Someone recently emailed me to ask my advice about returning to the world of editorial freelancing after a break. In particular, they wanted to know whether free courses were worthwhile, and, if so, which one they should take.
My answer was that the issue of free versus paid missed the point. Rather, it depends on what is required by the individual.
If your skills are sound with the exception of one particular gap in your knowledge, e.g. how to use proofreading markup symbols, and you find a free course that teaches this, then it’s going to be a great course for you, one that's worth doing despite the fact that it costs nothing but your time.
If, however, you need a comprehensive tutor-based course that teaches you how to use markup language, make sensible decisions about when to mark up and when to leave well enough alone, how to work with paper and onscreen files, and provide you with a solid grounding in how publishing and production processes work (and your place within them), then this free course, which only teaches you how to use markup language, will be next to useless.
Of course, we all have budgets. I love a freebie as much as the next person and I've taken advantage of several free or low-cost tutoring programmes over the years. I've also forked out hundreds of pounds in the process of learning new skills. Which of those courses were the most worthwhile? The freebies or the bank-account drainers? The answer is, all of them. That's because I picked the courses that I felt would teach me what I needed to know.
When training for professional business practice, the primary indicator of whether the training is worthwhile is not the price; rather, it is the degree to which the course content fills our knowledge gaps.
A few fictive case studies
Jenny is social worker from Dublin who is thinking about transitioning to freelance proofreading. She has no previous editorial experience, though her academic and career credentials are outstanding. As I said, she's thinking about transitioning – she hasn’t yet made up her mind whether this is the right move.
She contacts the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders & Indexers (AFEPI), Ireland’s national editorial society. One of the joint-chairpersons tells her that the society is running a half-day “introduction to proofreading” session. The course is a bargain at only 40 euros. She also finds a free online proofreading course that takes about an hour to complete. Are these worth doing? In Jenny’s case, they are excellent opportunities that will give her a taste of what professional proofreading involves but won't require her to invest large amounts of her hard-earned cash before she's made up her mind about her future career steps. Will they make her ready to hit the ground running in the world of professional proofreading practice? No, but that's not what she needs at the moment.
Dan is former experienced and highly recommended copyeditor and proofreader from Toronto. He put his career on hold while he took on the full-time care of his partner, who'd been diagnosed with a long-term illness. Dan’s been out of the editorial freelancing world for 15 years and is now ready to re-enter the marketplace. He's no newbie but he does feel very rusty. The editorial environment has changed somewhat in the past decade and a half. More work is being done digitally than was the case when he was previously in practice, so his tech skills are out of date.
His research enables him to identify the gaps in his technical knowledge. He's located a series of free online tutorials that will enable him to develop these tech skills. However, Dan is also concerned that because he hasn’t worked on professional material for a long time he's forgotten some of the foundational principles that underpin his practice. He decides that full Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) certification in copyediting and proofreading might be overkill at this point. However, the Toronto branch of the EAC runs a number of brush-up seminars that will be useful to him. In addition, the EAC offers two relevant study guides for a total cost of just over CAN$100. Price-wise, the investment is not insignificant by any means, but he thinks that that the curriculum covered will bring his knowledge up to date. Later, he may use this study programme to become certified.
Mati is a successful London-based professional English/Italian translator. She wants to extend her service portfolio to include proofreading. In addition to working with independent authors and academics, she wishes to proofread for publishers. She decides to source an industry-recognized and comprehensive course that will train her to professional standards. She's short on money because her London flat costs her a fortune each month.
She has identified a number of free online proofreading programmes, and a couple of books dedicated to the subject. None of them offer her the depth of content that she feels will give her the confidence to enter professional proofreading practice; plus, she’d really like to have a tutor for mentoring purposes. The course she thinks will be perfect for her is the run by the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) but it costs £395. The free course options or the books will solve her financial issues, but they won't give her the detail or the mentoring. The PTC option will give her the detail and the mentoring but will leave her unable to pay next month's rent. She decides to save up for the PTC course over six months. In the meantime, she continues to focus on her translation work, and uses the time she’d set aside for the PTC proofreading course to develop a marketing strategy aimed at building a proofreading client base that will complement her existing translation-client work.
Curriculum before cost ...
Free or cheap can be superb or it can be useless. Expensive can be comprehensive or overkill. That's because the cost of the course is not the right indicator. Rather, the content of the course, and the degree to which that content addresses a particular skill gap, is what counts. Certainly we must not ignore free or low-cost tutorials, webinars, books, courses and conferences – if they teach us what we need to know they'll be a boon for our business development. On the flip side, we shouldn’t dismiss training that we consider to be expensive if that training is what will enable us to compete in the editorial freelancing market effectively.
When we find that the training we need costs more than we can currently afford, we need to develop a plan to finance that training. If I can’t afford the course that I’ve identified as the one that will fill the gaps in my professional knowledge, I might decide to save up for it, just as Mati did. Imagine that your child’s nursery teacher, your electrician or your dentist told you they couldn’t afford to do the training they'd identified as making them fit for purpose and so they’d opted not to bother, instead turning to cheaper or free courses that only taught them a few of the things they needed to know. Would you let them near your kid, your fuse box or your mouth? Our clients are no different. They want us to be fit for purpose.
Curriculum is always the primary indicator that we should focus on when evaluating how worthwhile a training course is. Using content as the basis of selection will drive us into a position where we acquire the skills we need to solve our clients’ problems such that they will hire us repeatedly and recommend us to their colleagues. Some of that content will be free, some of it will cost a pretty penny, and some of it will sit somewhere in between those two extremes. Take your pick but base your choice on what you need to learn, not on what you'd like to pay.
If you want advice on the editorial training that's most appropriate to your circumstances, talk to the training director of your national editorial society. Most associations offer a range of learning opportunities within different environments to suit people's varying needs, skills and levels of experience.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and 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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