An American Editor

May 26, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect

Page Proofs and the Domino Effect

by Louise Harnby

If we want to proofread for publishers, we need to be comfortable with working on page proofs. Good proofreading practice requires us to acknowledge that, for example, changing one word, or moving one line, can have unintended and damaging consequences throughout the rest of the book if we aren’t careful.

What are Page Proofs?

The mainstream publisher will usually require the proofreader to work on page proofs: “Page proofs are so-called because they are laid out as exactly as they will appear in the final printed book. If all has gone well, what the proofreader is looking at will be almost what the reader sees if they were to walk into a bookshop, pull this title off the shelf and browse through the pages. The layout process has been taken care of by a professional typesetter who designs the text in a way that is pleasing to the eye and in accordance with a publisher’s brief” (Harnby, 2014. “Not all proofreading is the same: Part I–Working with page proofs”). In this case, the proofreader does not amend the text directly. She annotates the page proofs.

I work on both hard-copy page and PDF page proofs—it depends on the client’s preference. I’m looking for any final spelling, punctuation, grammatical, and consistency errors that remain in the text. However, I’m also expected to check the appearance of the text. There’s a more comprehensive list of what this entails here. Suffice it to say that every amendment I suggest might have an impact somewhere else. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make the amendment; it means, rather, that I need to be mindful of the consequences of my actions—the “domino effect.”

What’s the Domino Effect?

In the UK, proofreaders refer to the indirect consequences of our mark-up as knock-on effects. But let’s stick with the term “domino effect” here because it provides us with the perfect description of what’s at stake.

You line up four dominos: A, B, C, and D. You push over A and it pushes over B. B then knocks over C, which in turn causes D to fall. Domino D’s topple was caused indirectly by Domino A, even though A didn’t touch D. This process can occur on page proofs and can have serious consequences. The changes we make can, if we’re not careful, impact on the text flow, the pagination, the contents list, and the index.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Imagine the publisher’s brief tasks the proofreader with attending to orphans and widows (those stranded single lines at the bottom or top of a page). Solutions that involve instructing a typesetter to shuffle a line backward to a previous page, or forward to the next page, in order to avoid the widow/orphan might cause one, or all, of the following problems:

  • The repositioning of a line onto a different page automatically forces a reflow of text. Things look fine for the next six pages, but on the seventh page after the amendment was made, a new orphaned or widowed line has now appeared. The previous arrangement of the text prevented this.
  • Let’s imagine that the seventh page is still widow/orphan-free. But the reflow of text means that this seventh page now contains a line that appeared on the previous page. This line includes a keyword term that is cross-referenced 130 pages later. The cross-reference is now incorrect.
  •  The index is being created simultaneously by a professional indexer. It’s not uncommon for proofreaders to never see the index, nor to spot check it. The line that’s been repositioned on a different page contains an author citation that is included in the index. The indexer doesn’t know what the proofreader’s done, and the proofreader doesn’t know which terms are being included in the index. Neither of them knows that the index entry now has the wrong page number attached to it.

In all three cases, the proofreader has prevented one problem but caused others. Consequently, good practice involves more than blindly placing mark-up instruction on any given page. Thought needs to be given to how the problem can be tackled and the impact managed so that there is no domino effect. Spotting an orphaned or widowed line is not enough. We might also have to consider the following:

  • Providing additional instructions to the typesetter regarding to how to manage the problem by compensating elsewhere on the page (e.g., increasing or reducing line spaces and page depths, new line creation, etc.) so that the impact of moving one line is restricted to the page where the change has been made and its facing recto/verso.
  • Telling the project manager about the suggested line move so that the manager can inform the indexer.
  • Looking out for obvious key words or citations in lines that have been moved to check whether they are cross-referenced in the text (having a PDF, even when working on hard copy, is a must in these circumstances).

Summing Up

If you’re considering training as a proofreader and want to be fit for the purpose of marking up page proofs, check that your course includes a component about domino/knock-on effects. Even when we are supplied with detailed briefs about an ideal layout, the publisher client expects us to be mindful of the consequences of our amendments. The proofreader’s job is to find solutions to problems in ways that don’t cause unintended damage.

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.

