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 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 their 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 line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
20/8/2013 07:33:22 am
I've had this experience and have been recommending your book all over the place; it's a great resource! I'm also going to check out the other resources you recommend. Thanks for another great post.
20/8/2013 01:22:11 pm
Cheers, Alexandra! I really appreciate the degree to which you've shared my resources with your network.
20/8/2013 09:19:22 am
Excellent practical advice, which I thoroughly endorse. However, I do think love of books or words or similar is essential rather than a low priority. Most people who succeed in business (including those you mentioned, Richard Branson and Bill Gates) always say its only worth going into business if you have a strong interest in what it is you are doing. Both Gates and Branson started with little more than a passion for a particular subject or activity. It was this love of computers or music, or whatever, that inspired them to build successful businesses. Someone passionate about food would probably make a better restaurant manager than someone who simply wishes to make a living or a lot of money. It is only this kind of interest that can sustain the level of effort and commitment required to build a successful business.
20/8/2013 01:40:05 pm
Hi C Tilley. I do agree with you. It can absolutely be the driver that propels you in that direction and motivates you to learn your trade, but it only gets you so far when it comes to making a living out of it. I love reading, too, but that isn't why my actual business is successful. Loving reading is useless if I don't also have the market awareness and communication skills to get that message out there to my customers, especially since my clients often offer me projects that I wouldn't read for pleasure. Plus, too many people think that it's an easy career to make a living from and then get a shock when clients don't fall into their laps! Of course you're right that we should use our interests to guide us but that has to be backed up, and seriously so, with a clear understanding and commitment to all the other things that will make for sound business practice. I think it's important to emphasize the realities of running a business and if someone wants free consultancy from me, and expects solutions in five minutes, I'm going to cut to the chase because five minutes talking about their love of x or y is not going to help them!
20/8/2013 10:43:10 am
It's so refreshing to hear that other editorial professionals go through this. I can't tell you how many times I've had someone say to me, "I think I'd be a really good proofreader (or editor). I absolutely love books."
20/8/2013 01:40:54 pm
Glad to know I, too, am not alone, Valerie!
20/8/2013 11:01:42 am
I'm a freelance copywriter and can't tell you the number of times I've had a similar conversation! I still haven't quite worked out what people want to hear. 'Oh you just do A and then you'll magically have a successful freelance business'?
20/8/2013 01:48:44 pm
Couldn't agree more, Hannah!
22/8/2013 11:09:57 am
22/8/2013 11:18:44 am
23/8/2013 04:35:37 am
You're so right that liking reading isn't enough. Reading for proofreading/editing is completely different to reading for pleasure (research suggests even the way you move your eyes changes) and the satisfaction you get from working on a text is, in my experience very different to that from reading as a leisure activity.
23/8/2013 09:15:58 am
That's a really good point, Gemma. So many of us proofread or edit material that is very different from our leisure reading. Also, certain clients such as publishers want very specific things from us that the complete newbie might not be aware of - reference styles, layout issues, leaving alone when it's appropriate to do so within a given brief, and much more besides.
23/8/2013 07:50:40 am
With a little tweaking, this is good advice for anyone interested in starting a business. You have wrap your head around the idea that what you love will not be your entire job. Yes, you love reading. Good, cause in this job you'll do it a lot.
23/8/2013 09:18:41 am
Agreed, Bill. And though you'll be reading a lot, as Gemma points out above, you won't always love what you are reading!
23/8/2013 08:05:07 am
Sorry, I believe you are overcomplicating things. You seem to be throwing the kitchen sink at this woman who just wants to know how to fix a leak. Being a proofreading freelancer is not as complex as you make out. Is there more to it than she thinks? Sure, but she doesn't have to learn all that stuff up front, any more than a bicycle mechanic who wants to start a garage business needs to learn everything up front. How do I know? I do some freelance proofreading/editing myself, besides writing. I started out by doing it for fellow author friends for free. Only after I had proofed six novels did I start charging, and I started cheap and slowly raised my rates. I learned along the way how to run the business side of things, but the most important thing I did was always deliver exceptional value for money. Even if my service was not perfect or even great at first, "free" is a price that's hard to beat, and "cheap" followed hard on its heels.
4/11/2016 12:40:54 pm
23/8/2013 10:07:52 am
Hi David, I don't agree that I dissuaded her! I listened to her and offered some resources that would help her on her way, in the process reminding her that x or y isn't in itself enough. If I'd been aiming to dissuade her I'd have told her that I don't offer free consultancy, wished her all the best, said my goodbyes and put the phone down. I didn't do that. I get a lot of calls and emails like this and I always offer advice that is, I hope, realistic and constructive.
23/8/2013 10:48:01 am
As the abundant qualifications in my comment should have made clear, I am giving you my impression of your blog post. Because I only have your side of the conversation in front of me in print, that's all I can evaluate by. I stand by my impression of your blog post.
23/8/2013 11:11:46 am
And your views are very welcome, David. I'm open to learning, too, and your impression has given me food for thought. I apologise for not expressing that in my initial reply to you.
29/8/2013 03:40:32 am
Thanks, Louise! Fantastic article. I have had a couple of people enquire about starting out as a proofreader, so I have referred them here. Thank you!
29/8/2013 06:48:22 am
Cheers, Jane! Glad you found it a useful resource.
3/10/2013 05:22:00 am
Thank you for all the useful information in this blog. After much procrastinating (and I'm talking years...), I am finally taking the first steps towards proofreading. I have worked in printing for over twenty years, and proofread much of our work, but have no formal qualifications. Finding clients is the scary part for me, but hopefully working through the Grammar At Work course, then PTC Proofreading, along with the books you suggest, I may actually get there this time. So thank you again!
3/10/2013 10:57:43 am
Good luck, Sarah. I agree that the client-building side of the business is the most demanding for some, but I think that a planned and strategic approach can really make a difference. You might be interested in the marketing book I have coming out in 2014. More info here: http://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/book-marketing-your-editing--proofreading-business-forthcoming-2014.html.
24/5/2021 07:32:53 pm
If I had a pound for every time I've been asked this question, I'd be a rich woman! I absolutely agree with you, Louise. My latest enquiry was a chap who said that he loved books, was always pointing out typos, how could he get work proofreading, etc etc. I like to take my time to answer people, because I want to be helpful if I can. So I sent him a long email telling him how I started, how you have to be an avid reader before you even contemplate this career, why a course alone will not help you do the job or get work, that you have to work out how you're going to support yourself when you first start out on your own, marketing yourself, social media etc etc. It took me quite some time to put together. I received a one-sentence reply, thanking me for my email! Not that I wanted effusive gratitude, but I got the impression that I had pointed out something that he didn't want to hear, i.e. that there is no quick route to becoming a good proofreader.
2/6/2021 10:50:33 am
Thanks, Julia! I think one of the problems is that proofreading is often presented as some easy and quick 'side hustle', and that's just not the case.
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