So — You Think You Want to Be a Freelance Proofreader?

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.

© Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.

A Three-Step Plan to Becoming a Technical Writer

By Tanja Rosteck

The demand for qualified technical writers is constantly growing. For every software application or technology product that’s developed, there’s an instant need for accompanying documentation. In a global market increasingly dependent on high-tech products and services, it’s virtually guaranteed that technical writing opportunities will never run dry.

Technical writing may be your ideal field if: you love working with technology, but simply don’t have the desire — or skill — to become an engineer or programmer; if you enjoy training people; if you want a stepping stone to a career in high-tech; or if you enjoy writing and are simply looking for a different way to use your craft.

If you’ve decided to give technical writing a try, but don’t know where or how to start, keep reading! This three-step plan outlines the basic qualifications you’ll need, how to learn the necessary skills, and how to make a successful foray into the field.


Believe it or not, to be successful in technical writing, you don’t need to already have a high level of technical know-how or a master’s degree in English. However, you should have the following:

>> Basic technical skills.
Any experience in technical support, web design, networking, teaching, or even in helping your Mom set up her computer will be an asset. If you don’t have a basic understanding of how computers and software work, take a class – almost every community college or education center in North America offers “Intro to Computers”-type courses.

>> Basic writing and grammar skills.
If you’re already a writer, you probably won’t have to worry about this one! However, understand that technical writing generally uses active rather than passive voice; the terminology used must be consistent throughout an entire document or document set; and the objective is to make procedures as simple as possible. These guidelines may be difficult for some creative writers to get used to.

>> An interest in technology.
It’s not uncommon for a technical writer to spend hours poring over a half-completed software program, trying to find hidden commands or features that need documenting. You may also have to work extensively with engineers and programmers, who will rely on you for feedback and suggestions on the product’s interface. So if you’re less than enthused by the prospect of “getting your hands dirty” with technology, and working with very technical people, you probably won’t enjoy this field.


If you have the basic qualifications for technical writing and are still interested in what the field has to offer, it’s time to learn the basics of technical writing and the standard tools used.

>> Explore some technical writing samples.
The first step is to see first-hand what you’ll be doing in your new career! Many software companies publish their product documentation on-line. And almost every software program has an embedded Help file — simply click on the ‘Help’ menu. Understanding the type of writing you’ll be expected to produce is a great way to prepare.

>> Learn the industry-standard authoring tools.
As an entry-level writer, you’ll be expected to at least have experience with Microsoft Word. You’ll need to understand advanced Word features such as styles, templates, and dealing with extremely large documents.

Besides Word, the ‘big two’ applications used in the industry are Adobe FrameMaker and eHelp’s RoboHELP. If you have experience with these programs, your chances of landing a good first job increase dramatically. Basic tutorials for these programs are available on-line and at bookstores.

>> Take a class in technical writing.
Sometimes there’s simply no substitute for learning from a seasoned professional. There are books, on-line courses, and college or university-level courses on technical writing that will help you learn the basics of producing documentation, how to write project plans, how to interview subject matter experts (SME’s) and so on.

Not only are classes a great way to learn the basics, but certification looks great on a CV/resume, and you’ll have an instant support network to help you during your job search!


If you’ve followed all the previous steps and are committed to making technical writing your new career, here’s how to land that all-important first job.

>> Write a CV/resume that showcases your relevant experience.
These days, you can’t get any recruiter to talk to you without a CV/resume. The CV/resume’s main purpose is to get you an interview, so keep it short, simple, and relevant to your writing and technical skills. Include any writing, editing or technical training courses or certifications. And the importance of editing and proofreading it thoroughly can’t be emphasized enough! A CV/resume with typos or grammatical errors speaks volumes about your skills as a professional communicator.

>> Put together a portfolio of writing samples.
Prospective employers want to see two main things from your portfolio: that you know how to write clearly, and that you have the ability to understand complex subjects and can break them down concisely. The best writing samples to include in your portfolio are how-to articles or FAQ’s, articles about technology or science, training materials, and any assignments you wrote for your technical writing class.

You could even write fictitious documents or help files – why not develop these while you’re learning FrameMaker or RoboHELP? Whatever you decide to use, try to provide at least 5 or 6 samples in total, along with a table of contents and a simple, professional-looking layout.

>> Start job-hunting!
You can work with a technical service agency or headhunter, or try finding a job directly. If you took a technical writing class, your learning center may have internships, co-op placements, or job placement services to help you get established in the field.

Job boards such as post new technical writing opportunities almost every day. Professional associations such as the Society for Technical Communications also have online job boards you can use in your search.

And don’t forget networking — tell everyone you know about your new career! You’d be surprised who might have a good lead for your first technical writing opportunity.

Good luck!

Copyright © 2001 Tanja Rosteck

Tanja Rosteck is the president of Words4Nerds, providing technical writing and information design services to high-tech small businesses. Her own foray in technical writing began after several years in technical support management, IT training, and general tech-geek work.