April 21, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

by Louise Harnby

Unless we’re a member of that small cohort of editorial freelancers who do it all, we’ll have good-fit customers and bad-fit customers. Take me, for example — I’m a proofreader who specializes in working for social science and trade publishers. I also proofread for independent authors whose manuscripts have been professionally edited.

Experienced writers (e.g., academics) and mainstream publishers know what a proofreader does, so they don’t ask me to index, copyedit, structurally edit, or write. They know the differences between these levels of editorial service. We all know we’re a good fit for each other.

Often, this isn’t the case with the customer who is unfamiliar with the publishing process. I’m regularly contacted by self-publishing authors whose first manuscript has been beta read by their mother and their best mate. The likelihood of this file being ready for proofreading is miniscule. Give me a badly written and poorly organized manuscript and I’ll do my best to eradicate spelling mistakes, ensure there’s subject–verb agreement, tackle any misplaced apostrophes and wonky homophones, and attend to overall consistency of the client’s preferred style. But the manuscript will still be badly written and poorly organized when I’m done with it. I won’t apologize for this any more than my dentist will apologize for not being a good plumber.

Then there are the infrequent (one or two a year) requests from students who want me to write sections of their doctoral theses. The likelihood of this being possible (I only have a Bachelor’s degree) and acceptable (surely that would make it our doctorate) is zero on both counts.

In the above two examples, there’s a knowledge gap — I know we’re not a good fit for each other but these customers don’t. Why would they? For them, proofreading is a catchall term that means “help me sort out the mess.” Alas, that’s not my job. So what to do?

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that every minute I spend responding either to a student asking me to collude in her cheating, or to an honest independent author who needs a deeper level of editorial support, is a minute spent communicating with a bad-fit customer, and that’s a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. I’d rather spend my nonbillable hours engaging with good-fit customers than explaining why I won’t, or can’t, take on a particular project.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I’m keen to educate the customer so that they understand more about the different levels of editorial intervention, and what’s appropriate and when. Take self-publishing as an example: The massive growth of this market has meant a substantial increase in the number of independent authors facing a steep learning curve as they move from being writers to publishers. And while there’s a ton of advice for them out there, we are still a long way from a world in which we can be sure the indie author understands exactly what service is needed and who can provide it.

As I said, the solutions are out there. I’ve produced a free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors, and created an FAQs page at my website that summarizes key issues aimed at helping customers identify whether we’re a good fit. I’m not unique by any means. Many of my colleagues, too many to list here, offer excellent examples of this best practice that aim to guide their customers in the search for appropriate editorial services — in the form of blogs, terms and conditions, FAQs, guidance sheets, ebooklets, and other knowledge bases and resource centers.

Is the Information Discoverable?

I hit a problem early on. All the necessary information was available to help the customer determine whether we were a good or bad fit, but I was still receiving a huge number of inappropriate requests to quote, indicating the message wasn’t getting through. I stopped taking student proofreading work two years ago, but still the inquiries kept coming. My Guidelines for New Authors were popular, but not popular enough — I was still being asked to copy- and structurally edit, and receiving sample manuscripts that weren’t even close to being ready for proofreading. I concluded that I wasn’t enabling the customer to navigate their way to the information effectively, so they couldn’t ascertain whether we were a good match.

From a marketing perspective I’ve always been a keen believer in focusing my blurb on what I can do rather than on what I can’t. I still believe that this is an appropriate strategy for my website’s home page. However, there comes a point for many of us when too many bad-fit customers choose (understandably — they’re busy, too) to move straight from the home page to the contact form. No matter how many other pages there are on our websites detailing our areas of expertise, there’s still a good chance that our customers miss these (or don’t spend much time reading them). Jakob Nielsen sums it up nicely:

How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long. The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute. As users rush through Web pages, they have time to read only a quarter of the text on the pages they actually visit (let alone all those they don’t).

(“How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?”, 2011)

This was my problem—the information was there but it wasn’t discoverable enough. I needed to nudge my customer with a stronger call to action.

