually represented by three separate full stops – an ellipsis is a single symbol.* (You can see in the example image that the spacing is different.) When you are typing in Word, the software will probably autocorrect your three full stops to the ellipsis symbol. If it doesn’t, you should insert the symbol yourself (Windows users can press and hold the ALT key and then type in 0133). The main reason for doing this is to make sure that the dots don’t get split up over two lines; we want the three dots to be next to each other, or it’s going to look really weird. I frequently find that four full stops have been keyed in, which leaves us with an ellipsis and an extraneous full stop. Sometimes I’m faced with two full stops, and I have to decide if an ellipsis was intended, or query it with the author – which is time we could both spend on more important things.

*Some styles do represent an ellipsis using three full stops, but they are joined by non-breaking spaces – which means they operate like a single symbol but are more fiddly to insert.

‘Reversed’ apostrophes

Reverse apostropheApostrophes are used to mark omissions or indicate a possessive; I’m sure you know that. But I see ‘reversed’ apostrophes in nearly every manuscript I work on – in fact, I expect to see them. Reversed apostrophes often occur in the case of omissions, particularly things like rock ‘n’ roll or ’tis. It’s so common, you might not even realise it is an error (look at rock ’n’ roll again). Apostrophes are only one way round – the reversed apostrophe is actually an opening single quote mark. It can be hard to spot this error, and I’d recommend being alert to it as you are typing. Do not trust Word to know whether you wanted an apostrophe or an opening quote mark.

Please note, however, that there are some marks that look like reversed apostrophes but are not. You’re likely to run into these when using Arabic, Greek and Hebrew names and phrases, so do double-check if in doubt.

Hyphens used as dashes

Hyphen and dashes(1)Hyphens connect words and bits of words together. They are not a substitute for a dash. I often see a hyphen in number ranges (like this: 15-20) and used as a parenthetical dash (like this: the cat-the one with a bushy tail-was on the mat). En rules are used between elements that form a range (like this: 15–20). En rules (with a space either side) or em rules (without a space either side) are used as parenthetical dashes (like this: the cat – the one with the bushy tail – was on the mat. Or this: the cat—the one with the bushy tail—was on the mat). Word will often autocorrect spaced hyphens to spaced en rules, but lots of them slip through. The ALT code for an en rule is 0150 and the code for an em rule is 0151.

Double quote marks inside double quote marks or single quote marks inside single quote marks

It doesn’t really matter which style of quote mark you use – single or double – but it does matter that you don’t use the same style for quoted text within quoted text. If you have, for example, a character quoting someone else, the quote marks should be used like this:

Single and double quotes

Applying these simple fixes

Ideally you will have read this post before your novel reached 80,000 words, you’ve completed your edits, and you are about to show your manuscript to someone, but life is not ideal. Make use of Word’s Find function – but be wary when using Find and Replace. Check each change before you make it and resist the temptation to hit ‘Replace all’.