An American Editor

September 15, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

by Louise Harnby

Many professional editorial business owners offer multiple services. Some of us choose to offer only one. I’m an example of the latter. I’ve been in practice for seven years (though for fifteen years beforehand I worked in-house for publishers) and I’m a specialist proofreader. At the time of writing, I have no plans to change this arrangement.

Recently, I was party to an exchange between two fellow editorial freelancers, one of whom was talking about how, having completed her proofreading training, she was now thinking about “upgrading” her skills to include copy-editing. This jarred with me. I could imagine expanding my services to include a new skill, but would I consider the introduction of copy-editing as an upgrade? “Upgrade” implies that proofreading is a lower-level skill — that it’s easier to do.

Later, I had an interesting discussion with another colleague. His business is established and he currently offers a range of services (proofreading and copy-editing). The reason he contacted me was because he was considering shifting the focus of his service provision to proofreading, primarily because he enjoyed the work more. Did I think this was a good idea and could I offer any advice on what “some might see as a retrograde” step? Again, I was uncomfortable with the language being used.

I decided to think more closely about the questions raised:

  • Is being “just a proofreader” a second-fiddle editorial occupation that’s easier to do?
  • Is specializing a backward step?

Is Proofreading Easier Than Copy-editing?

Is proofreading easier than copy-editing and therefore a lesser skill? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this. First, it depends on what we mean by “easier.” Do we mean it’s easier to learn? Easier to do? Or easier to manage in terms of workflow?

  • If I could learn skill X but have not yet done so, X will seem harder.
  • If I have learned skill X, I might still find it harder than skill Y because I don’t have such a flair for it.
  • If I have learned skill X, and discover I have a flair for it, but I have five dogs and two-year-old sextuplets, I might find skill X technically easier but skill Y simpler to juggle with my canine/toddler demands.

I only have one dog and one child, but I still find proofreading “easier” than copy-editing for the following reasons:

  • I haven’t trained as a copy-editor and don’t have copy-editing experience, but I have trained and am experienced in working with page proofs.
  • I like short-haul work that takes one (or two at the most) weeks to complete — proofs come in, are marked up, and are returned. This fits in nicely with the non-professional demands of my life.
  • I am more than comfortable with leaving well enough alone even when I think a sentence could be improved by rewriting.
  • I like looking for the minutiae (the incorrect running head; the missing page number; the inconsistent chapter drop; the misplaced apostrophe; the recto word break).
  • I’m happier dealing directly with a professional project manager than with an author who needs a lot of hand-holding.
  • I prefer it when projects don’t overlap. Overlapping projects would be stressful for me and this might impact on my effectiveness.

I have colleagues who struggle with proofreading, however. Their souls are in copy-editing because:

  • They haven’t trained to work with page proofs but they have trained to be copy-editors.
  • They are stimulated by the long-haul nature of a project that allows them to sink their teeth into it and provide a deeper level of intervention that will make the author’s voice sing.
  • They find it difficult to resist the temptation to tinker with non-essential changes because they know that things could be better with just an intsy-wintsy, teeny-weeny bit more intervention!
  • They are excited by the bigger picture and less so by whether the chapter drops are consistently set. Boredom could impact on their effectiveness.
  • They miss having direct contact with an author, developing a working relationship with the writer and hand-holding them through part of the publishing process.
  • They like overlapping projects because this work pattern enables them to break off from one (while waiting for the next round of author responses to come in) and refresh their brains with something different.

I also have colleagues who enjoy copy-editing and proofreading. They have both the skills and personality types that enable them to carry out a range of editorial functions. They mix and match, swapping their editorial hats according to their clients’ requirements and their own workflows. And, of course, they have preferences. They choose to offer multiple services.

Nailing down what is hard or easy is impossible because it’s subjective. And yet, what’s easy for you might not be easy for me. That’s why the language of “upgrading” isn’t helpful. It treats editorial services as if each one is a stand-alone entity that has no relation to the human being carrying it out.

The Decision to Specialize

Is specializing in proofreading a backward step if you have multiple skills? It all depends on what your business goals/needs are. The key issues to consider include:

  • Personal preferences: Which editorial functions do you enjoy doing? Which projects and clients groups generate the highest amount of self-worth for you?
  • Financial requirements: Will specializing affect the sustainability of your business? Will there be fee adjustments to consider that could impact on your ability to pay the bills each month?
  • Market considerations: Have you planned how you will expand your client base in your chosen field of specialization?

If you have a healthy editorial business that offers, for example, copy-editing, proofreading, and indexing, but you want to specialize in proofreading because you enjoy it more, you can earn what you need/want to earn, and you can access enough clients to provide you with the work you need, then it’s a forward step based on sound business planning and personal preference. Then, again, if you find this kind of work frustrating and can’t find enough of it to run your business in a way that is healthy, then it’s a retrograde step.

The point is that specializing (whether in proofreading or any other editorial function) in itself isn’t about moving forward or backward. Rather, it’s the foundations on which the decision is made that will determine the direction. If you want to do something, can do something, enjoy doing something, and that something is economically viable for your business, then do it.

Minding Our Language!

It’s worrying to think that some people working within this industry still talk about proofreading in terms of a hierarchy of ability because that’s not an appropriate way to approach the matter and is of little use to our clients. Seventeen publishers hire my specialist proofreading services on a regular basis and they do so because they can count on me to proofread — not copy-edit, index, translate, or do the hokey-cokey — according to their house brief. It’s not about upgrades or downgrades, or backward steps or forward steps; it’s about understanding what our clients’ problems are and being able to offer solutions.

Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a retrograde step as long as the business framework around the decision is sound. Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a downgrade from being a copy-editor — it’s simply a different function at a different stage of the editorial process. We need to take care that our language reflects these facts, otherwise new entrants to the field could be led towards making business decisions about what to learn and what to offer that are based on misunderstanding.

If you want to be “just a proofreader,” be one. Conversely, you could make the same decision with regard to another editorial function. Or you can mix it up. You’re a business owner and it’s your choice. You can change your mind, too. You might decide to move away from providing a more diverse service portfolio, because that decision works best for you now, but then in a year’s time reintroduce some of the services you withdrew from. That’s the beauty of being your own boss — regardless of what your colleagues are doing, you can determine the focus of your own business without having to negotiate with the human resources department!

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

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