By Jan K., The Proofer
How many times have you thought to yourself that you would be a good proofreader? You have a decent working vocabulary, you are able to construct a well-turned phrase, and you know when to hyphenate a compound noun (or maybe you don’t, but you could take a good guess!). You’ve always wanted to work at home, and you’ve thought about becoming a freelance proofreader. But just how do you become a freelance proofreader who works at home?
You know who you are. You are the person who picks up the newspaper, a magazine, or a book and shakes your head every time your brain stumbles over a typo, incorrect punctuation, a poorly worded sentence, or lousy page layout and design. Your eye wanders down the right-hand margin taking note of the excessive word breaks and you turn the page only to find an orphaned line perched at the top of the page, sitting there all by its lonesome. “Didn’t anybody proofread this?” you lament. You start thinking that maybe you could be freelance proofreader. You’d really love to “be your own boss” and make your own schedule. What you don’t know, however, is how do you go about making this dream a reality.
I have to be honest — being a freelance proofreader was not my “dream.” My dream was, and still is, to buy the winning lottery ticket. In the meantime, it seems that I enjoy eating on a regular basis. My father had the audacity to be born into Middle Class Working America, so unfortunately, I do not have a family fortune to cover the checks I write at the grocery store. Therefore, I was left with one option: I had to work for a living.
Even so, it was still not my dream. In fact, I was a corporate accountant weenie for almost 20 years. How far removed is that from having my own at-home job as a proofreader? It was more luck and opportunity than anything else that brought me to where I am today — successfully earning a living while working at home, providing a service that I never thought to provide. I happened upon this career through a temporary job that I took several years ago when a lifestyle change had been prompted by a switch in my husband’s careers. That change made it impractical for me to work full time. The temp agency with which I signed was contacted by a company that needed someone who could proofread accounting-based, research-journal articles (some combination, huh?). Given my strong accounting background and the fact that I’d mentioned that I was writing my own novel, my temp recruiter thought I just might be a good match for the job.
It turned out that the recruiter didn’t know how right she was. I temped for that firm for almost a year and when it was time for my husband to relocate (as we had to do from time to time for job purposes), I proposed to the company that I continue to proofread for them off-site. Voila! “Jan K., The Proofer” was born.
I don’t recommend this way of starting out, although you shouldn’t rule out the possibility of checking with temporary agencies in your area. It may be that they get requests for proofreaders; the old axiom “You won’t know until you ask” might come into play here. However, temp agencies needn’t be your only resource. You need only to look at yourself, your interests, and your own work experience and education to provide the fertile soil from which you can cultivate and grow your own at-home proofreading business.
What is it that you do for a living? What trade journals or newsletters are there that pertain to and are published for people in your profession? What literature do you read that relates to what you do? Someone wrote it, someone did the page layout, and someone probably proofread it. That proofreader could be someone like you.
What around-the-town publications do you encounter other than the daily newspaper? Does your town produce a monthly magazine? Are there any graphic design businesses in town that produce brochures, meeting materials, or advertising catalogs? Are there local organizations that put out newsletters? Is there a college or university in or near your area where there are students writing research papers? Does the company for whom you presently work have an in-house newsletter?
Does your church or your kids’ school hand out flyers or news bulletins? Who does the newspaper inserts? When the local stores advertise, who does the advertisements?
If you think about it, printed text surrounds you. You encounter printed matter for almost everything you do. What you need to do now is narrow the field and determine where to find a likely starting place.
It is probable that you are not going to get an at-home proofreading job by simply showing up at a printing shop and announcing “I am a freelance proofreader, give me work.” You might, but my guess is that this particular method of self-advertising is not going to score you enough work to allow you quit your day job. What you need is experience and exposure.
