I've been delighted to read how, recently, a number of UK-based proofreaders-in-training have successfully completed the Publishing Training Centre’s Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning, a course that is well respected within the UK publishing industry.
I took this course in 2005 and I believe it provided me with a foundation that made me ready for the practical side of actually doing the job. Consequently I have no problem recommending it to those who ask my opinion on the matter.
I learned a huge amount from this course (which I took seven months to complete) and also from colleagues in my prior workplace. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of knowledge I acquired, and that I needed in order to make a proofreading career viable from a practical point of view, was the necessary mind-set.
Old working practices
I come from a publishing background. My first job was in the European marketing, sales and distribution office of Williams & Wilkins, the Baltimore-based STM publisher. I was a sales promotion manager. From there I moved to SAGE publications, a well-known independent social sciences and educational publisher (though their publishing programme has expanded somewhat since my day). I was employed as a senior journals marketing manager and remained so for the rest of my office-bound career.
The colleagues with whom I worked most closely were commissioning editors, fellow marketing execs, and editorial production managers.
Within the commissioning department the focus was on vision – working within the house’s goals to publish the very best scholarly research and further the dissemination of top-quality educational material. Commissioning editors needed to be enthusiastic, creative, driven and persuasive. They needed to be able to see the bigger picture – of how X book or Y journal would provide solutions for individual scholars and the institutions who employed them, and how that scholarly material would fit within the press’s wider publishing programme to enhance its reputation as a publisher of note.
Within the marketing department the focus was on creativity – working within the house’s goals to promote and sell the acquired books, journals and software to specific customer groups: academic libraries, individual researchers and students. Marketing managers also needed to be enthusiastic and creative, able to think in left field and not be afraid to experiment in a budget-conscious manner with new ideas and communication tools. Jumping in and bouncing around ideas was expected, encouraged. We were tasked with making the company’s products interesting and discoverable.
Within the editorial production department the focus was on detail – ensuring that the authors’ scholarly research and commissioning editors’ vision physically emerged as an end product (whether print or digital) in a timely manner, reflected the company’s commitment to quality and rigour, and represented the house brand. Production editors needed to be pedantic, patient, time-management focused, organized, sticklers for the minutiae, and strict on method and process. It's my view that their job was the most demanding, particularly given the sheer volume of their workload.
Learning from editorial production …
I finally left SAGE to dedicate a couple of years to child-rearing. My little family moved to the Norfolk countryside and we revelled in the stunning rural views from the windows of our home and enjoyed the space, the grass, the deer, and the short drive to the beach. And then I got itchy feet. I wanted back into publishing but I wanted it on my own terms – freelance proofreading seemed like the solution. But my editorial production colleagues had already taught me to ask an important question:
Do I have the right mind-set for the actual practice of proofreading?
As I've said, my background was in marketing. I was used to being in a work environment that was about ideas and experimentation. I'm not saying that there were no processes to attend to or that I didn't have certain business parameters to work within. I did, of course. But following a brief, pedantic punctuating and a careful, methodical, almost plodding attention to detail weren't the criteria at the top of my job description.
If I was going to transition to a proofreading career, I would need to ensure that the appropriate mind-set was embedded in the way I approached my work. I knew I had a tendency to get a bee in my bonnet and jump in without looking where I was going. It’s in my nature! To be a proofreader I needed to slow down. I needed to be a detail person. Left field needed to be left behind!
Learning from professional trainers …
That’s why I chose the Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning course. I wanted a comprehensive training tool that would make me practice-ready, but I wanted to be assessed, too. I needed to be able to see where my weaknesses were, as well as my strengths. And I needed to practise being a detail person – to embed that mind-set of attending to the method, the process, the instructions, so that I could do what the client wanted.
A target market for me was always going to be social science publishers – I've a politics degree and in-house experience, so it made sense right from the start. I knew these publishers would have demanding expectations of their proofreaders and I wanted to be ready. Ready for the house brief, ready for the method, ready for the deadlines.
Practising the mind-set …
How did I prepare? I read each chapter’s theory several times. I photocopied the exercises several times. I’d do them, trying my best to mark up in the way the chapter had advised. I’d mark my own efforts, make notes about my weaknesses, re-read the appropriate course material, and then put the exercise away for a few days. Then I’d do it all over again – this helped me see if I’d learned from my previous mistakes or whether the information had gone in one ear and out of the other. Then I’d do it a third time – leave alone for a few days and then repeat the exercise. When I was confident I’d nailed it, I’d photocopy the assessed test so that I had three copies. Then I’d do the test, put it away, re-do the test, compare, see if I was consistent, put it away, go through it one last time, attend to anything I’d missed, and then submit.
It was laborious. But I learned to slow down; I learned what my weak points were; I learned a systematic method of working practice that focused on my client's instructions and objectives. I became so used to working like this that it embedded this careful attention to detail in my mind – something that I rely on every time I'm commissioned to work on a project. Of course my publishers don’t budget for me to do multiple passes on a piece of work, with several days of quiet reflection in between! Now that would be a luxury! But I'm glad I had the space to do this, to learn that mind-set, to get used to being a detail person.
So, if you fancy proofreading as a career, ask yourself the same question:
Do I have the right mind-set for the actual practice of proofreading?
If you’re not sure, use your training* space to practise the careful, methodical process of attending to detail, according to the instructor’s brief. You won’t regret it and the time taken will be an investment that you can carry with you throughout your future career.
* If you're still deciding which course to take, your national editorial society will be able to offer advice about the training options available in your region.
About Louise Harnby
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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I am an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society. Visit the SfEP website for more information.
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