The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
Should you invest several hundred pounds in professional proofreading and editing training when there are free online courses available? A reader asked me whether the freebies are worth their salt …
Hello Louise. Your blog has helped me with a lot of things. However, I am currently doing a BA. I want to learn editing and proofreading side by side. I wanted to ask whether the websites providing free online courses on editing and proofreading are reliable.
Thanks for your question, Malika!
Foundational English-language skills
First, I always recommend that those considering a career in this field focus on their language skills before they embark on professional editorial training.
Professional proofreading and editing courses teach the practice of how and when to amend or annotate. They assume an existing above-average knowledge of spelling, punctuation and grammar that accords with English-language convention.
Proofreading and copyediting – what do those terms mean?
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of your question, I’d like to talk about what’s meant by the terms ‘proofreading’ and ‘editing’. The terminology is often tangled. I define the various stages of editing as follows:
The training we do (whether it’s free or charged for) needs to reflect the skills needed to carry out these levels of editing.
At the end of this post I've provided a PDF that offers more detail about the problems proofreaders and editors aim to solve at each stage.
Reliability, promises and intention
Now to your query. I think that an evaluation of a course’s reliability needs to ask two questions:
The course has been designed to help Purdue students with the thesis-writing process not train proofreaders to professional standards. The course is reliable in the context of its intention. It’s just not a good match for you or anyone else seeking to set up an editorial business.
Client perceptions and expectations
There’s a marketing issue at stake, too. However ‘reliable’ the free course is, it’s worth asking yourself whether it has the potential to enhance or damage your trustworthiness.
Here’s the problem – there are thousands and thousands of editors and proofreaders online. The market is global, too, thanks to the internet. If a client finds you and five others, how will they decide who’s worth getting a quote from?
Imagine your home needs rewiring. You’ve already had one small electrical fire and want to avoid a future catastrophe. Who do you hire? The professionally accredited electrician or the spark who did a free tutorial on YouTube?
People searching for editorial services are just as discerning. They’re handing over hundreds, even thousands of pounds to a stranger. They want a professional who’s passionate about their business, takes it seriously enough to invest in high-quality training, and knows how to fix what’s wrong to industry-recognized standards. If you can’t demonstrate that you’re that person, you won’t be able to compete effectively.
Some client types, publishers for example, expect an editorial pro to have completed courses from specific training providers. Others will focus on your successful completion of a test. To pass the test, you’ll need to know your stuff. If your free course doesn’t provide you with the required knowledge, you’ll come unstuck.
Ask colleagues, clients and professional organizations
Some years ago, I asked a group of UK publishers about professional training. You can read what they said in ‘Does training matter?’ (see ‘Further reading’ below). If you’re based outside the UK, call a few publishers and find out what professional training they recommend.
Your national editorial society will also have guidance. There’s a list of worldwide national editorial societies in the ‘Further reading’ section, too.
Practising editors and proofreaders will also have opinions. Ask in online forums about any free course you’re considering, and how it stacks up against paid-for options.
Here’s one editor’s opinion: I recommend the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) for UK editorial training. That recommendation is based on my experience (I’ve not done any free editorial training) but it’s an opinion, not the law! My colleagues will have their own preferences, some of which will be based on where they live.
Pro training courses – what’s on offer
Compare any free course’s syllabus with that of an industry-recognized course.
Let’s take a look at the SfEP’s proofreading training:
Proofreading 1: Introduction (online £103)
Time: 10 hours
‘This course is suitable for beginners contemplating a career as a proofreader and for those who need to proofread as part of their job but have had little formal training. [It] teaches the very basics of proofreading; on its own it does not provide the thorough grounding needed to work as a professional proofreader. Apart from introducing the basics of proofreading, the course is designed as a taster to answer the question “Is proofreading for me?”’
You can see the full syllabus here: Proofreading 1: Introduction; it includes:
Proofreading 2: Headway (online £156)
Time: 20–25 hours
‘This course is for people who have some knowledge and experience of proofreading and would like to learn more. It […] builds on the basic skills you already have to improve your concentration, focus and judgement.’
You can see the full syllabus here: Proofreading 2: Headway; it includes:
Proofreading 3: Progress (online £156)
Time: 20–25 hours
‘This course guides you through more complex general and specialised material, including texts with illustrations, tables, notes and references.’
You can see the full syllabus here: Proofreading 3: Progress; it includes:
This is staged professional industry-recognized training that aims to make you fit for purpose and ready for market. It’s not cheap, nor should it be given that it’ll take a minimum of 50 hours to complete. No one gives away 50 hours of anything for free!
If you find a free online proofreading course and it doesn’t include the content covered by the full staged SfEP syllabus outlined above (or an equivalent professional association’s course in your own country), ask yourself whether the material is sufficient for your learning requirements.
When free is great – the springboard
That’s not to say that freebies aren’t valuable. However, we need to recognize that, usually, what’s on offer is a glimpse, a taster. That taster might well offer insights, knowledge, tips and tools to start us on our journey.
Freebies are a springboard. I use them to my gauge my fit with what’s on offer. I chose to invest in professional marketing coaching earlier this year. But first I signed up for some free stuff to see whether I liked the hosts and their training methods.
I provide my own freebies – my website is packed with them … PDFs, ideas, advice, booklets. These are snippets; people have to pay for my substantive books. Many editors offer free sample edits to give clients a taster; the full editorial service costs.
And so it is with editorial training. The PTC offers a free taster programme for its flagship distance-learning proofreading course. The SfEP offers a free proofreading test. Will either make your ready to offer proofreading services to clients in the open market? No. Will they act as signposts for what kinds of issues you need to look out for and whether a proofreading career is for you? Definitely. But you get what you pay for!
Being a professional
Editorial work is no different to accountancy, social work, teaching, graphic design, building, or electrical engineering … you can do it well and to professional standards, or you can do it badly.
If you do it well, you’ll be able to give your clients excellent customer service. They’ll use you repeatedly and refer others to you. They’ll give you testimonials that will build your social proof.
If you do it badly, you’ll let your clients down. If you’re lucky they’ll only complain and ask for their money back. If you’re not, they’ll tell others how awful your work is – a PR disaster.
Any courses that promise miracles for very little to no money and time need to be viewed with caution. Use them to evaluate whether a professional editorial career is right for you. Beyond that, financial investment will be necessary.
I hope that helps you, Malika!
You ask. I'll answer
I'm more than happy to tackle questions, especially from beginners. If there's something you want advice about, drop me a line and I'll post a solution to your problem here. The more focused your question, the more in-depth my answer will be! And if you want me to mask your identity, no problem.
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. 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 & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). I abide by its Code of Standards in regard to my status as an independent writer.
Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.