How Does One Get Into Proofreading?

I read about 200 books a year and as I pointed out in a previous post, it really chaps my ass to be reading merrily along and encounter a spelling error.

So I thought perhaps I should practice what I preach and get some first-hand experience while also supplementing my incum. (See? Stands out like a turd in a punch bowl, doesn’t it? ;))

Thanks in advance for your replies!


Is the job of proofreader always separate from copyeditor? My one experience of having a book go through a major press suggested that they had one person combining both roles. (& doing a lousy job in both. I spent weeks picking through proofs fixing errors).

It’s not as easy as you might think to weed all the errors out of a text, even though you might spot glaring errors as a casual reader. I talked to a scholar who edited the work of J S Mill & he said that he & his team of assistants ended up reading the entire text backwards letter by letter in order to check it. Wow.

The small publishing house I work for does distinguish between proofreaders and copyeditors. Proofreaders generally proofread the book once it’s in pages (in other words, once it’s laid out by a page layout program). They check to make sure all graphic elements are in place, for minor grammatical errors, and that sort of thing. Copyeditors get to the text before it goes into pages, when it’s still in raw electronic format, and do a much more extensive editing job, editing for clarity, tone, logical leaps, and that sort of thing.

There are a lot of proofreading jobs out there, ranging from copyeditors at newspaper desks, to jobs like mine at publishing companies, to jobs at other companies that produce any sort of written material. I had no proofreading experience, short of two quarters copyediting the college newspaper, when I got my first editing job. Essentially, I scanned the newspaper listings (and and all those sites) for any job that mentioned proofreading or copyediting in the job description, and applied to everything. Eventually I was hired on at a company where my job consisted of about 10% proofreading and 90% tech support and data entry. However, I was able to parlay that proofreading experience into my current job, at an actual (albeit small) book publishing company.

My best wishes to you; the world can always use some more good editors.

I saw a couple of ads for “legal proofreading” in the Village Voice. I though that this would be a good part-time job as I am in a paralegal program at school. I took an 8-hour course for $175 where we were taught the different kinds of proofing and blacklining, common proofreading symbols, and what to look out for. After doing practice we were given a list of temp agencies and told that these agencies give proofreading tests and if you pass you then have to constantly let them know when you are available. To cut to the chase, I never did get a proofreading job. My impression is that you really have to know someone. These are well-paying jobs ($15 per hour to start) and no college degree is required. So there are a lot of people competeing for these jobs (legal proofreading, anyway). If you want to get a proofreading job I think that you have to be really aggressive in your search as MsWhatsit suggests.

Good luck.

Please keep in mind that what most people think of as “proofreading” is really copyediting, and actual proofreading is something entirely different. Neither one consists of merely reading a text, gleefully striking out typos.

