I recently received a phone call from someone thinking about a career in proofreading. “I just wondered if you could spare five minutes to tell me how to go about starting a proofreading business.”
She was really sweet but at the word “five”, alarm bells started to ring. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would ever have thought that I could learn what I needed to know about running a business in five minutes …
“I love books. I've always loved books. I read two books a week. I'm a voracious reader! Always have been, always will be.” The alarm bells were getting louder. The thing is, I love eating (and I have a waistline to prove it). I've always loved eating. I eat three meals a day (at least). I'm a voracious eater. Always have been, always will be. But that doesn't make me a chef. It doesn't mean I can run a restaurant.
So I let her talk for a bit longer and then I gently suggested that it’s a big decision – that it’s great that she loves reading – but that my best advice was for her to think about the other stuff, too: the clients she’s going to target, what training she needs to do, how she’s going to promote herself, what knowledge base she can bring to the table in terms of specialist experience (prior job, hobbies, education, etc.). I told her that there are a lot of us out there already doing this, which makes it competitive.
I suggested my book to her (Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers), which she can use as a road map to help guide her through the basics of starting out. I told her about the books my colleagues Val Rice (Starting Out: Setting up a small business) and Liz Broomfield (Going it Alone at 40: How I Survived my First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment) have written, which take a slightly different angle on freelancing and provide equally supportive advice for the new business owner. I referred her to my national editorial society (the UK’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders) and The Publishing Training Centre in London. I told her about some of the fabulous resource centres that offer free online advice about working in our business: Kathy O’Moore-Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, Kate Haigh’s Kateproof blog, Hazel Harris’s Editing Mechanics blog, Nick Jones’s Full Media blog and, naturally, the Proofreader’s Parlour (especially the starting-out archive).
I could have talked for hours but I don't have hours to spare. And she asked for five minutes so that’s how long I talked for. I thought I’d done quite well (given the time span available) to point her in the direction of a small but substantive group of resources – none of which would cost her more than six quid, and most of which are free – that she could use when making the monumental decision to set up a new proofreading business.
A silence followed on the other end of the phone. I assumed she was frantically scribbling down all this information. “The thing is, I really want to make a career out of this but there’s so much to get your head around. That’s why I called. I just need to know how to go about it. I've always loved books, always loved reading. I think I’d be good at this. I notice spelling errors when I read magazines and books and newspapers and I really love words.”
I sensed I'd not told her what she'd hoped to hear. I don't for a minute think she expected me to hand her a client list on a plate. She seemed very pleasant, genuine and passionate. Rather, I suspect she'd thought that the task might be easier or more straightforward; that in these days of reduced employment opportunities, editorial freelancing would be something that was relatively simple to slip into.
I tried to move her back to the issues in hand, reiterated that the resources I'd pointed her towards would help her work out "how to go about it", and I emphasized that it’s not a love of books and words that will enable her to run an editorial business. Because that’s not enough.
The fact is that in the list of things that enable a proofreader (or any other type of editorial freelancer) to run a successful business, loving books is so far down on the list that I've yet to be convinced it's worth giving it a number.
There is a lot of information to read and a lot of issues to consider. And so there should be. Running an editorial business isn't something you can learn to do in five minutes. It requires research, patience and commitment. It requires the wearing of many hats. It requires perseverance, business savvy and hard graft.
If you love books, words and reading – great. But all that tells you is that you love books, words and reading. It doesn't tell you if you have skills such as planning, marketing, time management, financial management and accounting, client-appropriate training, an understanding of industry expectations, taking the ups with the downs, creative thinking, client negotiations, networking, and business development.
And if you want to run a proofreading or editing business you’ll need all of the above in spades or you'll have to want to learn them. I’ll say it again, loving books isn't enough. There are no short cuts. Your dentist doesn't get to stick a needle in your gum by taking short cuts. Your cleaner doesn't get to make your house sparkle by taking short cuts. Your five-year-old doesn't learn to read because his or her teacher takes short cuts.
While colleagues will be delighted to advise you of various different approaches and tactics to help you on your way, ultimately you'll have to put in a lot of hard work. It doesn't matter whether you're Richard Branson, Bill Gates, or lil' ol' Louise Harnby – when you set up a business, the basic rules of the game are the same. Do the planning, do the research and never, ever forget that you’re considering running a business first and foremost, whatever your likes and dislikes are.
If you still think becoming a proofreader (or editor) sounds like a great idea, welcome on board. It really is a great job, and there’s a huge international community of editorial colleagues waiting to engage with you. And if you happen to love books, reading and words, all the better. Just as long as you remember that, in itself, that's not enough.
Good luck, and see you on the other side!
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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