Q&A with Louise: I have multiple sclerosis and severely reduced manual dexterity – can I become a professional proofreader?
Another email from a reader. The answer will be of interest to anyone with similar manual dexterity issues, and who is considering a career as an proofreader.
‘I am looking into a career in proofreading. I have multiple sclerosis and need to work from home. I was wondering if you know whether any of the online courses cover the use of things such as Track Changes. Unfortunately, I have lost almost all manual dexterity and am unable to mark up on hard copy. I am, however, able to use a keyboard and mouse comfortably.’
Thanks so much for your question, Rachel.
So the good news is that because you can use a keyboard and mouse, and you therefore prefer to work onscreen, professional proofreading is certainly a viable option for you (assuming your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are up to scratch, and you're ready to market your business effectively).
Furthermore, there are industry-recognized training courses and resources that will support your onscreen learning.
One thing we need to look at is how different client types’ expectations of what proofreading entails present challenges for you.
It’s important to me that you’re forewarned about this so that you can target your clients appropriately, and communicate your service offering in a way that makes it clear what you will and won’t do.
I’ll tackle that issue first and then move on to the training options available.
Proofreading – expectations and possible challenges
So, you’ve told me that your MS affects your manual dexterity, but my first thought was whether it also leads to fatigue. You didn’t mention this in your email, but I think it’s worth discussing for reasons that I hope will become clear.
In my first decade of proofreading practice, almost all of my clients were mainstream publishers. Now I work exclusively with self-publishers (a few businesses but primarily writers of fiction).
What’s clear from my experience is that the expectations of what has to be done and how it has to be done often differ depending on client type.
Furthermore, how much will be done by the proofreader is often (though not always) quite different.
What and how much does a proofreader do? Traditional publishers
When working for traditional publishers, a proofreader is usually annotating designed page proofs. These are the pages (either paper or digital) that are almost identical to what readers would see if they pulled a book off the shelf.
It’s a quality-control check of a book that’s been through developmental-, line- and copy-editing. The author has reviewed the files at each stage. Once the team is happy that the book’s ready to be laid out, an interior designer or typesetter will format the book to professional, industry-recognized standards.
The proofreader’s job is to find anything missed during an extensive copy-edit, that no errors have been introduced at design stage, and that the various elements of the book are rendered consistently, correctly, and according to the design brief.
In this case, the proofreader is looking at more than just spelling, punctuation and grammar. She’s also spotting problems with page numbering, chapter headings, line spacing, paragraph indentation, running heads, image captions, table and figure numbering, widows and orphans, page depth, prelims and end matter, and more.
In my experience, because most of the problems in the text have already been attended to during previous rounds of editing, there might be only a few changes that warrant querying or marking up on each page.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but, on the whole, most of a proofreader’s time is spent carefully reading and checking rather than marking up.
That’s important for you because while your hand movement is somewhat impaired, your vision isn’t.
And because you wouldn’t have to make thousands of changes, the strain on your hands wouldn’t be excessive or challenging.
What and how much does a proofreader do? Non-publishers
Outside of the mainstream publishing industry, things become a little more tangled. The role of the proofreader is not nearly so well defined.
It’s not unusual for clients to ask for a service they call ‘proofreading’ but that a traditional publisher would call ‘copy-editing or even ‘line editing’. Here the raw text is amended (or suggested recasts to the text are made using Word’s commenting tool).
Furthermore, it’s not unusual for the so-called proofreader to be the first professional to work on the text.
And that means that the changes made might well run into the thousands. We’re not talking about a few amendments on each page, but hundreds per chapter, perhaps even per several pages.
Of course, it does vary, but every change, every query, requires the use of one’s hands. So you need to be aware of the potential impact of this kind of work on your health, and think carefully about how it will affect your hands and your fatigue levels.
I’m not saying that working for non-publishers isn’t an option for you. Rather, you’ll need to take your speed and fatigue levels into account and factor them into the time you assign to complete projects.
If you're working in Word, I suspect that =2K–10K-word business documents, Master’s dissertations, journal articles, short stories, brochures and newsletters won't present you with the same challenges as book-length work of 80K–100K words will.
How does a proofreader mark up? Traditional publishers
Because the proofreader is usually providing a pre-publication quality-control check on designed page proofs, most publishers like the annotations to take the form of industry-recognized proof-correction marks. In the UK, these are BS 5261C:2005.
Any decent professional training course will teach you how to use these appropriately.
Traditionally, these annotations were made on paper but publishers are increasingly providing PDF proofs.
This affords you an opportunity because you can use a keyboard and mouse to annotate the page proofs in a way that mirrors a paper markup. There are a few options, but many proofreaders use a combination of a PDF editor’s (e.g. Adobe Reader DC, Acrobat Pro, or PDF-XChange) onboard comment and markup tools and digital proofreading symbols (custom stamps).
I supply free files of stamps that proofreaders can download and install in the stamp palettes of their PDF editors. These stamps conform to BS 5261C:2005.
How does a proofreader mark up? Non-publishers
Because many non-publishers supply Word files, you’ll be working directly in Word and using Track Changes.
You’ll also be able to take advantage of several macro suites and find/replace strings that will improve your efficiency and reduce the strain on your wrists and fingers.
That’s good news for all of us – with or without MS or other manual-dexterity issues – in terms of time, quality and consistency.
Summary of what, how, and how much
So, all in all, it’s worth your taking the time to think about the types of clients you’ll work for, how many changes you might be required to make, how those client types will expect you to mark up, what length the projects will be, how long it will take you to complete the different project types, and how all of those things fit in with your specific health condition.
My two recommended online proofreading training providers in the UK are the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and The Publishing Training Centre.
The SfEP has practical online courses on the technical aspects of professional proofreading, a grammar brush-up course, and editing in Word. Of the latter, the SfEP says, ‘It includes chapters on styles and templates, find & replace and wildcards, and macros. Guest chapters have been written by Paul Beverley on FRedit, Daniel Heuman on PerfectIt and Jack Lyon on The Editorium. All chapters contain downloadable study notes, exercises and model answers.’
The PTC offers a grammar course, and its flagship Basic Proofreading course.
Before you sign up, I’d recommend you have a conversation with either or both organizations in order to assure yourself that the course materials are usable in a way that suits your needs.
Additionally, there are numerous free online tutorials and screencasts on how to use Word’s Track Changes, so Google will be your friend here. Search for one that matches your own version of Word.
The most important issue for any professional proofreader is understanding first what to change, and making sure that she and the client are on the same page, figuratively speaking, about what degree of intervention is expected and how it will be rendered.
Online books and resources
Here are some resources that should help you on your journey:
I hope this helps you move forward, Rachel, and wish you all the very best in your search for a career that will work for you alongside your MS rather than in opposition to it.
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.
'Louise uses her expertise to hone a story until it's razor sharp, while still allowing the author’s voice to remain dominant.'
'I wholeheartedly recommend her services ... Just don’t hire her when I need her.'
J B Turner
'Sincere thanks for a beautiful and elegant piece of work. First class.'
'What makes her stand out and shine is her ability to immerse herself in your story.'
'A million thanks – your mark-up is perfect, as always.'