Nudging the Customer With a Call to Action

Given that I was receiving inappropriate requests to quote via my Contact page, I decided to nudge my customer about the good-fit issue by placing a strong call to action right above my email address — a statement saying:

“Help me to help you…Whether you’re a colleague or a potential client, if you have a question for me, you may find that I’ve already provided the answer on the FAQs page. If you wish me to provide you with a quotation, please click on the button below. This will open a one-page PDF that summarizes what I need to know about your project. Then call or email me to discuss your proofreading requirements in more detail.”

Underneath, I placed a large gray button—”What I need to know when you contact me…” Clicking on this button links through to the guidance sheet.

It’s early days so I don’t have anything statistically significant to report at this point. But already I’m receiving much more detailed information from potential clients that proves they’ve read the guidance sheet and have considered the different levels of editorial intervention. This means I’m able to assess whether we are potentially a good fit much earlier in the process. The results? Fewer email exchanges, much less time wasted quoting for projects that ultimately I’d have had to turn away, and happy customers who’ve learned a little at no cost to them.

What I’ve Learned

The primary lesson for me throughout this process is this: What I place on my website and what my customer chooses to read might well be two entirely different things. If I really want them to read something, I need to nudge them at the point where I have their attention. And that nudge — the call to action — needs to be obvious. Says Ginny Soskey, “In the land of calls-to-action, the motto is go big or go home. You can’t make a tiny little button that appears at the bottom of the page and hope that people will click on it — chances are, people are going to miss it.…” (“The Complete Checklist for Creating Compelling Calls-to-Action”, 2013).

If you feel you’re spending too much time fielding inappropriate enquires, or it’s taking too long to establish whether you’re a good match for your potential client, consider introducing specific guidelines to help your customers do their own assessment first. If you already have these guidelines, but you feel they’re not being read, then consider how best to nudge your customer in the right direction. Perhaps it’s your Contact page, or perhaps it’s somewhere else. That’s for you to test. There are no wrong or right answers when it comes to testing — just a gradual, practice-based understanding of what works best for you.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

March 17, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: What Do New Starters Need to Know? Thinking Internationally

What Do New Starters Need to Know?
Thinking Internationally

by Louise Harnby

Like many of my fellow editorial business owners, I’m often approached by potential new entrants to the field who want advice about getting started. Often, the first question a newbie asks is: “What do I need to know?” It’s a tough one because it’s almost impossibly vague and doesn’t tell the editorial pro anything about their enquirer’s previous career, educational qualifications, skill sets, and target markets, knowledge of which is essential if one is going to hand out any substantive advice.

What someone “needs to know” will depend on a number of factors; so, instead of telling them they must read X or Y, I ask these questions:

  1. Which services are you interested in providing (e.g., structural, copy-editing, proofreading)?
  2. What’s your educational background?
  3. Have you just graduated or do you have work experience, and, if so, in what field?
  4. Are you prepared to use your education/career background as a way to specialize?
  5. If you specialize, which types of clients could you target?

I try not to assume that my enquirer is from the same place as me, speaks like me, has the same potential clients as me, and spells “colour” like I do (except when the brief tells me to spell it “color”). Centrism, whether from the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere in the world, is useless to the new entrant to the field because it’s based on false assumptions about them and their potential customers.

A Case Study: Social Science “Styles” From an International Perspective

A new entrant to the editing profession from California sends me an e-mail with the answers to questions 1, 2, and 3. Based on these I suggest social science publishers and academics would be good initial target markets. How does my new starter’s California location affect her choice of potential publishers? It’s not clear cut. The online world has knocked down those geographical boundaries; you don’t have to spend a fortune to send page proofs to someone hundreds of miles away; you can email them to someone thousands of miles away for the price of an Internet connection.

And how does my new starter’s location in the United States more broadly affect what she needs to learn in terms of styles and language preferences? Again, it’s not clear cut. I see The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommended as the sole must-have resource so often in online discussions about editorial work that I worry that new entrants may fall into the trap of thinking that this “bible” alone will tell them everything they need to know. Super though it may be, CMOS is not the be all and end all of style guides, because it depends what a client wants and because it depends on the subject matter and country.

The website of California-based publisher SAGE Publications tells us that copy-editors need a thorough knowledge of both the CMOS and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Note that these are core requirements for SAGE’s US book division. If you want to freelance for the US journal division, you’ll need to add the AMA Manual of Style and The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers to your reading list. (Also worth noting is that not all publishers want the most current version of these manuals used.)

