One of the most commonly asked questions among those considering a career in proofreading or editing is: ‘How did you get started?’ Here, Richard Hutchinson starts a regular feature on the blog where members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) share stories of how they did just that.
What possible connection could there be between writing software for a computer and editing learned texts on the writings of Late Antiquity? I’m going to suggest that there’s quite a bit of overlap there. But I’ll start with some background.
Before I started proofreading
Back at the dawn of civilisation (we’re talking the 1980s here) I managed to get a degree in mathematics. Having discovered early on that I wasn’t really a mathematician after all, I decided to go into a career in modelling. That probably gives you the wrong impression about the way I look – I mean computer modelling, initially in the defence field. From there I moved into more general software engineering, and then spent the next 25 years or so trying to keep up with the rapid developments in computers and technology.
The job came to involve more and more document development and review, and less of the more interesting stuff. So I decided I needed a change. I hit upon proofreading (I’ll come to why in a moment) and my research led me to the SfEP Introduction to proofreading course. This convinced me that I was on the right track, and I went on to complete the Publishing Training Centre’s (PTC) Basic proofreading by distance learning course. I was lucky that I was able to do this while working part-time at the old job, and this continued to be the case as I took my first faltering steps into freelancing.
I decided to focus on publishers rather than businesses or individuals, mainly because networking, marketing and so on aren’t among my strengths. I also decided to play to my technical background and target subjects like maths, physics and computing. So the first book I worked on was about … English Renaissance literature. This break had come through a friend who worked at a local publisher. More work came after I answered a plea for journal copy-editors that was broadcast on the SfEPAnnounce mailing list, and I slowly built up enough experience to be able to upgrade to ordinary membership and take out an SfEP Directory entry. This has turned out to be the single most useful piece of marketing I’ve done – almost all my work comes via my Directory entry.
Eventually, just over a year ago, I summoned up the courage to take the leap into full-time freelancing. I haven’t looked back since.
A change? Or more of the same?
So why do I think that writing software and editing/proofreading are not so far apart? Most computer languages have a strict syntax you need to follow if you’re going to persuade the computer to obey your instructions. That means paying attention to what’s been written at a character-by-character level. You also have to understand the language at a semantic level – while the characters you write may make some sense to the computer, it may not take them to mean what you intended. And when you’re reviewing other people’s code, you also need to pay attention to the overall structure, and its suitability for a place in the system in which it’s to be deployed. An overriding requirement for a software engineer is, or should be, attention to detail. Replace ‘code’ with ‘text’, and I think you get the picture.
And if you were to suggest that the similarities might also include staring at pages of incomprehensible jargon, wondering what on earth they might mean, who am I to argue?
To find out more about how Richard and two other members of the SfEP (John Firth and Gale Winskill) embarked on freelance careers in editing and proofreading, book the ‘How we got started’ session at our annual conference. The seminar covers what they did, why they did it and things they wish they’d known beforehand.
If you’d like to share the story of how you got started, do get in touch.
Richard Hutchinson still can’t quite believe that people will pay him money to read books, and are (mostly) happy to have their mistakes pointed out. An advanced member of the SfEP, he works as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader on books and journals in maths, science and a variety of other subjects – see www.richardhutchinson.me.uk for details.
This article was proofread by SfEP associate Emma Wilkin.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.