Copyediting is generally considered the more skilled (and better-paying) of the two. The copyeditor takes a raw manuscript after it has been through general content editing and performs what may be described as a mechanical edit, after which the ms. is (or should be) ready for typesetting. This edit includes some or all of the following tasks, and possibly more:
[ul][li]Ensure that all pages and supplementary materials (illustrations, appendixes, etc.) are present and in order.[/li][li]Insert typemarking codes (in electronic files or on paper ms.) to instruct the typesetter how to set the various text elements (lists, boxes, heads, etc.)[/li][li]Read the text, ensuring internal consistency/correctness in spelling, grammar, and punctuation according to the specified style guide (Chicago, MLA, APA, etc.) (not according to what you remember from eighth-grade English!). Watch for correct use of trademarks. Ensure parallelism in lists. Write tactful queries to the author as needed. You will maintain a style sheet for each manuscript to keep track of all decisions you make and other style issues that deviate from the style guide.[/li][li]Check for correct numbering of lists, figures, footnotes, and other numbered items. Make sure each figure has a callout in text. Same for footnotes/endnotes; they must conform to specified style and be queried for missing information. Watch for errors of fact, logic, and organization. Maintain the author’s voice. Edit tables/graphs for consistency and clarity internally and with the text. Check chapter titles and heads against the table of contents and ensure parallelism, correct head levels, and consistency among chapters. Flag/check cross-references to other parts of the text. Eliminate wordiness, sexism and other bias, incomplete comparison, and redundancy. Verify proper names, phone numbers, addresses, and URLs. And probably some other things I forgot.[/li][li]In fiction, you will keep separate style sheets for characters, locations, and the timeline. If the character thas blue eyes on page 21, they can’t turn brown on page 343. Make sure Bryce the butler does not become Bruce. Make sure a character’s dialogue is appropriate for his/her education, personality, etc. In historical fiction, watch for anachronisms of fact or behavior. The moon cannot be full on two consecutive Tuesdays – and so on. With respect to the fictional part of the story, rather than checking facts, you are ensuring that the “lie” is a consistent one.[/ul][/li]After the manuscript is copyedited, it goes to the typesetter and then to the proofreader, who receives the edited (“foul” – not to be marked on from this point forward) manuscript and the typeset pages, or proofs. The proofreader reads the manuscript and the proofs simultaneously, not making independent corrections, but rather ensuring that the typesetter has correctly followed the marked-up manuscript. A good proofreader has a copyeditor’s eye and may query inconsistencies in style and other possible copyeditor flubs, but generally the proofreader is instructed to keep unnecessary editorial changes to a minimum, as the cost of such changes is much higher at this point. The proofreader also checks that the typesetter has followed the design specs, and may measure page length and type specs, as well as checking color breaks, insertion of icons and other graphic elements, and correct use of fonts. This includes watching for extra spaces, wrong font size or type, bad letterspacing, incorrect leading, use of bold or italic, and so on. (I have frequently caught [presumably older] ex-typists using the letter “l” instead of the numeral “1,” as well as italic superscript numbers that should have been roman.) The proofreader also checks for correct hyphenation and eliminates widows and orphans (short words or lines by themselves at the top/bottom of a page or end of a paragraph).

Still with me? I don’t mean to discourage you, but many “aspiring proofreaders” (myself once included) believe that the ability to spot typos in the newspaper is all the skill that’s needed. Flexibility, a keen memory and eye for detail, common sense, willingness to recognize that the goal is to communicate the author’s thoughts to the reader, a good feel for the language, and knowledge of the rules as well as when to break them are as essential as a grasp of grammar and spelling. A good copyeditor may know everything, but he/she knows where to look it up, and does exactly that when confronted with anything of which he/she is not 100% certain. Many copyeditors I know believe in “the copyediting gene” – namely, an ability that can be developed and nurtured in one who has the “gene,” but cannot be taught to one who doesn’t.

If you’re still here, I encourage you to read Karen Judd’s excellent book Copyediting: A Practical Guide. I knew after reading her first chapter that copyediting was the job for me, and the book also has an excellent list of further resources. I’ve been freelancing as a CE/PR for 6½ years now, and I love it. I’ve learned something new with every project. When I think of how I handled that first ms. – oy. I’m amazed that client ever sent me another one! But they did, and still do, and I kept learning, and now I have five regular clients who love me and enough work that I occasionally have to turn down new projects because I’m already booked to the gills.

Feel free to ask away if there’s anything I’ve left out. [sub]And yes, I know there are probably typos in my post, but I’m an iffy typist anyway, and I have a wonky keyboard, and I have work to do – be glad I decided to post at all![/sub]

Um, add to that list that one must also watch out for missing “nots.” (And “nows” that should be “nots.”)

Scarlett, who obviously does NOT know everything

Hmm. Actually that sounds like fun!

There are few publishers in the Washington area, though.

Don’t do thsi on your resume…

OK, I’ll go now…

Well, Scarlett67 definitely has more freelancing experience (i.e., “some”) than I do, so she could probably speak to this more accurately, but it seems to me that if you got into freelance copyediting, it wouldn’t matter where you were located. Publishers would simply send you the material, you’d copyedit it, and then you’d send it back.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s basically how it works.

