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The Freelancer’s Guide to Successful Proofreading

Written by on June 15, 2016

Proofreaders have been around in some form or another for centuries—perhaps all the way to when the first book was published.

Or maybe even earlier, when the first caveman in Africa scratched ‘GAAAR!’ into the cave walls, his brother was watching over his shoulder saying, “Actually, you only need one ‘A’.”

Possibly also the first homicide.

Proofreading is usually the art of checking a finished document before it heads out to the readers, and it’s gaining in popularity in the US and the world.

It’s different from editing (which it’s usually confused with) because copywriters and editors are involved in the creation of the document and they discuss many things, including offering creative help and deciding what images to use and where.

Proofreading comes in at the end.

Anytime anyone is going to publish something, they’ll probably need another set of eyes to make sure the grammar and spelling are fine, and that the document is consistent throughout.The differences between editing and proofreading

Some proofreaders can go further into the copy editing field by discussing style, mood, and offering some other editorial changes.

Proofreading is usually the more popular option for freelancers and clients because it doesn’t require as much involvement.  The client sends you the document, you check the document, and voila! You’ve just proofread. There may be some more back-and-forth, but that’s about the gist of it.

But if you’re just beginning proofreading (or you’ve been doing it a while with limited results), how can you ensure your success?

I’ve been doing freelance proofreading for a few years now, so I’ve had some experience in almost every area, including the successes, failures, and danger zones.

So in our guide today, we’ll look at some important parts of freelance proofreading and how you can make your little business grow.

The Ups and Downs

The benefits of being a freelance proofreaderFreelance proofreading is great. The biggest benefit is that you get to set your own schedule and decide how much you want to work.

Feeling energetic or want to save up for a big purchase? Go ahead and proofread as much as you can this month and rake in the big bucks.

Christmas time is rolling around and you want to relax a little? Do less work and enjoy the holidays. You are your own boss and you have total freedom over your work and income.

It’s also great that you can work-from-home, work-from-coffee-shop, work-from-the-park-bench—you can pretty much work from anywhere and at anytime.

The disadvantages of being a freelance proofreaderOn the other hand, proofreading has some not-so-nice parts too.

With your own freedom comes your own unpredictable schedule and therefore an unstable income.

Sometimes you’ll have a lot of clients, and you won’t even know how many more coffees you’ll be able to drink. And then other times the only activity will be the sound of crickets as tumbleweed rolls across your lawn.

Also, you’re pretty much working alone, so if you’re more introvert on the personality spectrum, you’re good. But if you enjoy a little social contact now and then, it can get a bit lonely.

After a while, you’ll either be having passionate philosophical arguments with yourself about the color of a dress or looking into getting your tenth cat.

There is a positive correlation between years proofreading and number of cats owned

So be aware, as with everything else, there are some ups and downs to the freelance proofreading industry that may impact you in big ways later on.

The Right Stuff

So now that you know the goods and the bads, there’s some other stuff you need in order to succeed.

Personality

First of all, you have to have the right internal stuff. Here I’m talking about the right kind of personality, which mostly boils down to patience and focus.

You’ll be sitting down at your computer for hours and days on end, checking over the document with a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything is 100% perfect.

You cannot skip a period, or switch between the decimal point and decimal comma (which clients love to do in Europe), or confuse homophones, or the thousands of other things that normal eyes will miss. You’ll need patience and focus to catch all of it.

Knowledge

Besides the personality, you’ll also need to have the right knowledge.

If you often mistake there for their or they’re (why not?), you may want to consider a different profession. Or if you hate reading for a long time or have never taken or enjoyed a writing class, this may not be your cup of tea.

In addition, you need to be a sort of polite Grammar Nazi, keeping your eyes always open for possible mistakes.

It doesn’t mean you have to correct your girlfriend’s spelling when she writes you a break-up letter that she sent you through Facebook (thanks, Lisa!), but you should have a strong knowledge of grammar rules.

For me, I attended workshops and got some qualifications, but it wasn’t until I started teaching English abroad that the grammar became second-nature (especially when kids and frustrated adults constantly hound you about some rule).

You learn to know your stuff.

What you need to succeed in freelance proofreading

Focus on one area

Also, it’s probably a good idea to focus on one or a few related areas.

Starting out you’ll want to do everything, anything, but keep in mind you’ll eventually do this a lot, everyday, so it has to be at least tolerable or hopefully enjoyable.

For example, I cannot do medical texts, I have never studied medicine, in fact I don’t even know where my lungs are at this very moment.

So instead I just focus on academic texts, which I enjoyed in college, and business-related things like marketing and reports, which are usually not too technical.

Software

Lastly, you’re probably going to have to have access to some software.

The golden standard is a pretty easy standard—Microsoft Word. Most proofreaders I know just use the Track Changes and Comment functions, and that pretty much takes care of 99% of your proofing needs.