First, if you don’t already know them (and why would you if you’ve been checking gas meters for your local utility company for the last ten years?), you will definitely need to learn the standard proofreading/editing “marks.” These are the little glyphs and squiggles that indicate to the typesetter or page layout artist what corrections need to be made to the printed material and where. Some marks are self-explanatory, while others look like an Ancient Egyptian. There’s no secret-organization ban on you learning the marks. Go to any library and check out a book about editing or proofreading, or go to a bookstore and purchase The Chicago Manual of Style. In it you will find several pages that list all of the standard proofreading marks, what they look like, and what they mean. Practice on any text that you have on hand. Chicago will even provide an example for how the marks are placed in and around the text.
Second, consider taking on some volunteer proofreading work. Try your church, the school, or a local charity group — any organization that puts out something in print. Offer to do it for free in exchange for an acknowledgment: “Proofreading for this newsletter has been provided by Wilomena the Word Wizard.” The acknowledgment does not suggest that it was done for free, but rather who “provided” the service. Work on getting a couple of assignments. Build up a small clientele and ask them if they are willing to act as a reference for you.
Third, do some self-advertising. You can spend less than $50 and produce professional-looking brochures, business cards, and handout flyers with your own computer and printer. Walk through your handy yellow pages and jot down some target markets: graphics design shops, print shops that do typesetting, colleges or universities, and/or publishing firms. Spend some time taking your brochures to these places. Tack up flyers in library, stores that have public bulletin boards, at your neighborhood community center, and storefront shops like Mail Boxes, Etc.
Get a web page! There are dozens of domains that will allow you to create a free web site if you can not afford a dot-com site. Most domains even provide web page design templates for those of you who may be a Web Yutz-bo like me. I now have two regular clients who found me on the Web (they found me, I didn’t have to spend a minute trying to find them — ain’t technology great?).
Get a plain-paper fax machine! You can get them now for $100 or less. I can honestly say that I recouped the cost of my fax machine within the first two months that I had it. I can’t begin to count the number of small jobs I’ve gotten because I was able to receive a three- or four-page project, proof it, and fax it back within the hour or same day. I’ve even gotten jobs that were hundreds of pages long that needed to be faxed back, page by page, as I finished it. I have one regular client for whom I can work only because I have a fax machine.
Fourth, be prepared for this to take a while. Unless Lady Luck plops the perfect client in your lap tomorrow, it is probably going to take you quite a while to build up a clientele. It literally took me four years (and a very supportive husband) to establish myself to the point where I have work almost every day. I do have dry spells, and once a year my primary client has nothing for me for an entire month. So, I’m still working on self-advertising, keeping my web site updated, and schlepping brochures and flyers around town.
Once you actually begin to work, be prepared to do the work and not see the check for a couple of weeks. Not everyone is going to hand over a check when you hand over the completed project, especially if you land any large-firm clients that have Accounts Payable departments where the policy is to pay everything at 30 days, period. Although I do establish up front that my invoices are presented “Due Upon Receipt,” I have had to accept the fact that some companies reply “That’s great, but we’re going to pay you Net 30.” Fortunately, in almost five years of working freelance, I’ve only ever had one client stiff me, and even then it was only for about an hour’s work. Lesson learned: it’s gonna happen.
As with any work-at-home job, it is not for everyone. You have to be self-disciplined and able to devote quality time and concentration to the job at hand. If you can not deliver quality work, and on time, then you will never be successfully self-employed. If you don’t have the skills or education, then you need to get some. If you don’t have any experience, create some through volunteer work. No job contacts? Find them! Don’t know how to design your own brochures or business cards and can’t afford to have them done professionally? Look to your own friends; who do you know who can do that sort of thing and what can you swap or barter with them for the service? (That’s how I got mine done, and my brochures, business cards, and flyers look GREAT!)
If you are determined to work at home, and you are determined to be a proofreader, then you can make it happen. I did. And if I can do it — me, who couldn’t sell game software to a Play Station junkie — you can, too.
For a list of reference books related to proofreading, copyediting, and the publishing industry, please see my recommended book list.
Jan K., The Proofer is a full-time freelance proofreader and copyeditor. In business since 1995, she has enjoyed working for a diverse world-wide clientele, covering subject matter including academic research, medical law, consumer surveys, and self-help materials. See Jan K.’ website for more information.
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