To welcome in the new year, I’d thought I’d revisit a topic that’s close to my heart – taking a balanced approach to the business of proofreading.
In the past twelve months I've received many queries from people considering setting up a proofreading (or copy-editing) business. Some were looking for a complete career change, some had retired from their office jobs and were looking for a way to earn a supplementary income to top up their pensions, and some wanted a way to earn additional revenue while maintaining their current full- or part-time jobs.
What was heartening is that nearly everyone I spoke to was interested in getting a recommendation about which course to take. Here in the UK there are many training options, and navigating those options can feel overwhelming to someone who’s completely new to the field. I made it clear to those with whom I corresponded on the subject that my advice was based on my own experience, target client groups, skill set and preferences.
As with most things in life, there’s no one true way to get to a place you want to be. Different people have different opinions about what works and what doesn't. The most important thing is that these would-be new entrants to the field were keen to research how they could best make themselves fit for purpose.
Training: Building a boat ...
Being fit for purpose is where training comes in, and I like to think of training as a boat. When a new editorial freelancer builds a boat, they provide themselves with a sound vessel in which they can house learned knowledge about industry-recognized ways of doing things (e.g. mark-up symbols, working onscreen, following a brief, querying appropriately) and industry-recognized language (e.g. widows, orphans, folios, galley proofs, running heads, and so on).
A good training course is a crucial step to being work-ready – to being able to tackle the practical aspects of doing a really good job for a client. Of course, it doesn't end there. Training’s never really complete! There are always new things to learn – new software, new ways of marking up, new formats in which the work can be carried out, new tools to improve efficiency. Getting the basics established, though, is just good business practice.
So, having built the boat, are we done? Is that going to get our business under way? Well, probably not, unless we’re extremely lucky. A boat sitting at the side of a river is doing just that – sitting at the side of the river. To make our editorial business viable we need to be sailing.
Marketing: Sailing the river ...
Most new proofreaders don’t start out with a client list, and even those with a publishing background and/or good business contacts only have a tiny list of potential clients.
And because the newbie is new, the benefits of a good reputation haven’t yet had the opportunity to work their magic. Even if they've built a website, the chances are that it’s on page 260 of Google’s search results, and few, if any, potential customers are going to hit the “next” button that many times. In short, the new entrant isn’t yet findable, so even though the training has ensured their boat won’t sink, said boat is in dock. When the boat’s in dock, you’re simply a proofreader with no proofreading work.
To set sail, you need a marketing plan. A marketing plan will help you find your clients, given that during the start-up phase they’re less likely to find you. Your marketing plan might not look like your friend’s marketing plan.
They may be offering copy-editing and translation, while you’re offering proofreading and CV checking. They might be a retired social worker looking to target publishers and journal-submission authors who need help with their social policy materials, while you may be an office-based administrator looking to target students, publishers and businesses who need your services for their management/organization studies books/reports/theses.
Based on these factors, you might decide to target publishers A, B and C, whereas they may focus on X, Y and Z; you might try one freelancing directory; they might prefer another.
You both might consider face-to-face networking; you’d both be bonkers not to have a website. What social media platforms will you test? What will your CV/résumé say? How will you pitch yourself to make your skills interesting to customers? What professional networks will you join to connect you with fellow editorial professionals who may be able to offer advice and even refer work to you? Will you join a professional organization and, if you do, are there opportunities for you to market yourself to colleagues and customers using membership resources?
Balancing: being work-ready and market-ready ...
Editorial business ownership is just like other type of business ownership. There’s competition in spades, and a lot of hard work to do if you want to make that business sustainable and successful according to your own needs and parameters.
Sailing the river without a sound boat means you’re more likely to sink, so hats off to all my correspondents in the past year who spent so much time carefully researching how to make themselves work-ready by evaluating their training needs. But once you've built your boat, do set sail – make time to work out how you are actively going to make yourself findable and interesting to your potential clients. Make yourself market-ready not just work-ready.
I’ve bashed this metaphor to death, I know (I live near the Norfolk Broads, so water’s never far from my mind!), but a balance of solid training and professional development with active, targeted promotion is, in my opinion, the best way to keep your business afloat and get the wind in your sails.
Here are some resources I’d recommend for anyone considering starting up a proofreading (or copy-editing) business ...
Stuff to help you on your way ...
Obviously there’s a great deal more fabulous stuff available but reading these will lead you to more resources if you want to continue your research. They’re not all UK-based – when it comes to the business side of editorial freelancing, much of the advice I've read can be applied, or tweaked, to suit anyone’s geographical location. The ideas themselves are what count.
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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