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Sunday, 04 September 2016

What does it take to be a freelance proofreader?

Professional proofreader and PTC graduate Louise Harnby gives us her expert view.

Louise Harnby 3The question ‘What does it take to be a freelance proofreader?’ is the one that potential new entrants to the field most often pose when considering a career change. However, there’s an ambiguity in the question that can lead people down an incomplete track of thought. Consider the question again, and ask yourself which of the following it means:

1. What does it take to be a freelance proofreader from a technical point of view? In other words, what skills are required to carry out proofreading tasks according to the client’s understanding of the term ‘proofreading’?

2. What does it take to be a freelance proofreader from a professional point of view? In other words, what skills are required to run a proofreading business?

These are two very different questions, but both need to be answered when considering what it takes to be a freelance proofreader.

Doing proofreading and doing business
If you have the skills to carry out proofreading work according to your clients’ requirements, but you haven’t focused on how you are going to put yourself in front of those clients in the first place, then from a technical point of view you’re a proofreader. From a professional point of view, though, you’re unemployed – you could provide the solutions your clients are looking for, but those clients don’t know you exist.

On the other hand, if you have the acumen to develop a well-thought-through editorial business plan (which includes a targeted marketing strategy), such that you know how and where to find your clients, but you can’t do the job in a way that makes your clients want to hire you, then from a professional point of view you can call yourself a proofreader. From a technical point of view, though, you’re not fit for purpose – your clients know that you exist but they don’t wish to retain your services because you can’t provide the solutions they are looking for.

The road to self-employment
Being a freelance proofreader therefore requires a focus on both words: ‘freelance’ and ‘proofreader’. Oxford defines the term ‘freelance’ as ‘Self-employed and hired to work for different companies on particular assignments’ (Oxford Dictionaries, accessed 26 January 2016; emphasis added). The compound right at the beginning of that definition says it all, and when deciding whether we have what it takes to be a freelance proofreader, we ignore the fact of self-employment at our peril.

Freelance proofreaders don’t spend their time just proofreading. Just like the electricians, dentists and tree surgeons who own their own businesses, freelance proofreaders also have to manage their accounts and tax responsibilities, determine their own work schedules, solve IT problems, test tools and software, keep their equipment and skills up to date, organise their training and continued professional development, create and deliver an ongoing marketing strategy, and develop business networks.

The fact is this: freelance proofreaders are business owners. If you don’t yet have what it takes to run a business, then you don’t yet have what it takes to be a freelance proofreader.

Learning to do business and proofreading
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the required technical and professional skills can’t be learned. Sound advice on where to acquire industry-recognised technical training is available from most national editorial societies (for a contact list, see the ‘Editing & proofreading societies’ list on my website). Free advice on editorial business development is widely available online (two examples include my blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, and Rich Adin’s excellent An American Editor, but there are many others).

Attending to both the technical and professional aspects of freelance proofreading will ensure that the decisions you make during the transition process are complete – that you understand what it takes not only to ‘do proofreading’, but also to find clients, solve their problems in a way that makes them want to retain your service, and earn an income that meets your financial requirements.

Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specialises in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Find out more at

The PTC's Essential Proofreading course is the perfect place to learn the skills and knowledge required to proofread effectively. Full information on the course can be found here

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