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: When I work for publishers 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.
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:
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
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 overview of the different levels of editing, see my potted guide. 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.
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.
A note from Louise: I’m very pleased to welcome my colleague Kate Haigh to the Parlour. Kate is an editor and proofreader based in the UK who works extensively with non-publisher clients. Kate’s agreed to talk to me about one particular segment of her portfolio, the business client.
Louise Harnby: Welcome, Kate. And thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us. My own client base is very much based in the publishing house sector, so I’m keen to get a sense of how things differ when working with a business client. First of all, can you tell us what kinds of material your clients ask you to work on?
Kate Haigh: Hi and thanks for inviting me to participate in this and give my views on working for business clients. I would like to start by highlighting that my experiences may differ significantly from other people’s as the scope of non-publishing work is so broad; different people may have different USPs or ways of approaching these clients. On the whole, though, I tend to work on three main types of material – websites, reports and marketing material. Different clients tend to use me for different services, i.e. I have one client for whom I solely proofread the website, whereas another regularly sends me reports but no web or advertising work. It means the work is very varied, which in my opinion is a bonus, and also means I learn a lot of random things.
LH: And are you editing, proofreading, writing, or a little bit of all three? And how do you think the job differs from work with other types of client (publishers, self-publishing authors or students for example)? Are the requirements different and, following on from this, does your method/approach vary accordingly?
KH: To be honest, it depends on the client. Some of them aren’t native speakers/writers so I edit quite heavily and am given free rein, while others just want me to tidy up documents and ensure consistency. The lines are more blurred between proofreading and copy-editing, especially as almost all of the work is done on-screen – it doesn’t tend to have pagination issues or print deadlines in the same way that book or magazine work may have. I don’t have the same level of querying as I do for self-publishers or students; most business material is black and white with limited grey areas. I may query something occasionally but it’s usually a content issue; the client handles the query internally so I don’t deal with it any further.
LH: When proofreading for academic publishers, I’m given a very clear brief and a house style guide. Is it different with corporate clients? Is this something you have to work with them to establish when you first make contact? In other words, is the brief a more dynamic affair that evolves as the work proceeds or are the clients clear from the outset what they want from you?
KH: Again, it can depend on the client. Some have style guides in place, others ask me to create one and then implement it, while others are only concerned with consistency in the one document I am working on at that time. On the whole, the brief is clear, though, and I know the level of input I can make, though I guess that comes with experience for each client. One client recently sent a document that was theoretically in the final print stage so we agreed I would only make essential amendments; in future I will see the work earlier and they want me to make stylistic changes and copy-edit the document as I see fit.
I think overall the issue is more fluid, and definitely more so than with academic and non-fiction publishing, where there tend to be so many rules. For clients who are new to using a proofreader or editor, I can play a big role in shaping my job and their expectations, which I personally enjoy. However, if you’re keen to be told what to do or have a set function to follow, this type of work may not be quite so suitable.
LH: The editorial function is an established part of the process in most traditional publishing houses. Unless a press is a small, independent publisher that has to handle all of its editorial work in-house (for economic reasons), it’s not difficult to persuade them that our services are of value. I've tended to assume this isn’t the case in the business market. Do you actively market yourself to this type of client, do they come to you? Regarding either option, what are your most effective marketing outlets?
KH: I find that businesses with active marketing departments are often already aware of the benefits of proofreading but no longer have capacity in-house (horrible to admit but the recession served me well there), so they come looking or just need a tiny nudge to make them aware of my existence. I got totally lucky with my first and most repeat client – I met a PA at a training event about writing copy for the web; she ended up giving me a lift home, took my card and passed it to the marketing manager. The rest, as they say, is history. Other companies looked for me, and thanks to my website, the SfEP directory and other online presence, I appear to be relatively easy to find.
The best marketing I have actively done has been local networking. Some businesses have then found out about proofreading and asked me to work with them as they never even knew such people existed, while word-of-mouth from those events has served me brilliantly. It takes time to reap rewards with networking, at least it did for me, but has been invaluable in the longer term. It’s the face-to-face element that works, and the rapport you build over regular breakfast meetings at some ungodly hour. On the whole, I don’t think the clients I met at networks would have responded to a cold call/email but over time they get to know you and trust you – that’s what leads to the work.
I also think that for business clients, a website is essential, not just for enabling people to find you but also for adding integrity and a professional look. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who claim to be proofreaders when perhaps they’re not qualified for the job, so having a website with information about you, testimonials, contact details, etc. really helps a client to relate. I guess that links in with the face-to-face element of networking.
LH: Do you mind talking to us about the rates of pay? I’ve blogged about the different rates of pay within the publisher sector, and how the suggested minimum rates (as defined by the SfEP) aren’t always in line with the reality of the market place. Would you say that the corporate sector is more lucrative for editorial freelancers?
KH: For business clients, my rates are almost never lower than the SfEP guidelines so in itself that possibly makes it more lucrative than the publishing industry. I think awareness of other proofreaders is lower in the corporate world and this works in my favour. When a company has decided they have the funds and the need for a proofreader, I think they value that service highly. Also, they get used to working with you, your style, and the way you interact, so they’re less worried about squeezing every penny compared with publishers, or at least that’s my perception.
I have one or two clients who pay quite a bit more due to the heavy editing/re-writing element, or other functions, but on the whole I charge in line with the SfEP’s rates and no company has ever quibbled.
LH: If you had one piece of advice to impart about working for business clients, Kate, what would it be?
KH: Ultimately, I think people need to make a positive choice to work in business proofreading rather than seeing it as a fall-back option. I like the commercial world and what it encompasses, and find working on the associated content interesting. If, however, people are doing it because they can't get work in their chosen field, it could be very boring. This would make the job less fulfilling and the resulting loss of focus could lead to an increased error rate. Sorry if this sounds dogmatic, but it's something I feel very strongly about; being able to really focus on your clients’ materials and their particular needs is important, whichever area you’re working in.
LH: Thanks very much, Kate. I’ve found this hugely informative and I’m sure that many “newbies” and seasoned professionals working in other areas will learn a lot from your experience.
About Kate Haigh
Kate is a professional proofreader and owner of Kateproof. Feel free to follow her on Twitter at @Kateproof or link with her via LinkedIn.
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