An important element of successful freelance proofreading is that of knowing your market – in order to build up a solid client base you need to focus on your strengths and understand what your clients need from you.
The sector you know …
Here’s an example of a sector I know: I’m strictly a proofreader. I worked in social science academic publishing for years. When I started down the freelance route I did the appropriate training; then I targeted the market I knew best and in which I had experience. Academic publishing companies have very clear-cut editorial processes and the roles of development editor, copy-editor and proofreader are clearly defined.
In this sector the briefs and levels of intervention vary from press to press, but the editorial process is the same, broadly speaking. Once any structural work has been done, the author’s files are handed over to a project manager (in-house or freelance) who will coordinate the professional copy-editing stage. The amended pages or files are turned into page proofs by a typesetter. Then it’s my turn. At this late stage, the client is absolutely not looking for rewriting, restructuring and fact checking. That would be expensive and, more relevant to this post, it would be copy-editing. Rather, my job is to check that the typesetter’s interpretation of the copy-editor’s work is correct, that the page layout is acceptable, and that any remaining typographical oddities, spelling, punctuation or grammar errors haven’t slipped through. There may be specific instructions from the client to leave alone or pay attention to specific issues around house style, so the brief for each project will be something I have to pay careful attention to. However, It is extremely rare that I am faced with page proofs that require heavy intervention. That would indicate that something has gone seriously wrong earlier in the chain.
Sectors you don’t know …
If you are used to working for a particular type of client (businesses, students, self-publishing authors, publishers), or in a specific subject field (STM, social sciences, fiction, company reports, theses), don’t assume that your clients’ processes, needs or expectations will be the same. The term “proofreading” means different things to different people.
The chance to diversify is exciting, but proofreaders need to take care that they understand what the client expects. We owe it to our clients and we owe it to ourselves. Failure to do so can lead to a lot of head-scratching at best, and a dissatisfied client at worst.
What to watch out for …
PhD student: “Dear Ms Harnby, I need someone to copy-edit/proofread my media studies thesis … English is not my first language … my supervisor says I need some things to be checked, too …”
This client doesn’t understand the difference between copy-editing and proofreading; they think “it’s all the same kind of thing”. While they might benefit from the latter further down the line, they’re definitely asking for the skills of the former in this case.
Trade publisher: “... we're on a short deadline and haven't had time to compile the index. Would you be able to fit this in?"
Indexing is an art all of its own. The client is asking for a skillset completely separate from either copy-editing or proofreading.
Self-publishing author: “Dear Louise, I landed on your Twitter page and wondered if you would be free to proofread my book. I also need some advice on how the book reads and any feedback on the plot and characters … this is my first novel so I’d appreciate any help you can offer me.”
This client is unfamiliar with the various stages of the editorial process. They need a development editor, not a proofreader, before they start worrying about whether the words are spelled correctly or the apostrophes are in the correct place.
Trade publisher: “Dear Ms Harnby … are you free to take on a commercial non-fiction proofread? … We like our proofreaders to be very interventionist … feel free to recast anything that seems clunky or in your opinion doesn’t work …”
It’s not that this client has a fabulous deal with their typesetter, meaning heavy revision at this stage in the process won’t hurt the bottom line. It probably means that copy-editing has fallen victim to cost-reduction measures. I suspect I am being commissioned as a proofreader and paid proofreading rates, but the client wants me to do something more akin to a copy-edit of the page proofs.
Local business: “… we found your details in the Yellow Pages and see from your website that you have extensive experience of proofreading management and business titles … we need a 70-page internal report to be checked for grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. The report was compiled by eight individuals so we’re also keen to ensure consistency of the writing style …”
This client needs a proofreader for the first element of the job and an editor for the second.
The above are all examples I’ve encountered in requests for my “proofreading” services.
What should you do?
It will be tempting to take the work and maybe you should. After all, you’ve secured this fabulous opportunity to diversify your client portfolio, perhaps in a sector that you’ve wanted to exploit but didn’t know how to access.
Proofreading, indexing, copy-editing and development editing are not the same thing. The input is different, the output is different, the skills are different, the training is different, and the rates of pay are different. Some potential clients may understand this but be looking to get a different level of intervention at a bargain price. Others will simply be unaware of the distinct roles within editorial freelancing.
The rate of pay is not in my opinion the most pressing factor here. The most important issues are:
1) You understand what’s being asked of you; you‘re contemplating a job where the term “proofreader” has become fuzzy, to say the least.
2) You need to be confident you can actually manage the functions being asked of you (or that, in the case of the trade publisher, you suspect are being asked of you – even if the client won’t admit it).
Are you also a trained copy-editor or indexer? Can you put on these other hats and do they fit comfortably? If so, you’re in a position to take on the work if you want to.
If you do not have the relevant skills, you could find yourself coming unstuck. You may not fulfil the client’s expectations. That they aren’t fulfilling yours is irrelevant because you’re no longer in control. You might do a good job, but you might not. You won’t know because you’re not a copy-editor/development editor/indexer.
If you anticipate a problem before you receive the work, you can nip the issue in the bud. Explain your understanding of the various editorial roles clearly to the client and make it explicit what services you are prepared/able to offer. This will ensure there are no surprises at either end of the process.
If the problem isn’t obvious until after you’ve received the proofs or early on in the job, and you don’t feel comfortable, say, copy-editing material you’ve been hired to proofread, spell this out to the client as a matter of urgency. Why? Because it puts you back in control. If you lose the work or the professional relationship comes to a close, it’s because you’ve decided to not work with the client, not the other way around.
Wrapping up …
Diversifying your client portfolio and the types of work you are doing can be a very attractive proposition, particularly if a) you’ve not yet acquired enough regular clients in your specialized field to make your freelance proofreading business sustainable or b) the current recession has led to a drop-off in the amount of work you’re being offered. But beware of the fuzziness that can arise due to ignorance of the different editorial roles or a client’s cost-cutting. Ensure you have the relevant skills and a solid understanding of what is required for the sector you’re entering. Finding yourself out of your depth will hurt you as much as your client.
For an excellent overview of the differences between proofreading and copyediting, read the guidance from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. For information on indexing, read the guidance from the Society of Indexers. For advice on editorial training, contact your national or regional editing society – a list of the primary worldwide societies is available here.
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