Of course, Scarlett! I take being ignorant as seriously as you took my enlightenment on the subject, and I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy day to write such a detailed answer to my query. Thanks also to Ms. Whatsis for her insights.

Ms. Judd’s book is on order and I can’t wait to see what awaits me. I know you wrote that her book would list other resources, but I wanted to ask what reference materials you find most helpful in your job?

Again many thanks for sharing the details of your interesting job!


MsWhatsit is correct about location. I’m out here in rural Buttmunch, Wisconsin, and my clients are in NYC, Chicago, Cleveland, and Virginia. And only one of them is a publisher – the rest are book packagers or editorial services.

I’d also like to comment that contrary to King Rat’s experience, all of my clients or potential clients have required a liberal arts degree, not necessarily in (or perhaps preferably not) in English or journalism. Most of the few undergraduate courses that even address editing and proofreading as it’s actually done in publishing are woefully inadequate. They are looking for good general academic knowledge and experience, along with that gene I was talking about earlier. My degree is in graphic art, which actually has come in handy in this career, but it’s all those general ed courses that I use the most.

And yes, you must seek the work – it won’t come to you. (Not at first anyway. Now that I’m established, I rarely have to troll for work – when I notice that I’ll be free in a few weeks, the phone starts ringing.) In the online freelancing discussion groups I participate in, it’s so pathetic when someone posts, “I put up a Web site advertising my editing services. How can I get more responses?” Project editors who need a freelancer for a project don’t go out and start surfing the Internet – they go to their Rolodex of established freelancers, or if they’re really desperate, to the dusty files that contain the resumes of the “pool” – “We’ll keep your resume on file,” which means “Your qualifications and/or test results are acceptable, but don’t hold your breath waiting for us to call you.” Getting your foot in the door is HARD. but once you’re in, if you’re good, you’re in like Flynn.

Hmmm, good question! First, you should know that 75% of my projects are college textbooks (with a little fiction thrown in for fun), so my advice is skewed toward that area. Other types of publishing (newspaper, corporate, scholarly, journals, el-hi, etc.) will have other requirements. The following lists are not necessarily in preferred order; I’m just reading them off my shelves.

Primarily Chicago, although I do use APA and MLA for reference lists occasionally as the project requires. I also have on hand AMA (medical), CBE (science), Words Into Type, GPO, ACS (chemistry), Mathematics Into Type (I do a fair amount of math CE/PR, putting my calculus-and-below to good use!), the Harvard Bluebook (legal citation), and the Microsoft Manual of Style.

Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged
M-W Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (MW3’s chief abridgment; I once found out the hard way that they do not always agree!)

Black’s Law
Taber’s Medical
French, Spanish, German, Italian, Norwegian (don’t ask), Greek, and probably a few other foreign languages

Miller & Swift, Handbook of Nonsexist Writing
New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
Webster’s New World Guide to Concise Writing
Bernstein, The Careful Writer
Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins
Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook
Fowler, Modern English Usage
Follett, Modern American Usage

Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook
Rogers, Editorial Freelancing
Faux, Successful Freelancing

Columbia Encyclopedia
Handbook of Typography for the Mathematical Sciences
Information Please Almanac
The Elements of [Style, Grammar, Editing, Typography] (Strunk and White made this form of title quite popular!)
Movie guide

Note: Online sources can be dicey for verifying info. I might check a company’s Web site to verify the spelling/style of its name; for factual information I would trust a news, educational, or government site over that of some schmo who may or may not feel compelled to be accurate. And I always double-check information obtained from online sources.

INTA Trademark Checklist
Library of Congress database
IMDb (taken with a grain of salt)
Legal Information Institute
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

And of course, on the rare occasion when I can’t find the answer on my own, I have been known to ask questions on the SDMB now and then – the one that comes to mind is when I wanted to know whether a cannonball could indeed explode, as my fiction author had one doing. (The answer was yes.)

Freelance (Yahoo! Groups)
Freelance Online

That should be enough to get you started!