I’ve had a few jobs that required Adobe’s Track Changes, but the clients always had a Word version as well.

Finding customers

Now, to the good stuff.

Finding new customers is hard, especially if you’re just starting out.  Later on, word-of-mouth will be your best marketing strategy, but when you’re a beginner, you just don’t have the reputation yet.

I’ve had various successes over the years, but the best method for me was either personal pitching or cold-start proofing.

What’s personal pitching?

Personal pitching is one way to get customersPersonal pitching is that annoying thing that people do when you talk to them and they try to sell you something.

I could put it in a nicer way, but you’ll need to get market-y at some point to grow your business.

As a teacher, I’ve had business students who have websites or print materials, and in the course of our conversations, I’d slowly find out who does their proofreading.

If they say no one, I act really shocked and recommend they get a proofreader, just to be sure, and then, wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what I do. Get outta here! And I can look over some materials for you if you want.

I look over their materials, I find mistakes—there are always mistakes—and I let them know. Usually it’s a small sample, and if I do it well enough, which I always do, I’ve caught a client.

I do the same thing with people I know that have businesses, or my wife’s colleagues and friends.

The trick is not to be pushy, but not to be too relaxed. This is your money, so sometimes you’ll have to be a bit annoying now to have clients and income later.

OK, so what’s cold-start proofing?

Cold-start pitching is another way to increase your clientsTo be honest, I just made up this term like, right now.

Pretty much, I was sitting at home and passively waiting for all the clients and money to roll in.

But while I was waiting, I decided: let me check some websites and just see how their content is. Because I was in Lithuania at the time (this works great for non-English speaking countries), I went through a business website listing and clicked around.

The result was that almost all of the websites had mistakes ranging from the small and insignificant to the large and unprofessional.

So I screenshot the website, did some danger-red circles with my fancy Microsoft Paint skills, proofread one or two pages on the screenshot then sent it to them. I even added a Word document with it if there was a sizeable amount of text or just to show how an example of how it would work.

An example of my early cold-start proofing days
An example of my early cold-start proofing days.

The results were very good. I must’ve done about 100 sites over the course of a few days, in between episodes of Breaking Bad, and at the end of that trial week I got about 7 responses.

7%!? you’re probably screaming now.

Yes, 7%, and that’s good. Because at the end I got 5 clients (two were too cheap) who helped me start my freelance proofreading.

Combined with my personal pitches, those clients through word-of-mouth led me to my other clients, who led to my other bigger clients, and after a while the system became self-sustaining.

It’s important to realize that it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world. Because proofreading requires no physical contact, and because the internet is borderless, you can have clients as far away as Kathmandu, and as long as they pay you, no worries.

You don’t have to restrict your proofreading to clients in your zip code.

Keeping your clients

Your clients will immediately ask you one thing: what are your rates?

You should probably know the answer to this question either before you do your marketing stuff, or while you’re waiting for your replies.

Know Your Rates

Proofreader rates come in a few different varieties: by characters, by word, by hour, by page, or by project.

It’s important to remain competitive in any business, so you should check comparable rates from your competition. Comparable meaning, for someone of my level and experience, what are they charging? Especially considering that this is my first client?

You shouldn’t charge too high, but also don’t charge too low.

Sample rates for freelancers
An example of American-based rates. Remember to adapt your rates to your location.

Charge Differently for Urgent Jobs

It’s also important to have a rate (or multiplier) for urgent jobs. Urgent jobs are usually much smaller than regular jobs, but you’ll need a separate rate for these in order to keep your own sanity and to ensure your clients don’t take advantage of you.

In general, clients don’t like rushed jobs, so they’re absolutely fine with you taking a few days or a week to get back to them.

They don’t expect anything faster. If you advertise that you’ll get it back to them within a few hours, they may think that it will be rushed and sloppy. Either they’ll be skeptical when they get the document back, or disappointed when you don’t get it back to them in time.

Even if I can do it in a few hours, I always give myself an extra day or two. This also helps with my time management, to make sure I can do all the jobs I promised within the promised time.

So, make sure you give yourself enough time and charge different rates for urgent jobs. For me, anything is urgent if it’s needed in less than two days. For jobs of more than 15 pages, I’ll need at least 3 days, and 5 days for 25 pages.

Usually the clients are fine with this, and if they want it faster, they’ll have to pay a premium for that.

Manage Your Time

For a proofreader, your presence or lack of organization will determine your success.

Make Yourself a Schedule

Time management is important. That’s why it’s best to make yourself a schedule of all the jobs that you’re supposed to do, when you want to do them, and when they’re absolutely due.

This will help you to plan your tasks in a very accurate and responsible way.

And let’s be honest, if you’re freelancing, and you’re working by yourself, you’re not going to be so busy that you’ll need tons of other help to manage your time.

