10 tips for handling your first proofreading job

Unsurprisingly, new members of the SfEP often have many questions about how to handle that first proofreading job. What are the tips and tricks to getting started with an initial piece of paid work? Are there any pitfalls to avoid? How much should you charge?

This post sets out 10 tips to help new proofreaders. Follow them and you’ll be much more confident when working for your first client.

Here’s what this post covers. Click a link to take you straight to that section:

The scenario

A proofreading scenario

Let’s start by creating a scenario for a typical proofreading job.

You’ve been contacted by a prospective client who wants you to proofread an article. It’s a 60,000-word document and you know something about the subject matter, but you’re not an expert. The client hasn’t worked with a proofreader before and would like to know how much the job will cost.

Now, let’s look at 10 tips to help you get through this first job. Ready?

Tip 1: Clarify the brief

The ‘brief’ is what the client has asked you to do – in this case, it’s proofreading their article, but you don’t yet have any further details about what ‘proofreading’ means to the client.

Clarifying the brief means you should ensure that your understanding of ‘proofreading’ matches the client’s, especially if the client isn’t a publishing professional or hasn’t paid for editorial services before.

Working to the brief is really important but even more important is understanding what the brief is in the first place. If your expectations don’t match the client’s, the end result isn’t going to be right. So you need to ensure that the requirements are crystal clear.

Here are a few questions you might want to ask:

  • Is there a style guide to work from?
  • Are there any references to deal with?
  • Is it just text or are there figures, tables and illustrations?

The brief is important because it helps you work out how much time the job is likely to take. This knowledge should help you quote a price that reflects the effort required to complete the work to an acceptable standard.

Let’s see the thoughts of a highly experienced SfEP colleague:

Find out the history of the work, e.g. has it been copy-edited to SfEP standard? Or are you the first professional to get their hands on it? If the client is not happy with previous work, find out what hasn’t worked for them.

Ali Turnbull

Tip 2: Ask for a representative sample of the work

OK, you’ve clarified the brief and now know what the client wants. You might be able to do everything that’s required, but what if the source text needs a lot of work? You won’t know until the job starts, right? Wrong. You need to know what state the text is in before you start the job. But how can you find this out?

The answer is to ask for a representative sample of the work. In this case, you would want to see at least a few thousand words (aim for 5–10% of the total), ideally taken from somewhere in the middle of the content. Why? Because authors will often polish the start and end of their writing, so seeing these parts might not give you a proper flavour of the rest of the work.

Getting hold of a representative sample will give an indication of how much effort is required to do the job. Perhaps you’ll discover that the text isn’t even ready for proofreading. Although you’re understandably eager to get going with your first job, the sample may reveal that this particular piece of work isn’t right for you. Should that be the case, it’s best to tell the client straight away.

Tip 3: Get the quote right

Once you know what the client is expecting and you’ve assessed a sample of the text, it’s time to think about how much to charge. A lot of newbie proofreaders freeze at this point. They have moments of self-doubt, wondering whether they can really charge anything for their services. Perhaps it would be better to do the job for nothing?

Although some established professionals support the idea of early work being done at a very low rate (or even for free), most would advise new proofreaders to charge a normal, respectable figure. So, what is that figure?

We usually advise members to look at the suggested minimum rates published on the SfEP website. These hourly figures give an idea of a good minimum amount to aim for. But that then poses another question: how many hours will the job take?

The time required to do the job should have a bearing on what you charge. The exact amount to charge depends on a few factors. Consider these questions:

  • How long is the text?
  • How complex is the subject matter?
  • What’s the deadline?

The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how much effort is required and therefore how much you should charge.

Now, think again about the scenario involving the 60,000-word article. Imagine that you’ve seen a representative sample. It’s good news: the text is brilliantly written and the subject matter turns out not to be as complex as you first thought. You think you can read and correct the rest of the text pretty quickly. You guess that a pace of 4000 words per hour might be achievable. At that rate, you’d need to work for 15 hours to do the job.

Most proofreaders struggle to put in more than 6 hours of work per day. (Proofreading requires a lot of concentration and can be very tiring.) This means that the job would take the equivalent of 2.5 days. At the current suggested minimum rates for proofreading, this job might cost the client around £350. Remember, this is a minimum suggested figure for a piece of text that you’ve assessed as being in great shape already.

But what if the text is a real mess? Horror of horrors, the client hands over a sample that’s hard to understand and is full of mistakes and inconsistencies. Perhaps you’ll scarcely be able to wade through 1000 words of this per hour. Unlike your dream job above that would take a mere 15 hours, this scenario would have you labouring for close to 60 hours – effectively a full week plus overtime, equating to a quote around the £1300 mark. And yes, that’s a minimum suggested figure.

OK, there are two extremes here, but the point is that not all quotes are going to work out the same way. Assessing a sample of the text will let you produce a quote that is in the right part of the spectrum.

An aside on fighting the temptation of quoting low rates

So, what about the natural temptation to quote low just so you can get the experience of that first job or two? Let’s take a look at some advice from fellow SfEP members:

If the client is potentially going to give you more work, or recommend you to others, I would be wary of setting a low rate.

Sarah Ryan

Quote a reasonable hourly rate, based on the time that would be expected of a more experienced editor, and then work the hours necessary for you to do a good job – yes, it’ll probably take a lot longer and therefore work out at a very poor rate, but that’s not relevant to the client. If you start at a low rate, you may end up working for that rate for a lot longer than you think. Also, quoting low does not necessarily mean you’ll land the job – it may well set off red flags in a client’s mind as to why you are so much lower than other quotes they’ve had.