But why stop there? If my new starter can get work with SAGE in California, might it not be sensible to consider tapping its sister office in London? But in that case, our newbie will also need familiarity with New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and Butcher’s Copyediting.

Or what if our new starter decides to target social science academics who, like her, are based in the US? Will those academics all be writing books for US publishers? Will they submit articles only to American journals? Of course not. It’s just as likely that an eminent Boston-based scholar will submit to the European Journal of Political Research as to the American Political Science Review, Scandinavian Political Studies, or the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

How will this impact on what our newbie needs to know? Will it be “behavior” or “behaviour”? Will a comma in a sentence come before a closing quotation, or after? Will “decision-making” lose its hyphen? “Organize” or “organise”? Spaced parenthetical en rules or closed-up em rules? The important point is that where our clients live doesn’t determine where they publish or the location of their intended readership.

Given that the editorial freelancing market is competitive, it makes sense to exploit the most obvious opportunities. In the Internet Age, the physical barriers are gone. The only barrier to exploring an international work stream is an inability to appreciate that language conventions and preferences differ according to client (whether that be a particular publisher, a particular independent author, a particular journal), not according to one, and only one, globally recognized set of rules. Honestly — such a thing doesn’t exist; it doesn’t even exist within many countries.

Diversity of Geography, Language, and Preferences…

It’s not so much about where we live, but where our clients live and what preferences they have. I live in the UK. I’ve worked with a Swedish fantasy author who wanted to use American terminology but UK spelling with –ize suffixes. I proofread for academic publishers who will ask me for US spelling and “style” for one project, and who then, two weeks later, will send a brief for a new project that asks for something completely different. Regarding reference styles, I’ve proofread law books that used Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA), sociology books that used Harvard, and industrial relations journals that used Vancouver. I’ve worked on research-methods books that were styled according to CMOS, linguistics books that asked for APA, and politics reports that used The Economist style guide. I’ve proofread philosophy books where the style was…let’s just call it “go with the flow.” Many of my publishers have a “house” style, so working for them means reading and learning that.

So, if a new starter asks me what she needs to know, I tell her that she needs to be prepared to familiarize herself with a number of appropriate resources depending on what her clients want. Perhaps it’s CMOS; perhaps it’s not. And even if it is, ONLY knowing this may mean she is seriously restricting the base of clients for whom she can work, the types of material she can work on, and the geographical locations she can explore. I ask her to (a) think about which particular client groups she is most suited to, (b) do some research that will tell her what those clients require, and (c) use that information to inform the decision about which resources to invest in. If someone’s world revolves around CMOS, it’s a smaller world than it needs to be. And if her world is smaller than it needs to be, so are the opportunities she is exploring in a market that’s already very competitive.

One other item to note. CMOS, CSE, APA, AMA, and the like are style guides; they give you guidance on whether, for example, to close up or hyphenate a compound adjective. What they do not do is give you extensive guidance on whether a word is being properly used. Usage manuals, which give that kind of information, are as important as style guides. Using a style guide or a usage manual alone is an invitation to disaster.

Out With Borders and in With Flexibility…

When you’re the owner of an editorial business you need to learn what your clients want you to learn, whether it’s a manual published by Chicago or Oxford, a house brief designed by a team of publisher project managers, a detailed set of guidelines issued by a European NGO, or a short brief issued by an independent author of fiction. Encouraging our new starters to think broadly, globally, and flexibly is essential if we are to guide them effectively towards what they need to know. Pointing them to one set of rules is not only restricting, it’s just plain wrong.

There is, alas, no simple answer to the question “what do I need to know?” Instead, advice that asks our new starters to give careful thought and planning centered around client- and skill-focused research is a good first step. That way, the new entrant to the field learns for himself what resources, tools, and knowledge bases are suitable for him, his potential market, and his particular business model. Language usage, styles, and preferences differ, and our advice needs to reflect that.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

February 3, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Editorial Freelancing — Are You Really Ready for It?

Today inaugurates a monthly series of essays by Louise Harnby, “The Proofreader’s Corner.” In her essays, Louise will explore the world of freelancing, drawing on her varied background as an accomplished proofreader, author of books on freelancing, and businessperson. Please welcome Louise as a new columnist for An American Editor.