Scarlett67 I was really referring to legal proofreading, not copyediting, which as you point out is a higher-skilled job. Let me just point out the up-side of what I was trying to say: Legal proofreading may be a good opportunity for someone who doesn’t have a degree, yet has an eye for detail. It may also be a good choice for a student.

Editing student here. I’m in Australia and doing a two- year diploma course. I’ve done a bit for publishers in the past but I’m really getting to grips with what I don’t know.

At the end of the course, I’ll freelance - I’m already a published writer and have some contacts in the publishing world but I’m under no illusions it will be easy.

I don’t think becoming a proofreader or copyeditor self-taught would be very easy or fast. I do believe in the copyediting gene. The other path I could have taken to becoming a copyeditor was a general arts degree and then a graduate diploma. It would have more kudos, I know I won’t be employed by a university press when I graduate but it would have cost serious money and 6 years at least of full-time study.

I saw Judd’s book in a secondhand bookshop last week. I might need to go and buy it now. Any excuse. I’m intrigued by how different and yet how similar my list of essential books is to Scarlett’s.

It’s not necessarily either. I started freelancing cold, that is, with no in-house experience. I studied Judd and Chicago and a bunch of other books. Then I started sending out letters and resumes, about 40 of them, to targeted book packagers in September 1994. I got a few tests, some advice, and a lot of rejections. One of those tests got me my first tiny project in March 1995. I was on my way.

Well, Primaflora, that’s likely because I’m in the US and you’re Down Under; the ones that differ are probably more oriented toward UK English. You probably have (or need) Judith Butcher’s Copyediting and the Chambers Dictionary, for example.

I spent a couple years as the senior editor at a foreign securities company in Tokyo. Probably never would have got on in the States, but, hey, right person at the right time.

I would just add that stock brokers/security houses might need editors. Maybe Dalovindj does that? They pay well if you understand a little bit about business…

Scarlett! You’re a bad woman! I’m trying to avoid buying Butcher - it’s $90.

Our ‘bibles’ are a mix of UK English and Australian English. I’ve got a Chambers dictionary but the two I rely on are the Oxford and the Macquarie.

Quasi, I’m just reading a book of essays by editors which could be interesting to you. Editors on Editing edited by Gerald Gross, Grove Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8021-3263-4.

I am trying, for the life of me, to understand why anyone on earth would desire to be a proofreader.

Having worked as a typesetter for years, and having worked either for small houses or small sites operated by larger companies, my duties have evolved such that I now spend between one-third and one-half my time proofreading. I would gladly conduct human sacrifices with a dull blade in order to avoid having to ever proofread again.

Perhaps my distaste for proofreading is a result of my working in Canada - ah yes, Canada, the land of eternal compromise where both American and British spellings are acceptable. The land where the rules for usage of French in English-language documents are forever changing. Canada, that land of cooperation where multiple authors are involved in the same document and the concept of consistency is usage is something only the typesetters (and proofreaders) seem to have a grasp on.

I hates proofreading, golly gee I does.

Yep bagkitty I agrees :). It blows my mind that several of my co-students aim to be proofreaders. I don’t mind doing some proofing but I would lose my mind if that were all I did. It’s intense, dull, tedious work.

Hmmm, voice of dissent here on the pleasures of proofreading. It ain’t a career choice by itself, that’s for sure. And frequent breaks are essential if you don’t want your eyeballs to explode. (I’m very nearsighted and wear glasses everywhere except to bed, but I still have close-focus reading glasses that I wear just for proofreading.) But I find it a nice counterpoint to copyediting. I get to see the nice, neat, typeset pages – which is refreshing after, for example, a messy copyediting project on the Manuscript :mad: from :mad: the :mad: Ninth :mad: Circle :mad: of :mad: Hell, like the one I just finished. When a client asked whether I wanted CE or PR work last week, I begged her for some PR just for a change! And there’s more than just the reading pass; I also have to check the specs and typography, which lets me wear my former-prepress-tech and graphic-design hats, if only in limited fashion. Plus I’m still getting paid to read (about interesting subjects as well as mundane), which is, after all, my dream of how to make a living. To me, proofreading is easy money.