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How to Become a Proofreader – Get Started

Many people don’t notice typos or grammatical errors in printed documents or online. Two spaces after a period, an apostrophe where none is needed, or mixed up homophones don’t bother them. But for you, a typo in a restaurant menu or a blog post can be enough to ruin your day. You might need to call a manager or leave a comment.

You can turn your ability to spot misspellings and grammar mistakes into a fulfilling, flexible career. As a professional proofreader, you can set your own schedule, take on your own clients, and have control over your work life and career. Although some proofreaders work on-site in an office, many are freelancers who decide when and where they work.

If this sounds intriguing to you, read on to learn more about what proofreaders do and how to get started as one.

What Proofreaders Do

A proofreader’s job is to make sure a text is completely free of any grammatical errors, misspellings, weird formatting, and other issues before the text is submitted. They’re often the person who looks at a text or piece of copy last before it gets sent on to a publisher, professor, or is published on a blog.

People often confuse the proofreader and copy editor roles for one another. But there are distinct differences between the two. When a copy editor reads a text, they pay attention to readability, style, and grammar. They might also verify any cited data or statistics or offer additional information for the writer to include. A copy editor ensures a text is clear and understandable for the intended audience and that it follows the conventions outlined in the publication’s style guide.

By contrast, a proofreader focuses strictly on the mechanics and grammatical conventions of a piece. While a copy editor cares about the content of a text and what the writer is saying, the proofreader cares more about the mechanics. A proofreader won’t give their opinion on a plot twist or lecture the writer on using passive instead of active voice.

A proofreader’s job is to go over text with a fine-tooth comb, looking for issues such as misspelled words, extra spaces, and misplaced commas. If the document they’re reviewing has page numbers or photos with captions, the proofreader makes sure the page numbers are correct and the captions match the pictures. If there are statistics or facts mentioned in the piece, a proofreader might fact-check or verify the information, but that’s often left to the editor or another individual.

A proofreader might proof blind, meaning they work with one copy of the text and review it for style or grammar errors. Or they might proof against a text, meaning they compare a document against an edited copy of the text to make sure no errors were introduced to the document.

Skills You Need as a Proofreader

Although proofreaders work on the same texts and documents as writers and editors, they often have a very different set of skills than people who write for a living or work as copy editors. There is some overlap between the professions, though. In some cases, people who thought they had what it takes to make it as a writer discover their skills better align with those of a proofreader.

  • Language Skills. A proofreader must have mastery of the language they work in. They need to know grammatical conventions and rules like the back of their hand.
  • Knowledge of Style Guides. Proofreaders should also have a familiarity with and knowledge of style guides. Depending on what type of material you end up proofreading, you might get by knowing just one style guide. If you’re going to proofread a wide variety of documents, such as newspaper articles, books, and academic papers, it helps to become familiar with multiple guides. Some commonly used styles include Chicago, AP, APA, and MLA (more on those below).
  • Interpersonal and Communication Skills. It helps to have good communication and interpersonal skills as a proofreader, especially if you plan on freelancing. As a freelance proofreader, you’ll need to find your own clients, which can require some relationship-building skills. You’ll also need to build connections with your clients so they keep hiring you over and over. And although the changes you [make to a text as a proofreader might be less personal than those made by an editor, it helps to be able to share your feedback and changes with a writer tactfully without hurting their ego.
  • A Sharp Eye for Detail. Attention to detail and the ability to spot the little things are vital to a proofreader. You need to be able to read documents closely, keeping an eye out for small punctuation marks and extra spaces. When you’re proofreading, you can’t let your mind wander or you might miss a typo.
  • Computer Skills. By no means do you need to be a computer whiz to be a proofreader. But it does help to know how to use MS Word or Google Docs, particularly the track changes and comments features. If you’re freelancing, having basic Web design skills and social media skills is also useful. You’ll want to use a website and social media to market yourself and connect with clients.
  • Business Knowledge. Business savvy might be less essential for proofreaders who find a standard 40-hour-a-week job with one company. But for freelancers, it’s a must-have. Business knowledge includes having the ability to market yourself and your skills, knowing when it makes sense to accept a client or when to turn down a project, and who to turn to for help. For example, you don’t have to do your own taxes as a freelance proofreader, but it’s important to know when they’re due, what deductions you can take, and when to hire a professional to help you.

Resources for Proofreaders

If proofreading sounds appealing to you, the next step is learning as much as you can about language, grammar, and style guides.

Proofreading Courses

Generally speaking, you don’t need to have a college degree to become a proofreader. If you do have a degree, it helps to have one in English or language. If you want to proofread material in a particular industry or field, having specialized training or an advanced degree in that area can also be useful. For example, if your goal is to proofread medical papers, it can be helpful to have a background in medicine.

Otherwise, you can learn the skills you need to be a successful proofreader through a specialized training course, such as Proofread Anywhere. Proofread Anywhere offers two training programs, one in general proofreading and one in transcript proofreading. The general proofreading course is designed for people who are completely new to proofreading. It’s meant to provide an introduction to proofreading skills and to marketing yourself as a freelance proofreader. The transcript proofreading course is designed for more advanced proofreaders who are interested in working with court transcripts.