Getting the Scoop on Poetry Contest Scams

By Linda Alice Dewey

“Congratulations! Your poem has been selected for our next anthology.”

Every year, these words bring tears to the eyes of thousands of poets, first from joy— then from anger. Why the anger? Because in many cases, they’ve been swindled.

Submitting work to a legitimate writing contest can be a rewarding experience, but before you send in your entry, there are a few things you should know.

Scams get your money through flattery or something-for-nothing ploys. Many times the prizes go as high as a million bucks. And the big prize-winners? Not legitimate either, often not even real people.

Some contest sponsors aren’t interested in quality writing at all. In fact, you’re guaranteed to be a winner. There’s just one hitch: it’ll cost you. Want a copy of the anthology your poem will be in? Fifty bucks, please. Add your bio—$25. Typesetting? You guessed it. Be included in a future ‘Best of’ Anthology—for a fee. You can even get a plaque or cassette, but not for free.

We’re talking big business here. Consider a company in Maryland that published more than 50 anthologies last year. Say each has an average of 300 pages (most do), with 3-6 poems per page at approximately $50 per poem. You have a little company making lots of cash.

Poetry on scam contest websites is sometimes “borrowed” from famous poets to give the site authenticity. One well-known author, while researching scams, was surprised to find his work posted on a site. He promptly sent them a letter, and they removed his piece.

One of the more infamous but still functioning contest websites has a page for posting poetry about the September 11 tragedy, preying on the emotions of a grieving people to further their ends even more. Some specifically prey on children. And it isn’t just poetry they want: they’ll go after short story, essay, fiction and nonfiction writers, too. Authors looking for agents get taken by companies charging up front fees who may also refer you to fee-charging book doctors.

Crooked come-ons lurk in literary magazines, newspapers, online and in writer’s guidebooks right alongside their legitimate counterparts. How can you tell them apart? Well, take heart. Fraudulent contests share several characteristics, and once you educate yourself, you’ll easily spot one from a distance.

Here’s the scoop.

  1. Avoid “free” contests. Surprisingly, legitimate competitions normally charge a nominal fee (up to $35) to cover judging and prizes. The freebies will more often than not respond to your submission with a flattering letter about your wonderful poem. For just X dollars, it could be in the next anthology, it’s so good, etc., etc.
  2. Research background information. Two or more dubious answers to the following questions indicate a possible scam.
      • Who is the sponsoring organization? Does the name sound or look like a well-known publishing house or organization? Is their address merely a post office box or a real person’s name with a physical address? Could this be a one-person organization?
      • View last year’s winning entries. Who were last year’s winners? Try to find out if the names listed are real people. If they are, they’ll have credits, a website, an email address—something. Of course, a few new legitimate contests are born each year, so if they weren’t around last year, that alone doesn’t make them dishonest.
      • Who are the judges? Search the web for more information about these people. If they’re authentic writers or real editors (and again, the worst scams “borrow” names), you may have a legitimate contest.
      • Are contest guidelines clear and concise regarding format, what information to include, fees, prizes, judging, cost-free publication, and what rights you may be relinquishing?
  3. Beware of overly flattering response letters that ask for fees not mentioned up front. Legitimate organizations are businesslike and tell you what the fee is before you submit.
  4. How frequent are contests sponsored by this organization? If often, then they’re either after money or they’re trying to fill up anthologies and magazines.
  5. Are there perks? If so, you shouldn’t have to pay for them.

Want to get published? Want to get exposure? Submit projects to literary magazines that print work similar to your own. Get a few credits, then start freelancing for serial publications. Literary newsletters often relate success stories of how an editor or agent saw a story/poem published in this or that magazine and contacted the author. The rest is history.

In his recent jewel entitled On Writing, Stephen King suggests that one way to catch a publisher’s eye is to win contests. However, he also recommends submitting non-contest pieces on a regular basis to magazines. In the first instance, you pay them an entrance fee at the very least. In the second, you’ll never pay, and it is entirely possible that they will pay you. Now tell me, potential award-winning writer: which would you prefer?

If you’re good enough to win a prize, you’re good enough to get published in a legitimate publication on your own merit. So get out there, get writing, and get published.

Contest Evaluation Resources

SFWA’s (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Writer Beware on Contests

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss on Writing Contests: Facts and Fakes…And How to Tell the Difference

The United States Postal Inspector’s fraud report form

Post and read warnings for writers about deadbeat publications and writing scams on Absolute Write’s “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check” forum.

Sources for legitimate contests:

Good Luck!

Linda Alice Dewey is the author of Aaron’s Crossing: A True Ghost Story, available in bookstores and It will be re-released by Hampton Roads Publishing in the fall of 2006. Her current projects include adapting it to a Phantom-like musical and a screenplay about a WWII Mission involving her father, a former pilot of a B-24 bomber, one of a very few to make it back to England after a vicious air battle. You can visit her website at

© 2002 Linda Alice Dewey

Editor’s note: links updated 2018