At Editor Group we sometimes say proofreaders are born not made, but of course that’s not entirely true. Whether you have a natural inclination to proofread or have developed an interest in it somewhere along the way, here are some practical steps you can take to turn your pedantic passion project into a productive professional pursuit.
For a more in-depth (albeit sometimes UK-centric) guide, we recommend this comprehensive article from NCC Home Learning. But if you want to start by brushing up on what a proofreader actually does, here are some answers we prepared earlier.
Be good at spotting errors
This one’s a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s also the most essential. If you don’t have an instinct or knack for spotting typos, errant punctuation and flawed syntax, it almost won’t matter that you’ve memorised every grammatical rule by heart. As a proofreader you’ll often be the last line of defence before a publication – print or digital – goes out into the world. It’s just not enough to spot some of the errors; your eye needs to be on a hair trigger. This skill can be learned and honed, but ultimately you either have it or you don’t.
Know what other skills you need
When it comes to proofreading, typos are just the beginning. Depending on how far progressed a project is, and how many (or few) other specialised team members are working on it, you may also be:
- checking for incorrect grammar
- applying consistent spelling, capitalisation and tone of voice
- ensuring compliance with a style guide
- fixing unreadable sentences
- testing cross-references and links
- making sure page elements – like headings, footers and image captions – are in place.
This means that in addition to that eagle eye and penchant for perfection, you’ll need some additional tools under your belt, such as:
- An extremely firm grasp of the language you’re working in. You may be tasked with proofreading extremely technical content, legalese, or content that was originally written in another language. The meaning can often be unclear, and even proofreaders with English as a mother tongue can struggle to tease out the author’s intended meaning.
- Great organisational skills. Whether you’re freelancing or working in-house, there’s a good chance you’ll be juggling several projects – and deadlines – at once. It’s important to know how many words per hour you can get through and how this varies depending on the quality of the source material. Remember that a proofreader is often the last set of eyes on a project, so by the time you start work, any leeway for pushing the deadline may be long gone.
- An almost inhumanly long attention span. Some documents are stupendously long, and you need to be as accurate on page 321 as you were on page 1 – even if the subject is bone‑dry.
- Tact. This is a big one, and often overlooked. You may be communicating directly with the author, or your comments may be passed through a senior manager for approval. So you’ll need to be polite, helpful and concise in your comments, no matter what.
Even with instinct and natural pedantry on your side, you’ll still probably need some training and/or accreditation if you want to get into the professional proofreading game. In addition to having completed HSC-equivalent English, your best bet is to have some tertiary study under your belt. The Institute of Professional Editors has put together a great list of options, ranging from university study to diploma courses and non-award workshops, at institutions across Australia.
Once you’ve done the hard yards studying, it’s time to update your CV – make sure it’s free of typos! Then start looking for work in the usual places (such as your favourite online job-listing website), whether it’s as a freelancer, a project-based contractor or an in-house proofreader. For some handy tips on how to go about pitching yourself, head over to the NCC Home Learning website. And note that the role of proofreader can go by a few different names (copyeditor or subeditor, for example) and that some broader positions – like editorial assistant or content manager – may involve a lot of proofreading, even if it’s not there in the title.
Looking for more practical advice for turning your passion for words into a great career or business? Editor Group founder Grant Butler shares invaluable insights from his 20+ year career in a new online course, Corporate & Business Writing: How to Succeed.