HOW TO BECOME A PROOFREADER
- Find out if you have the aptitude
- If so, learn an effective proofreading method
- Practice proofreading
- Create a proofreading resume or portfolio
- Apply for proofreading jobs or freelance proofreading opportunities
It’s easy to become over-faced if you look at the challenge of becoming a proofreader as a single task. But if you take it one step at a time, you’ll find (assuming you have the aptitude) that by steadily chipping away at each of these stages it is very much an attainable goal.
And its little wonder many people contemplate how to become a proofreader, in this era of online entrepreneurship and home-working opportunities. It is, in many ways, the perfect work-from-home opportunity, requiring minimal upfront investment
Find out if you have the aptitude
You might be shocked when I tell you that the proofreader’s mindset has absolutely nothing to do with grammar, punctuation or orthography. I’m not saying these things aren’t important (of course they are,) but they are not critical to the proofreader’s mindset.
If you have a proofreader’s mindset, you will have a keen eye for detail. You will be the kind of person who, when doing a jigsaw puzzle on a rainy Sunday afternoon, is able to spot just the right piece of sky among a hundred or more seemingly identical pieces of sky. It will take you no more than a minute or two to find Waldo. You will be the kind of person who catches the glint of a dropped earring when everyone else is looking in an entirely different direction. You’re the person who spotted the 747 flying over in 'Goodfellas' and pointed out that the 747 didn’t take to the skies for another six years. You don’t do word searches because they’re just too easy; the words practically leap off the page and tickle your chin!
You’re a details person. You may be just a little bit (but lovably) pedantic.
Without the proofreader’s mindset, without this keen eye for detail, no amount of knowledge of grammar, punctuation or orthography is going to make you an effective and valuable proofreader. You could be World Champion at both Scrabble and Boggle and it still wouldn’t mark you out as an inevitable candidate for a proofreading career.
The mindset is everything.
Learn an effective proofreading method
Well, that raw ability, no matter how powerful, isn’t much use unless it can be harnessed by, or funneled through, a robust and effective proofreading method.
It’s important you understand that ‘proofreading’ isn’t the same as ‘reading’. I’ll go one step further, if you’re a voracious reader, it could prove to be an impediment when it comes to proofreading. But don’t worry if you are a complete book nerd with a three-novel-a-week reading habit, this ‘impediment’ can be overcome by the application of said robust and effective proofreading method.
But that’s crazy, you say. Surely people who are really good at reading make the best proofreaders?
Nope. Think about it. When you’re reading a novel, you’re caught in the flow. The author, if they’re any good, is guiding you like a kite on a string though their narrative, often at quite a pace. Once you’re in this frame of mind – so very, very different from the proofreader’s mindset – you begin, without even being aware of it, speed reading, skim reading, superficial reading, particularly if you’re a prolific reader.
The thing is, the human brain is remarkably adept at correcting errors and moving on, at papering over the cracks. Grammatical errors and spelling mistakes are corrected before you’ve even registered them. In fact, never mind spelling mistakes, as long as the first and last letters of a word are correct, your brain can read them with astonishing ease. Tnihk taht’s iompssilbe? Tnihk aigan.
A systematic proofreading method derails this natural tendency to subconsciously amend input, which opens your eyes to the potential for error. The actual method employed will differ from proofreader to proofreader, with different courses recommending different techniques (The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course makes some very specific recommendations based on my own decades of experience), but they all agree on some basic points.
- Read slowly and deliberately
- Read multiple times (once for sense and readability and at least once more, scouring for errors)
- Break complex pages into manageable chunks
- Read out of sequence (this way you don’t get caught in the writer’s spell)
You’re not going to unlearn all of that. But you are going to have to learn to switch it off and on, to employ the appropriate reading method depending on what you are reading and why.
The good news is your brain is more than capable of handling this. There’s a lot of nonsense around suggesting that the brain ‘hardens’ around the age of 25 and that it becomes more difficult to learn new things. While this is true of some things (learning a new language, for example), in most cases it simply isn’t true. Your brain is changing all the time.
The main reason most skills appear to have to be learned at a young age is because of the amount of time needed to become competent and to excel. In his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours. One of the many examples Gladwell give is The Beatles, who returned from Hamburg in 1964 with performing abilities far exceeding the rough-edged talents with which they’d left some four years earlier. This period in Hamburg fits quite neatly with Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory.