A sample schedule to keep you organized

For me, a printed schedule is fine. However, if you’re tech-friendly, there are tons of project management apps and software available that are highly customizable and will send you useful reminders. I’ve used Asana before, and I’ve had good results with it.

If you don’t make a schedule, you’ll run into trouble sooner or later.

Proofreading is not just about the big jobs, where you’re spending three weeks working on one project or half a year on someone’s novel. It’s a mixture of usually medium to small jobs with larger ones interspersed throughout the year.

If You Don’t Have a Schedule…

If you don't have a schedule, bad things happens

When you don’t have a schedule, you could easily lose track of those smaller jobs.

For example, you know you got an email from someone asking you to check this, and you replied and gave them a date—but what date did you promise? Did you already do it?

Or you plan your vacation or weekend away, and in the middle you receive an email from your client asking very politely if you’ve had a chance to check her document, but you left your computer at home.

What do you do? Go all the way back home, if you’re still in the same city, or try to use a hotel or library computer? Can you do the job with the same quality in 1/10th of the time?

Probably not.

Trust me, I’ve been there, relaxing with my wife on a beach in Egypt, getting that email and hoping the hotel had Word on their computer.

It doesn’t make you happy, nor your client, nor your family or friends.

Make a Schedule for Your Personal Time

Dedicate some time for yourself

But while you’re setting your work schedule, go ahead and set some time for yourself.

The problem with proofreaders is that they know that time is money, and their time is virtually unlimited, so by extension their money should be unlimited as well.

So they sacrifice sleep, work irregular hours, and cancel social engagements just so they can Rihanna (work work work work work).

Don’t do it. Don’t fall victim to that cycle.

Schedule some time just for yourself, or your friends and family, without any work whatsoever. Meet people, take a shower, learn how to paint, whatever, but don’t forget to take care of your own emotional and psychological needs. 

Manage Your Money

Finally, we come to the money. The great engine of the world.

Because you’re a freelancer, everything is on your shoulders, including taking care of your finances. With proofreading, it’s very simple. If it’s a one-time job, you finish the proofing, send it back to the client, and they pay you.

Use Software for Easier Invoices

If you’ve got an on-going gig with a company, you’ll probably be sending invoices to them regularly at the beginning or end of every month.

When you have a lot of these—first of all, congratulations, you’re succeeding—it can be overwhelming and very time-consuming to count up all the words or characters and create separate invoices.

I had one client, wonderful people by the way, who had some strict rules at their company. They required me to make them separate invoices for each department and each type of proofreading.

Working with four departments in their company and a whole lot of small to medium jobs throughout the month, I was usually cursing halfway through making their invoices and I had to dedicate a whole day for that. And that was only one of my many clients.

Use InvoiceBerry to make your invoices easier

I didn’t have InvoiceBerry back then, so it wasn’t an automated process for me.  For the on-going projects that are the same amount, there’s a recurring invoice that can be sent automatically.

Or for different amounts, you can set up your separate client profiles and rates and simplify the entire process. It’s a really great software for the independent freelancer.

Pay Taxes and Separate Finances

Besides that, you’ll also have to check your local taxes and make sure you’re complying. Just because you’re not working for a company doesn’t mean you can just stop paying taxes.

Pay them on time, every time, and you’ll never have any problems.

Manage your money by paying local taxes and separating finances

Additionally, you should make sure that you take care of your personal and professional finances. Because you’re self-employed, there are a few items that are tax-deductible which you’re probably using.

If you need to print your documents and check them with the ol’ red pen, or you talk on the phone with your clients, or you use some paid software or even a new laptop, those are technically deductible.

But in order to prove it, it’ll be best to keep your personal expenses separate from your business ones.

So if you’re at the store buying printer paper and want to get some gummy bears, you should probably buy those two separately and confuse the cashier.

She’ll be a bit annoyed, but correct financial knowledge is very important for any successful businessperson.

To sum up:

Proofreading can be a comfortable profession if you do it right and follow these steps to success.

Remember:

  • proofreading lets you set your own schedule and make money as you wish
  • you can do it from anywhere in the world
  • but unfortunately it is unstable and can get a little lonely

In order to succeed, you’ll need to:

  • have the right personality, skills and talents, and software
  • find your clients either by personal pitching or cold-start proofing
  • set your rates in advance and set realistic expectations for your clients
  • create a professional schedule for yourself to manage your time, and a personal schedule to get away from work
  • use an invoicing software like InvoiceBerry to manage your invoices
  • separate your personal finances from your professional finances

With these suggestions and a love of proofreading, you’ll be sure to make money in no time.

Do you have any other tips or recommendations for our readers? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • Damon

    That was a fantastic article, I have just set up my own proofreading and editing service http://www.thethesiseditor.com and will follow the steps to success.

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