Tina Allen

Tip 4: Agree a reasonable deadline

Experienced editorial professionals are often able to take on rush jobs, and can sometimes charge a premium for doing so. This isn’t recommended for those who are starting out, so you need to be sure that you really will have the time to get through the job. As Tina says above, your time estimate might not be long enough, so pushing out the deadline as much as possible would be helpful.

Once you’ve agreed a deadline, do your best to stick to it. Should you realise that the agreed deadline is not achievable, inform the client as soon as possible.

Tip 5: Check all materials

You can’t start a job until you’ve got everything you need. More wise advice:

Check all files as soon as you receive them. Don’t wait until you want to start work, because by that time any problems, such as corrupted files or failed attachments, will wreck your schedule. And back up your work.

Clare Law

Tip 6: Create a checklist of jobs

Having done all of the above prep, you’re now ready to start the job proper. In all the excitement of taking on that first piece of work, you don’t want to forget any tasks. So, follow some simple steps to build a bit of order into your work:

  1. Make yourself a checklist of jobs to do.
  2. Add to it anything you think of as you’re going along.
  3. Remember to check off against the checklist!

Katie Lewis

Tip 7: Break up the job

If you try to focus on every aspect of the text at the same time, you’ll almost certainly miss something. It’s far better to break up the job into separate passes, helping you focus on one thing at a time.

Here’s some expert advice on the subject:

One tip is not to try to do everything in one pass, especially if you are dealing with a typographically complex book with lots of illustrations, tables, lists, text boxes, etc. Make a checklist, as Katie suggests, then do some global passes to check items such as

  • Page numbers
  • Running heads
  • Chapter headings vs contents list
  • Any numbered or alphabetised lists
  • Sequence of any numbered headings

Only when you have checked all these off on your list is it time to start reading.

Kathleen Lyle

Tip 8: Compile a style guide

As above, asking whether there’s an existing style guide should be something you do when assessing the job. But even if a style guide exists, it probably won’t cover everything you come across as you work on the job. Keep notes about decisions made during the job and then refer back to them. Naturally, this is even more important when there’s no style guide to start with.

Time for more advice from another SfEP member:

Regardless of whether or not the client provides a style guide, compile a style sheet for every single project you do. It will include choices related to spelling, capitalization, italics, etc., and if the client hasn’t provided you with a style guide, then the style sheet will include many more items, e.g. numbers, punctuation, reference styles. Not only will you be helping the client and showing that you’re a professional, you will be helping yourself because there is no way on earth that anyone can remember every spelling decision they make over the course of any project. Also, run PerfectIt (or your choice of macros) before you start. That will help you get your style sheet started before you begin the actual editing. (You can run PerfectIt again at the end, if you have time/want to check consistency.)

Janet MacMillan

Tip 9: Group all queries

If you’ve clarified the brief well enough, you shouldn’t have too many queries at the start of the job. But questions will often crop up once the work gets going. Naturally, you’ll be eager to find out the answers but you should avoid peppering the client with lots of emails.

Yet more advice from another SfEP member:

Don’t be afraid to ask, but try and keep questions to a list in one email rather than panicking and sending them willy-nilly!

Natalie Murray

Remember that your questions should always be relevant to the current job.

Tip 10: Ask questions on SfEP forums

The SfEP’s online discussion forums, which are available only to members of the Society, are the best place to ask questions and hear the thoughts of other editorial professionals. The forums have hosted more than 100,000 posts since their release in late 2012 – a clear sign of a highly engaged community.

If you’re already a SfEP member, you can register for the forums here. And if you aren’t a member of the Society, take a look at the frequently asked questions on the SfEP website. You might even consider joining us.

Summary

Taking on that first proofreading job can seem scary, but it needn’t be if you follow the tips above. Here’s a recap for new proofreaders:

  • Clarify the brief – make sure you know what the client wants.
  • Ask for a representative sample – assess the job by reviewing a chunk of the text.
  • Think about the complexity of the job – how much time and effort will be needed?
  • Agree a deadline – set a realistic timescale and do your best to stick to it.
  • Create a checklist – note all the jobs you need to do and check them off as you go.
  • Break up the job into separate passes – make sure you don’t miss any tasks.
  • Keep your own notes – supplement the style guide or create your own if one doesn’t exist.
  • Ask questions – group queries so that you don’t pepper the client with emails.
  • Use SfEP forums – ask for help from hundreds of experienced members.

Wow, that’s a lot of advice!

I hope these tips give you enough information to get started with confidence, and I wish you the best of luck with your editorial career. If you have any of your own newbie tips to share, please add a comment below.

John EspirianJohn Espirian (@espirian) is the SfEP’s internet director and principal forum administrator.

As a freelance technical writer, John specialises in producing online help content that’s actually helpful.

9 thoughts on “10 tips for handling your first proofreading job

  1. Liz Hurst

    Great blog post John, thank you!

    I’ve not long completed the Introduction to Proofreading course, shortly to be followed by the Introduction to Copy-Editing, so this is invaluable advice as I start to try to find clients.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Liz. I’m glad you found the article useful. Best of luck – I hope you find lots of clients who see the real value in good editorial work.

      Reply
  2. Catriona

    Wonderful post! I’m considering starting a course and many of these questions you posted were issues I had already raised in my own head. It’s scary starting down a new path so it is comforting to have this forum to help.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      That’s great to hear, Catriona. Please post your questions on the SfEP forums – that’s where to find the best answers.

      Reply

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