Now, I can already sense your panic. I can practically hear you thinking “I don’t want to practice proofreading eight hours a day for four years before I start my proofreading business!” Well, you don’t have to. The 10,000-hour rule applies to becoming world-class at something, something where there are strata of ability. Playing piano, painting a picture, throwing a football are all things at which people vary significantly in terms of skill level but can still be said to ‘do’. That’s why some people play piano at Carnegie hall and some people play at home for their family. Some people throw a football in the park with their friends and some people throw the ole pigskin for the New England Patriots. You don’t have to achieve Olympic-level proofreading skills, you just have to be competent. Thanks to our ‘robust proofreading method’ competent is sufficient. There are no maverick proofreaders. If I was putting a ballpark figure out there for how much practice you need to do (and, obviously it’s going to vary from person to person), I would say a couple of hours a day for about a month. This isn’t rocket science and it isn’t like learning to play the accordion. It’s pretty simple stuff and a lot of it is common sense.
One of the main purposes of this practice phase is to help you identify ‘blind spots’. We all have them: certain words or phrases that we just don’t see. By identifying these during the practice period, you can make a note of them and be on the lookout in future. To my eternal shame, I still miss ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ errors when proofreading. Don’t why. Just a blind spot. So I always use the ‘Find’ function in Word or Adobe Reader to highlight all the incidences of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ and subject them to particular scrutiny.
Create a proofreading resume or portfolio
- Proofread projects for friends and family
- Offer to proofread for your boss at work
- Offer to proofread for small, local businesses
- Offer your services on self-publishing forums
The important thing with all these ‘freebies’ is to make a record of them and request testimonials. These assignments with testimonials can be displayed on your resume, your website, your LinkedIn profile, your Google My Business page etc.
Look for work
- Freelance route
- Full-time contract route
Then start approaching businesses. You can do this by telephone but I’d recommend putting a mailshot together. You can do this using a service like Canva (which is free) and Instant Print (which is very cost-effective). A simple brochure or even a post card with eye-catching graphics can work wonders.
Now, when approaching businesses, it’s very easy to make the mistake of approaching only the most obvious ‘proofreader employers’. I’m talking publishing houses, newspapers, literary agents, that kind of thing. And while it’s certainly worth looking there, you’ll be missing out on a whole host of opportunities if you limit yourself to those choices.
What I’m going to say next is very important if you’re looking to have a sustainable career as a proofreader. Proofreaders are needed anywhere the written word is produced and distributed. And that’s pretty much everywhere. I worked for thirteen years for a large online retailer, with proofreading being among my many responsibilities. I was mostly proofreading catalogues and brochures, but also press releases and internal communications.
So, make sure you contact:
- Advertising agencies
- Marketing companies
- Public relations practices
- Local government offices
- Any large business (accountants, law firms, architectural practices, anything)
The chances are in one of these big companies there will have been an embarrassing incident. A press release will have gone out with a spelling error. An advertisement will have been printed with the wrong telephone number. A company report will have been distributed with a picture of a giraffe instead of the Head of Accounts. That kind of thing. Something that has the powers that be in the business thinking Once bitten, twice shy.
For the second route, the route to a full-time contract, you’ll need to sign-up with as many recruitment agencies as possible, then start contacting the same types of companies as above for all the same reasons.
If you get an offer of an interview, you’ll want to check out my post here.
And that’s it. How to become a proofreader in a nutshell.
Okay, it turned out to be a pretty big nutshell at over 2,000 words.
Good luck with all your proofreading endeavours!
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Emma Steel, Proofreader and International Structural Editor.
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Rachel Gee, Trainee Proofreader.
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Teresa Richardson, Proofreader.
“As someone who has effectively been proofreading for thirty years, I found Mike’s No-Nonsense Proofreading Course an invaluable introduction and a very useful practical guide to many aspects of this discipline. I can whole-heartedly recommend it as the ideal starting point, and much more besides.”
Jeremy Meehan, Proofreader.
The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course
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“As someone who has been proofreading for 30 years, I found Mike’s course an invaluable introduction and a very useful practical guide to many aspects of the discipline. I can wholeheartedly recommend it.” Jeremy Meehan, Proofreader.
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