Many past students of Proofread Anywhere have gone on to launch their own successful freelance proofreading businesses. They credit the course with helping them get their foot in the door, learn valuable proofreading skills, and get into the right mindset.

Melinda Campbell, a freelance proofreader and editor, credits the course with helping her master the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style guide most often used in U.S. book publishing. Along with helping improve her technical skills, the course gave her a confidence boost and helped her overcome imposter syndrome.

Freelance writer and proofreader Danielle Decker notes that the Proofread Anywhere course helped her zero in on the business side of proofreading. She credits the course with helping her take initiative when it comes to finding clients and building up her website, which has played a key role in helping her achieve freelance success.

Proofreading Books

Proofreaders rely on many different style manuals and guides when reading over and correcting copy. The manual you use will depend in large part on the type of material you’re working with and your client’s preferences. Unless you plan on specializing in one particular area, such as books or academic papers, it can be helpful to have a variety of manuals at your fingertips.

  • Chicago Manual of Style. The Chicago Manual of Style is often the go-to style guide for proofreaders. Having a physical copy of the book on hand is useful as it allows you to look up particular points as you go along. You can also purchase a subscription to the online version.
  • Associated Press Style Book. AP style was originally used primarily by journalists, but it’s now commonly used online and for other publications too. Having a physical copy of the book is handy if you’ll be working with clients who prefer AP style. You can also subscribe to the online edition.
  • MLA Handbook. If you plan on proofreading academic papers, you’ll want to have a copy of the MLA Handbook on hand.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). While academic papers in the humanities typically use MLA style, those in the social sciences rely on APA. Having a copy of the APA publication manual is useful for proofreaders who hope to work with academics in the social sciences.
  • An English Dictionary. It’s a good idea to have a dictionary handy to look up unfamiliar words and confirm proper spelling. If you plan on working with English-language clients in a variety of countries, it can be useful to have a dictionary for each country, such as an American English dictionary and a dictionary for British and Canadian English.

Business Tools for Proofreaders

If you decide to work as a freelance proofreader, you’ll want to use a few tools to help you manage the business side of your career. An invoicing and bookkeeping program allows you to send invoices to clients on a regular basis and keep track of payments. There are a wide variety of programs out there, ranging from free options such as Wave to paid programs such as QuickBooks.

If you bill by the hour, time-tracking software, such as Toggl, will help you track how much time you’re spending on projects so you can bill clients the correct amount.

How to Find Work as a Proofreader

As a freelance proofreader, you’ll need to put on your marketing hat from time to time to find new clients and bring in work. The Proofread Anywhere course reviews ways to market yourself and your business, but here are a few things you can expect to do to help get your new career off of the ground.

  • Build Your Own Website. Decker credits the Proofread Anywhere course with giving her the initiative needed to create a website for her business. Having a website doesn’t just give people a place to go to find out more about you; it also makes you look more professional. You can use your website to solicit new business, show off your portfolio, and make the case for why people should hire you. Websites don’t cost a lot of money to start. Bluehost allows you to get everything you need for less than $5 per month.
  • Network. Networking is vital for success in any field, particularly for proofreading. Your workflow depends on you building connections and relationships with other people. Without writers or publishers, you won’t have anything to proofread. You can network both online through social media and offline by attending conferences and events. One rule of thumb to follow as a proofreading professional is to go where the writers are. That might mean attending writing conferences or writer meet-ups in your area or visiting a local university campus to meet with professors.
  • Try Freelancing Websites. Job boards and freelance websites such as Fiverr and Upwork often have postings for proofreaders. Bear in mind that some job board postings pay better than others, but as a brand-new proofreader, it may be worth it to accept a few lower-paying jobs to start so that you can build your portfolio.
  • Ask for Referrals. Word of mouth is often the best way to find new clients as a proofreader. If you start working with a writer or publisher and they like your work, encourage them to refer you to other writers they might know. You can also collect reviews and testimonials from happy clients to share on your website or social media profiles.

How Much You Can Earn as a Proofreader

In 2018, the median annual salary for proofreaders was $39,140, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you work as a freelance proofreader, you have more flexibility when it comes to income, as you can set your own rates and schedule. If you need to work part-time or limited hours because of kids or other commitments, you can do so. You can also work full-time or more if you prefer.

Final Word

Proofreading can be the perfect work-from-home job for language lovers and people looking for a flexible schedule. If you have a knack for spotting details most people miss and like working with words and other people, you’re likely to find that proofreading is a great fit for you.

Keep in mind that it might take some time to find your first client as a proofreader. Market yourself, work on your skills, and network, and you’ll eventually find the work you need to get your proofreading business up and running.

What about working as a proofreader appeals to you? If you’re currently a proofreader, what other tips would you offer aspiring proofreaders?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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