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Thursday 18th April 2024

Could you make money as a freelance proofreader and copy editor?

Nick Daws delves into the world of freelance proofreading and copy editing as whether it is a lucrative career option.

Copywriter working


For many years I made my living primarily as a freelance writer. But I also had a steady sideline as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. 

Obviously the skills required are closely related, and I enjoyed the variety of proofreading and editing work, not to mention the extra income it generated!

So today I thought I would discuss how to make money as a freelance proofreader and/or editor.

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Let’s start with the basics, though…

What do proofreaders and copy editors do?

Proofreaders perform a final check on the text of books and other written documents before they are sent to be printed. 

Traditionally they mark up any errors they find on paper, using a standard set of proofreading marks (usually BS 5261). These corrections are then incorporated by the typesetter before the book goes to print.

Proofreaders are typically asked to work in one of two ways. They may be sent the author’s original typescript with the copy editor’s corrections marked on it, together with a copy of the proofs.

In this case they are required to check that the typesetter has carried out all the editor’s instructions and not inserted any errors of his/her own. This task is known as reading against copy.

Alternatively, the proofreader may just be sent a set of proofs and be asked to read through them, checking for any errors (e.g. spelling, punctuation or factual mistakes). This is known as a straight (or blind) reading.

Either way, proofreaders generally make two marks per correction: one in the margin and another in the text itself. The idea is that the typesetter can glance down the margins to see where a correction might be required, and then look across the line in question to find it. This reduces the chances of a correction being overlooked.

Copy editors are involved at an earlier stage of the publishing process. They generally work with the author’s original typescript (or a copy of this).

As well as correcting spelling and punctuation mistakes, the editor’s task also includes correcting grammatical errors, checking for bias or possible libel, and generally polishing the text so that it reads well and conforms to the publisher’s house style.

They also apply ‘weights’ to section headings (H1, H2, H3, etc.), so that headings and sub-headings are properly printed and arranged in a logical hierarchy.

Copy editing is a more creative task than proofreading, and also more demanding. Many freelances start off as proofreaders and perhaps graduate to copy editing later.

Both proofreading and copy editing are increasingly done electronically. That means working on screen, on a word-processed document rather than on paper.

The underlying skills required are the same, but you won’t be required to make the traditional proofreading (or editing) marks. You will, though, be expected to use ‘tracking’ to ensure that any amendments you make are easy to see (and can be reversed if the author or publisher dislikes them!).

What do you need to get started?

To start with, you must have an interest in language and a love of good writing. A good grasp of grammar, spelling and punctuation is essential, though you can take courses if you are not as strong in this area as you ought to be.

You will also need to learn the standard proofreading marks. These are reproduced on various websites (e.g. this one) and in a number of published books, e.g. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

You should also have a good modern dictionary to check spellings and usage, and – for copy editing at least – a style guide such as the Oxford Guide to Plain English. Many publishers also have their own in-house style guides, of course.

Who will your customers be?

Your main clients will be book, magazine and newspaper publishers. You may also obtain work from businesses looking for someone to edit and/or proofread their brochures, newsletters, annual reports, and so on. 

As well as printed documents of all kinds, there is a growing demand for people to edit and proofread online content: blogs, websites, email newsletters, and so on.

Writers and aspiring writers may also require your services – in the case of the latter, they may be hoping you can bring their work up to a publishable standard. 

I have even been asked to proofread a PhD thesis (the gentleman concerned was awarded his doctorate, so I hope he felt this was money well spent!).

Other potential customers include design houses, advertising and public relations agencies, printers and typesetters.

How much can you make?

For freelance proofreading, the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) Freelance Fees Guide recommends a minimum rate of £25.50 an hour and for copy editing a minimum of £30.00 an hour. 

In practice you may not always be able to get NUJ minimum rates when you are starting out. Equally, however, you may be able to negotiate rates above the NUJ minimum as you gain experience.

How can you sell your services?

You could start by sending a mailshot to publishing houses offering your services. A good selection can be found in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

This is a highly competitive sphere, however, so it may be best to focus on those publishers who are active in areas where you have some specialist knowledge.

If you have experience in medicine, science and/or technology, for example, you might decide to target specifically publishers who produce titles in these categories. When you write, don’t forget to mention any relevant qualifications and experience.

Local businesses and advertising/PR agencies are also well worth trying. In addition, you could try advertising your services in publications likely to be read by potential clients.

Several proofreaders advertise regularly in journals such as The Author and Writing Magazine, and this can be a good way to attract business from writers. You could also try advertising in local business magazines and directories (online and print).

Having your own website/blog and perhaps a Facebook page to promote your service is also highly desirable.

Where can you learn more?

There are various distance-learning courses you can take in proofreading and copy editing. 

One long-established commercial provider is Chapterhouse. They offer a range of inexpensive introductory courses in proofreading and copy editing. These cover the basics and will help you discover whether proofreading and editing is something you enjoy and have an aptitude for.

More advanced courses are offered by the Publishing Training Centre. These include short, classroom-based courses, online tutor-guided courses (leading to the award of a certificate of achievement from the Publishing Qualifications Board), and e-learning modules. If you want to gain an industry-recognized qualification, studying with the PTC is probably the way to go.

The professional organisation for freelance proofreaders and editors in the UK (and overseas) is the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Members receive a regular newsletter and discounts on various publications. They are also entitled to a listing in the Institute’s Directory of Editorial Services. CIEP also run workshops and online training courses in proofreading and editing.

Final thoughts

Freelance proofreading and/or editing can be a great part-time sideline, or even a full-time business. No special tools or equipment are required, so it’s quick, cheap and easy to get started. It’s reasonably paid, and you can work from home at hours to suit yourself.

It’s also suitable for older people and people with disabilities – with the one proviso that it becomes harder if (as in my own case) your eyesight isn’t as good as it once was..

As always, if you have any comments about this article, please do post them below.

Photo Credits: Pexels

Nick Daws

Mouthy Blogger

Nick Daws is a semi-retired freelance writer and editor. He is the author of over 30 non-fiction books, including Start Your Own Home-Based Business and The Internet for Writers. He lives in Burntwood, Staffordshire, where he has been running his personal finance blog at Poundsandsense.com for over seven years.

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