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.