Editorial Freelancing:
Are You Really Ready for It?

by Louise Harnby

So you’ve decided you’d like to freelance. Congratulations! This means you’ll be self-employed. The survival of your new editorial business will depend on other individuals and organizations hiring your services.

A word of advice, however. If you currently work for someone else, make sure you’re actually ready for the world of self-employment before you clear your work station and wave goodbye to your boss, your annual-leave allowance, any pension provision (no matter how small), and your monthly salary.

There are lots of wonderful things about freelancing — things that most of us are ready for: control over who we work with, what we wear, the hours we choose to dedicate to our business, and the ability to work in the surroundings we choose.

There are lots of questions that we need to ask ourselves, too, before we embark on a freelance journey, not least of which is: Are we really ready?

“Ready for what? Ready to freelance? Definitely!” comes the response. “I’m sick of office politics. I’m sick of commuting. I’m sick of working with people who don’t appreciate me and who don’t behave professionally. I’m sick of not being paid what I deserve. I’m sick of having to barter with colleagues about who’ll come into the office over the Christmas holidays.” And so on.

Actually, I loved my last office job. Certainly there were times when things didn’t go as I wanted them to, but overall it was a lovely place to work and it was full of enthusiastic, inspiring people who were both friends and colleagues to me. I know many people who’ve not been so lucky in their careers; if you’re one of them, freelancing may seem like the solution.

An initial question…

If you’re still an employee and thinking of taking the plunge into editorial freelancing, ask yourself who deals with the following:

  1. Your tax deductions have changed in line with a salary increase/decrease.
  2. Your PC has broken.
  3. One of the organization’s customers hasn’t paid their invoice.
  4. You need to go on a course to learn how to use a specific piece of software.
  5. The company website is down.
  6. Your work station is filthy. The cleaner seems to have missed your work station!
  7. One of your external customers needs mail delivery of something TODAY.
  8. You feel ill and can’t attend a scheduled meeting; a colleague needs to stand in for you.
  9. You feel ill and can’t finish an urgent job; a colleague needs to stand in for you.
  10. The marketing materials need updating.
  11. The company’s suppliers need paying.
  12. The company needs to create/update/develop a mission statement.
  13. One of the department’s external suppliers has underperformed and a replacement needs to be found.
  14. You feel you’ve been treated unfairly by a colleague or client.

In my previous office-based job, where I was an employee rather than the employer, the answers to the above looked like this:

  1. A woman called Kim
  2. A man called Luke
  3. Kim again
  4. A woman called Jane
  5. Luke again.
  6. A woman called Marie
  7. A man called Paul
  8. A woman called Bernie
  9. Bernie again
  10. Me…or Bernie, Jane, Clive, Debbie, Lorna, and more!
  11. A man called Peter
  12. A man called Steve
  13. A woman called Claire
  14. A woman called Susan

In my current job as a freelance proofreader, the answer is “me”, and in numbers 8 and 9 I’d add: “Tough!  You’re on your own — deal with it.”

And all those things that you’re sick of…

Running your own business is empowering in many ways but it’s not a cure-all.

  • Politics — there may not be office politics, but there is still politics. Freelancers, editorial or otherwise, work with people. And where there are people there is politics. It’s unavoidable.
  • Lack of appreciation — many of your clients will be wonderful. But a quick browse on one of Facebook’s member-only editorial discussion groups will soon tell you that it’s not always an easy ride. Many editorial freelancers have had the odd run-in with a rude client, an unappreciative client, a “difficult” client, a client who doesn’t work within the same professional parameters. This is the world of work, and experiences like this are to be found everywhere – we’re not immune.
  • Appropriate remuneration — not all your clients will be prepared to pay what you feel is an acceptable rate. There are various suggested rates offered by editorial freelancing associations, but they are just that — suggestions. Furthermore, not all the work you do will be billable: while someone will pay you to edit, they won’t pay you to tune up your PC, update software, create an up-to-date CV, chase a client for payment, or take time out for training courses. Additionally, if you don’t have any work you don’t get paid — there’s no guaranteed monthly check.
  • Time off — don’t assume that you’ll never end up working holidays, evenings or weekends to hit a deadline. It’s unrealistic. Freelancing is hard, hard work. If you’re the primary income provider in your house there may be even more pressure on you to deliver, even once your business is established. In the early days you might be keen to accept anything you can, for the experience and the possible repeat work, even if that means putting in unsociable hours. Or one of your USPs (unique selling points) may be that you offer a quick-turnaround service. Reasons vary but irregular hours are anything but uncommon, even for established proofreaders and editors.

