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Editing as a Profession
by Aline Lechaye

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

There are certain people who just can't write. They can make the simplest idea into a complicated tangle. There are also people who can mess up a sentence so badly that you don't know where it starts and where it ends. These people (and there are surprisingly many of them) are the ones who hire writers to aid them with their writing.

How do you know if you're cut out to be a proofreader? If you have a fairly good command of spelling and grammar rules and have time to read, you're good to go. A degree in English is a plus, but not always necessary.

Editing jobs come at many different levels. There are the simple proofreading gigs, where all you have to do is spell-check and punctuation-check. Then there are harder forms of editing work where you might be expected to correct readability and style, and sometimes even help with fact-checking.

How Hard Is It?

You've proofread your own work before--you go over your sentences, tweak the weird-sounding ones, correct the misspellings, and take out needless words. How is that different from reading other people's work?

The most important difference is that when you're reading something you wrote, you know what's going on because you know how your mind works. But when reading a piece by someone else, you may be confused by the other person's logic or thinking process and consequently find yourself unable to comprehend what it is they're trying to say.

Secondly, with your own articles and stories, you can delete or add paragraphs as you please. But when editing, you're not allowed to add or take away anything that the piece itself does not call for (unless your client has specifically asked you to edit the content of the piece.) You have to work with someone else's sentence patterns. If a paragraph is perplexing, you have to straighten it out. Some of the topics covered may be unfamiliar to you, which only makes it all the harder.

How to Read

Got an editing job in your in-tray but don't know where to start?

First, skim through the piece quickly, and correct all the obvious mistakes: misspellings, wrong verb tenses, and so on. (If your client only requires a quick spell-check, then your job is pretty much done here.)

Now go through the piece again. Read the first paragraph. You should read the first paragraph carefully because it should (hopefully!) help you to get an outline of the rest of the piece as well as the writer's reasoning process. Is the meaning clear to you? Do you know what the writer is saying? The first paragraph of nonfiction pieces are usually an introduction to what the piece is going to say, so it has to be especially clear.

Go on to read the rest of the piece. You'll have to use your better judgment on some points. Sometimes you have to move sentences around to make the whole piece understandable. Sometimes a convoluted paragraph can be converted into a bullet list, for example.

Finally, skim the whole piece again, making sure it holds together. Check to see that there aren't incorrect "leads," like saying there are three reasons for something, but only giving two. Check the grammar again, as well. Sometimes, after I make changes, I forget to change the verb tenses concerned, so I get sentences like, "Our company are a fun, challenging..."

If you're further expected to check the content, a trip to Google would be a good place to start, though you may have to pay a few visits to the library or to online forums to find really expert information.

What Not to Correct

Yes, there are some things in a piece that you should not correct.

You should not correct wrong information. (Unless you're asked to do so, of course.) What's wrong information? Things like 1+1=3. Why not? Because sometimes the information may be something technical that you think you know, but don't. You can, however, give the client a kindly reminder.

Keep an eye out for the "wrong" spellings that aren't really wrong. The names of drugs or scientific equipment, for instance. I once corrected about fifty "misspellings" before I realized that it was the abbreviation of an insecticide's name.

However, there are those people who persist in believing that "a lot" is spelled "alot". How do you know if the misspelling is wrong or not? You can ask your client to provide you with a glossary. (Don't laugh; there are thoughtful corporations who do prepare glossaries for first-time buyers of their product. It never hurts to ask.) Or you can try Google, the ever-helpful. As a last resort, you can highlight the suspicious phrases and go over them with your client one by one. As a rule, if you come across more than three misspellings of the same word, you should highlight that as a possible non-misspelling.

Where Do I Start?

Where can you get proofreading jobs? You could sit in your chair waiting for the friend of a friend to be introduced to you, but that might take forever. If you want a job, you'll have to go out and look for it.

Search for mom-and-pop printing shops, especially ones located near colleges. Students often get their term papers or theses printed in stores like these. Approach the printers with your resume and ask if they'd be interested in adding "editing services" to their windows. You may have to pay them a percentage of your earnings as a referral fee.

Pick up the phone book and call up local nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits print a lot of promotion material, and they all need to be proofread before they go out. In my experience, nonprofits are also the ones that pay the most reasonable fees.

Snag a copy of your local newspaper or magazine and call or email them to see if they need a writer to help them edit. The fees for these jobs tend to be lower than otherwise, but you do get plenty of hands-on experience.

Don't forget to get "proofreader" or "editing services" printed on your name cards. Who knows, that person you met at the party just might be your next client.

Non-English-major-turned-writer? Drop by your old professor's office and see if he or she needs a "secretary." Professors are typically swamped with written work: student papers, scientific papers, and reports of their own research, and they all need to be read and corrected. Since you're familiar with the terminology, you have a distinct advantage over the other proofreaders or copy-editors out there. Plus, your services can be billed to the school under "expenses," so the professor wouldn't be paying for your work out of his own pocket. (Oh, and a little tip: sales reps bearing catalogs are often in and out of professors' offices. Take a look at the catalogs, and look up the websites of the companies: you'll get the newest information on equipment and scientific products, and you never know when the companies might be looking for a copywriter or a technical writer!)

And the Pay?

Proofreaders are usually paid by the thousand-word, or by the hour. Rates per hour can be anywhere from $20 to $200, depending on the job. It's best to ask for per-hour rates because some short pieces may take you four or five hours to straighten out!

Find Out More...

Breaking Into Corporate Editing - Moira Allen

So You Think You Want to Be a Freelance Proofreader... by Jan K., The Proofer

Helpful Sites:

Copywriting, Editing & Proofreading Forum
A proofreader's forum. Ask questions and get answers here.

Copyright © 2010 Aline Lechaye
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Aline Lechaye is a translator, writer, and writing tutor who resides in Asia.


Copyright © 2019 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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