When writing my Spotlight entry for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) website, one of the questions I was asked was ‘What advice do you have for people starting out on an editorial career?’
Meeting new and established editors and proofreaders – at my local SfEP group in Manchester, at the annual conference and on social media – has shown me that there isn’t one fixed route into an editorial career. We’ve all had different experiences in our professional lives and outside work. There isn’t just one type of editorial career, either: there are many different client groups, all with slightly different needs.
One piece of advice I think is useful no matter what type of editorial work you’re looking for is to make the most of your transferable skills.
If you’re new to proofreading or editing, you’ll need to do some training (and the SfEP courses are a great place to start!) but you’ll also have plenty of other skills that can help you make your business a success.
I’ve focused on skills and experience gained at work, but there are many other areas of life – volunteering, family life and personal projects, for example – that you can draw on. I’ll write about these another time.
IT and software
It’s great if you have IT experience that’s specific to editing and proofreading (such as using PerfectIt and the advanced features of Microsoft Word). But being familiar with other software is useful too. For example:
- Design software and publishing platforms
- PDF editing programs
- Accounting software
- Translation software
- Content-management systems (CMSs – the part behind the ‘face’ of a website, where information is uploaded)
- Analytics software.
Such experience could make your service more attractive to clients, because you can offer to work with formats that are more convenient for them. For example, if you’ve regularly added content to a CMS, you could offer to edit web copy online. If you’ve used translation software (such as Trados), that could help you get proofreading work with translation agencies. Experience of working with design software will allow you to give clients valuable advice about the layout of their documents.
These skills can also help you with your marketing materials – for example, if you’re confident in using a platform such as Weebly or WordPress, you can save money when it comes to creating your website.
Marketing and communications
Marketing is a big part of running a successful proofreading or editing business. If you’ve worked in marketing or communications, you might have experience that will give you confidence in these areas:
- Coming up with a marketing strategy and turning it into a plan
- Branding your business
- Putting your marketing plan into practice – for example, by contacting potential clients, networking, writing blogs, recording podcasts and videos and using social media
- Making yourself stand out from the competition
- Getting feedback using tools such as SurveyMonkey and then acting on it.
If you don’t have these skills, there’s plenty of advice in plain English from people who do. For example, proofreader and copy-editor Louise Harnby has published a book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, and regularly provides tips on her blog. The SfEP has a guide, Marketing Yourself: Strategies to Promote Your Editorial Business. Editor and proofreader Liz Dexter has dedicated chapters to marketing in her business books.
Maybe you’re moving into proofreading straight after doing your degree, or perhaps you’ve been working as a librarian or in a research role in an organisation. Of course, research outside work counts too (think weddings, pets, travel…)!
When editing and proofreading, you’ll often need to look something up in an authoritative source – whether it’s to check the spelling of a person’s name or find out whether something that looks wrong to you is really incorrect or a style choice.
Knowing how to search the following effectively can make you quicker and more accurate:
- Corpora (such as the British National Corpus and the Business Letter Corpus)
- Databases of journal articles and books (such as PubMed and Project Gutenberg)
- Dictionaries and books, articles and blogs on language usage
- Forums for editorial professionals
- Google (including refined searches – for an example, see this tip from technical writer and editor John Espirian)
- Referencing guides (such as the Purdue Owl)
- Specialist materials and websites (for example, in a field of study or area of work)
- Style guides (such as the Chicago Manual of Style).
Research skills are useful for your business more widely, too – for example, identifying and learning about potential clients, finding tools that make your processes more efficient, and so on.
Diplomacy, tact, empathy, assertiveness … these are all skills that make us good editorial professionals and easier, more predictable people to work with.
Good people skills will help you:
- Find clients
- Deal more effectively with any issues that come up with a project, especially if several people are involved (authors, project manager, copy-editor, proofreader, designer and so on)
- Write diplomatic, considerate queries
- Negotiate prices
- Keep clients coming back to work with you again.
The techniques you might have used previously when dealing with customers, colleagues, funders and service providers – even (and perhaps especially!) friends and family – are worth taking with you when setting up your proofreading business.
Knowledge of the publishing process
Whether you plan to work with traditional publishers or organisations that publish documents themselves, if you know where the editor and proofreader fit into the process this will make things easier for everyone else who’s working on the project. For example:
- Understanding the roles of others involved, such as web designers, professional copywriters, typesetters and project managers, and what they need from you
- Knowing who to write queries to and what to ask
- Appreciating the importance of keeping to the brief, and the kinds of delays that can be caused by last-minute amendments
- Understanding what will happen to the document after you’ve finished with it.
You might have learned these things by working closely with web designers or professional copywriters in a previous role, or you might even have been in one of these roles yourself.
This might sound obvious, but if you’ve worked as an editor or proofreader in-house – whether it was for a traditional publisher or not – you’ll have learned from colleagues and built up experience that you can mention in your marketing materials and when talking to potential clients.
Experience in another sector
Having knowledge and experience of a specific sector – for example, health or education – can help you attract clients in that sector. It makes things easier for them if they’re working with someone who understands:
- Their world
- Their jargon and terminology
- Their audience or readership
- The kinds of pressures they face.
Once you’ve done your proofreading training, this knowledge can help you to specialise.
Maybe you have experience of how things work in the public sector or you’re familiar with the terminology used in health, engineering or law. It’s easy to take for granted the inside knowledge you’ll have picked up, but you can use it to help you stand out.
Admin and secretarial
From the dreaded tax return (I do hear some people enjoy it … ) to the time-consuming invoicing, you can’t avoid admin when you work for yourself. But if you have skills in this area, you can do it more quickly and efficiently.
You might have experience in:
- Effective communication via email or phone
- Formatting and layout features in Word (for example, styles and using templates)
- Invoicing software and payment platforms (such as Quickbooks, PayPal or Transferwise)
- Systems for naming, organising and controlling files, and storing information (this article on naming files by John Espirian is excellent if you need some tips)
- Excel (for example, for accounting, tracking time spent on projects).
I picked up plenty of admin experience from previous roles, from temping in the summer holidays to teaching English abroad. These skills are useful no matter what work you do.
Whether you’re working on one enormous project or lots of little jobs, previous training and experience in how to plan, organise and monitor progress on a project will help you:
- Schedule your work efficiently
- Estimate costs accurately
- Keep projects on track and within budget, and meet deadlines
- Keep others involved in a project on schedule, in a professional way
- Analyse a project and improve your processes for next time
- Make sure you don’t miss any steps in the editing process.
You might also be used to working with project-management software. If you want to improve your project-management skills, the Publishing Training Centre runs a course in editorial project management.
What if I don’t have all these skills?
If you don’t have every skill mentioned here, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a good job – they’re ideas, not a list to tick off. You probably have other useful skills that I haven’t thought to cover here.
Everyone likes to be asked for help – it’s flattering to be thought of as an expert. If you know someone who’s good at project management and you have no idea about it, you could ask them for a little advice in exchange for some proofreading (or a posh box of chocolates).
If you don’t know anyone personally, there’s plenty of information online. Someone else has probably asked your question before, so forums (such as the SfEP forums and professional Facebook groups like the Editors’ Association of Earth) are great places to start. One of the many benefits of joining a professional society is that you’ll meet people who have good advice to offer.
You won’t know everything about running a business when you start out. I certainly didn’t, and I still have many things to learn. But make the most of any experience and training you do have if you’re moving into proofreading and editing from another area of work, whether you’ve gained this in your job or in another area of your life. These transferable skills can help you run your business better, save you time and make you stand out from the crowd.