Getting ready…

Freelancing is hugely rewarding, though it will take most people time to build up a sustainable full-time business. Editorial work is also a wonderful way to earn a crust if you enjoy working with words and have the appropriate skills and mind-set for it. It’s worth being aware, though, that in order be ready to set up your own proofreading, editing, indexing or project management business, you’ll have to be prepared to sort out your own tax, insurance, IT, marketing, training, accounting, and administration. For many, that’s part of the fun of it; for others, those things are a chore. Whatever your view, once you become a business owner it’s your responsibility ­— take the necessary steps to prepare yourself.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

December 16, 2013

The Business of Editing: Knowing Your Editorial Fit

Recently, in The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground, I discussed turning down work. Today’s guest essay by Louise Harnby provides another perspective on accepting or referring work. As Louise points out, knowing when to say no is as important as knowing when to say yes.

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.


Knowing Your Editorial Fit

by Louise Harnby

The biggest reward I’ve received from my comprehensive marketing strategy is that I get a lot of offers of work…not just from publishers, but also from independent writers, students, business professionals, and individual academics. Being in a position whereby I have the opportunity to turn down work—either because I can’t fit it in or because I know of a particular colleague who can do a better job—is something I’ve striven for since I set up my professional proofreading business in 2005. Why? Because taking on work that I don’t have the required skill set for is a lose–lose for me and the client. I don’t want to do a mediocre job.

At the very best, “mediocre” doesn’t bring the client back asking for more, doesn’t generate solid testimonials, doesn’t lead to referrals from my client to his or her colleagues, and brings me a huge amount of stress. At the very worst, it could lead to complaints, a lack of confidence on the client’s part, damage to my professional reputation…and did I mention stress? And those were definitely not on my “strive for” list back in 2005!

Only a few days ago, I received an email from a Dutch academic based at a prestigious UK university. He’d found my website by googling “academic proofreader sociology.” Given that I appeared on the first page of Google’s search results he took a peek and liked what he saw—he told me he loved my profile, my extensive online academic proofreading portfolio, and the page of testimonials from academic publishers. He thought I was a great fit. Money wasn’t an issue so would I be interested in proofreading and editing his presubmission sociology and demography journal articles and his grant proposals on a regular basis? The text would include a lot of data analysis and stats, but nothing too technical.

On paper we do look like a great match—he’s an academic researcher looking for an experienced academic editorial freelancer. What’s the real story, though? The facts are as follows:

  • I’m a proofreader not a copyeditor. They’re different jobs.
  • Most of my academic proofreading work has already been through a round of professional copyediting (arranged by the publisher’s in-house project manager).
  • I work primarily on books, not journals. They are different products with different requirements.
  • The last time I looked at a grant proposal was back in the late 1980s, when I applied for tuition-fee support prior to embarking on my university degree.
  • The words “editing data analysis and statistics” make me feel, well, a tad unwell.

Certainly, I could have secured this job, and the healthy fee that would have come with it, by confirming the client’s initial response to my online profile. But having bagged the work, I know I would have done a mediocre job. Reading between the lines, the client needed someone with a richer skill set than mine. And I knew just the person. One of my colleagues is a former academic researcher and has worked as a scientist in a commercial environment. He’s written for journals, sat on journal editorial boards, and been active in the peer-review process. He’s evaluated research grant proposals and been involved in the writing and submission process. And he’s both an editor and a proofreader who specializes in working on journal articles written by authors for whom English is a second language. This colleague can bring something to the table that I can only dream of. The job he’ll do for my Dutch academic will be richer than anything I can offer. And not just because of his editorial training. Rather, his research background and career experience will enable him to add value in ways that can’t be taught to me.

