The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
Here's the second part in my series on busting myths about the business of professional proofreading.
In Part 1, I stated: ‘none of the following statements is an absolute truth’ and I investigated myths 1–6.
Here in Part 2, I cover myths 7–12.
Myth 7: It's easy to run a proofreading business
The key to busting this myth is the word ‘business’.
Running a business isn’t easy – in our case, we have to be so much more than proofreaders. We are the CEOs, accountants, marketing directors, secretaries, training managers, and human resource executives.
The work also demands extremely high levels of concentration, which is tiring. It can be stressful too. Proofreaders who don’t meet their deadlines or don’t fulfil their existing clients’ briefs don’t retain those clients. And if you can’t keep your clients, you must either continually source new income streams or become an ex-proofreader.
Myth 8: There'll be times when you have no work, no matter how experienced you are
This myth states that feast or famine is the name of the game and always will be. I’m not convinced that it has to be like that in the medium and long terms.
If you make yourself interesting and discoverable online and off, you can market yourself into a position where you have as much work as you want. And if your work is of excellent quality, you'll be offered repeat projects from satisfied clients, meaning you need to do less of the ‘being-found’ work.
In other words, it's about acquisition and retention.
Myth 9: There's no demand for professional proofreaders because of grammar- and spell-checking technology
This is a bizarre myth. It’s like saying that trains, bicycles, planes and legs are redundant because someone invented the car.
First, proofreading isn't about only grammar and spelling. There's no software on the market that can run through a piece of text such that, by the time it’s finished, that text is publishable. Why? Because software can't spot a widow or an orphan, or a heading at the wrong level, or non-aligned decimal points, missing page numbers, and repeated text in chapters.
Software won’t spot the fact that the thriller you're reading has three characters called Stan; that Stan 1 went to Portsmouth University in Chapter 3 but Plymouth by Chapter 10; or that a family with two daughters and two sons in Chapter 5 has three daughters and one son by Chapter 48.
These are problems that I and other professional proofreaders frequently encounter – and I’m not just making up examples for effect!
Furthermore, technology doesn't always get the spelling and grammar right. What software can do is flag up potential issues so that a human can make logical editorial decisions based on skill, knowledge, style preferences and industry-recognized best practice.
There are some great tools out there, and many professional proofreaders and editors use them, but using them is about complementing the work done by the brain and eyes, not replacing it.
Myth 10: All proofreading work is done in-house
The problem with this myth is that it shows a misunderstanding of the market. Here’s the reality:
If you’re not convinced, join the member-discussion forums hosted by the likes of the SfEP (UK), AFEPI (Ireland), EFA (USA) and Editors Canada or your own national editorial society. We can't all be making it up!
Myth 11: Proofreading means the same thing to all client types
This myth fails to recognize that proofreading isn’t just about spotting typos – see (9) above. It's about sense and artistry too. It's about knowing when to intervene as well as when to leave well enough alone.
A publisher’s proofreading remit rarely looks the same as an indie author’s; and what I do with a PhD thesis, an annual business report, a journal article and a crime thriller will be four very, very different things.
In reality, the definition of proofreading is actually rather tangled (see, for example, Not all proofreading is the same: Part I – Working with page proofs,Not all proofreading is the same: Part II – Working directly in Word, and Untangling proofreading).
Myth 12: Word of mouth is a good enough promotion strategy
The problem with this argument is that it presupposes that word of mouth is a marketing strategy – it’s not. It’s certainly one way that clients may come to you, and I’m not knocking it (referral networks can be brilliant for professional proofreaders, and can even earn income for the referrer in certain cases).
However, relying on word of mouth when you’re a grown-up business owner is akin to waiting for your mum to say, ‘Open your mouth, darling. Here comes the choo-choo train,’ as she artfully sneaks a spoonful of baby rice into your mouth. Josh Hoffman’s Freelancers: Word-of-Mouth Is Not a Marketing Strategy is a must-read.
If you’re offered work via word of mouth, congratulations – it proves you’ve instilled competence-based trust in your referring client or colleague. Just bear in mind that an effective marketing strategy should be active, not passive.
If you want to have choice with regard to whom you work for, when you work, and what you earn, such that your proofreading business is economically viable (for you, not for anyone else), I’d advise you to have a comprehensive and proactive marketing strategy encompassing a range of tools that are appropriate to your business. In that way, you can be discoverable to multiple clients across multiple channels.
Summing up …
If you’re considering becoming a freelance proofreader, think carefully about the blend of skill and visibility required.
Being a professional proofreader means being a professional business owner. Professional business owners start with a business plan:
Your business plan, not business myths, will show you whether proofreading is the right career for you.
More related reading
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in helping self-publishing writers prepare their novels for market.
She is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors, and runs online courses from within the Craft Your Editorial Fingerprint series. She is also an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Louise loves books, coffee and craft gin, though not always in that order.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
If you're an author, take a look at Louise’s Writing Library and access her latest self-publishing resources, all of which are free and available instantly.
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