Furthermore, referring my Dutch academic (with his refreshing focus on quality rather than the lowest price) elsewhere didn’t hurt me one bit. I don’t have the stress of knowing I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; I’ve been honest with the client about exactly what’s required and who can deliver the necessary outcomes; one of my colleagues has (I hope) secured a productive relationship with a new client; and I’m free to continue to use the hours in my working day to bill for work that I am qualified for—work that I can do a really, really good job on, not a mediocre one.

It can be tempting to take on work that one can’t do a really great job on, especially when opportunities aren’t coming thick and fast. That’s why an effective marketing strategy is so important; it helps to put us in the position where we’re able to get enough of the work that we’re excellent at instead of taking risks with jobs that we’re not trained for, or don’t have an aptitude for. It gives us choices so that we can put all that we’ve learned into the place it needs to be. And if we do want to expand into editorial work that requires another skill set (one that can be taught), it gives us the space to generate a regular work stream while we pursue the relevant training.

Few of us are good at everything. Certainly we can diversify, and we can (and should) continue to develop as professionals by educating ourselves. But there are some things that can’t be taught. With the best will in the world, I will never have the research background or journal experience that some of my colleagues have. That’s their bag. I have mine. For each of us, knowing where we fit, and how best to exploit and communicate that fit, is central to commonsense editorial business ownership.

Do you agree? If you were me, would you have taken on the job I turned down or would you have referred it to a colleague? Was this out of choice or necessity?


The issues that Louise raises also reflect on the informal code of responsibility that governs professional editing. Do you include this informal code in your decision-making process?

Louise cites the factors she considered, but we should not forget that there are other factors to be considered, such as whether we think we are capable of working under a tight deadline. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to accept or refer a job? How do you decide which colleague to refer the client to?

September 13, 2013

Worth Noting: Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers

A few weeks ago, in Worth Noting: Proofreaders-to-be: Loving Books Isn’t Enough, I commented that Louise Harnby’s book, Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters, looked interesting and that I planned to check it out. I did and I want to report that this is an excellent basic guide to the business of freelancing.

(I suppose I should disclose that to my surprise, I am mentioned by name in the book in connection with my EditTools macro collection. However, I assure you that the mention is fleeting and not why I’m reviewing the book now.)

Harnby’s book begins with the basics and gives good advice. American readers should be aware that it is written from a British perspective, but the advice crosses all geographical boundaries and is as relevant and accurate in the United States and Spain as it is in England. As I have stated numerous times, business is business — the basics do not change.

It is the basics that Harnby addresses. Things like why a business plan is a good idea, why one should have a business name and a domain name, networking, finding clients, getting experience, and the myriad other things that new-to-the-business-of-freelancing people need to know.

The book is not detailed, which is a weakness, but then it is not intended to be more than an overview. It does act as a checklist and guide. I think even experienced freelancers who are struggling with the business aspects of freelancing would benefit from this book. Information about the book and how to order it are available at Harnby’s website: Louise Harnby Proofreader.

It is an inexpensive investment (£5.99/US$8.99), but one that could set you on the right path. I encourage you to checkout Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters by Louise Harnby.

August 23, 2013

Worth Noting: Proofreaders-to-be: Loving Books Isn’t Enough

Every so often I am asked what it takes to become a thriving editor. Often, I’m told “I could be an editor because I read so much!” My stock answer has always been, “No, reading books is great, but not enough for most people to become an accomplished editor.”

I always hedge the bet a little because I have never forgotten the movie I saw decades ago, called “The Great Impostor,” starring, if I recall correctly, Tony Curtis, which was based on the true story of a Canadian who became many things — including a Navy shipboard surgeon and a university professor — just by reading.

It has also been my experience that no matter what I would tell the inquirer, my advice was falling on deaf ears.

Louise Harnby, proofreader extraordinaire, faced a similar inquiry and wrote about it on her blog. Her article, Proofreaders-to-be: Loving Books Isn’t Enough, is excellent and should be read by everyone with an interest in becoming an editor or proofreader. It is comforting to know that I’m not the only one whose advice is sought and then ignored.

Louise has also written a book, Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers, that looks intriguing and has garnered very positive comments from colleagues I know and whose opinion I value. On that basis, I recommend taking a look at her book; I know I plan to. There is no such thing as knowing too much about one’s business.

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