An American Editor

November 19, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Starting a Proofreading Business — Action vs. Inertia

Starting a Proofreading Business — Action vs. Inertia

by Louise Harnby

The thought of taking on all the responsibilities that come with owning and running a proofreading business can be daunting to the new entrant to the field, and to someone who’s technically experienced but who lacks confidence. One of two problems can arise:

  1. The business planning is inadequate. This results in the proofreader feeling capable of actually proofreading but having no one to proofread for.
  2. The proofreader gets so bogged down in the planning phase that she can’t move from thinking to doing.

This article focuses on the second problem. If you’re a new editorial business owner and need advice on editorial business planning, a list of valuable starting-out resources is provided at the end of the article. (It’s worth noting that although the focus is on the proofreading business, the discussion is equally relevant to starting any editorial business.)

Why Working for Yourself Is Different

Many people come to editorial freelancing after years of successfully working for other businesses. When we are employees, someone else takes care of actually owning and running the business in which we work. I was like that — I was one cog in a large engine. My cog was an important part of the business’s machinery but I only had to worry about me and the bits of my cog that touched the cogs nearby. Someone else owned the engine and worried about how it worked as a whole. Then I set up my own business and I was in charge. I had to make the whole engine run smoothly. Taking charge of the whole thing meant acknowledging 4 truths about owing my own business.

4 Truths About Editorial Business Ownership

Truth 1: The starting point for any new entrant to the field of freelance proofreading is this — you’re setting up a business, so you need to think and act like a professional business owner.

Truth 2: It’s your business — not my business, not your friend’s business, but your business. The services you offer, the customers you target, the fees you charge (or accept), and the way you communicate the solutions you offer to a customer will all be personal to you. For example, no one else can decide for you what you need to charge to make your business viable.

Truth 3: Being a technician is not the same as being a business owner. Having the technical skill to proofread is not the same thing as running a proofreading business. Having the technical skill to proofread is just one part of running a proofreading business — albeit a crucial one.

Truth 4: There’s no rule book that can offer you a blueprint to developing your editorial business. Established editorial pros can give advice on concepts to think about and tools to utilize, but after you’ve digested all of the rich guidance, you have to take action.

Business Owners Take Ownership of Their Businesses…

It’s important to ask questions and seek advice about the big picture. The key is to not get stuck in a position where we’re incapable of moving forward without seeking validation about the detail. If I ask 50 colleagues how many pages a website should have I will end up with 50 personal answers. Some of the information I glean from 50 people will overlap but some of it won’t. There won’t be consensus.

An inability to make your own decisions, based on your business model and your customer’s needs, can paralyze you. Paralysis means you’re not in a state of mind where you’re making the final decisions about your business, but hoping instead that someone else will do it for you. That’s potentially disastrous because other people’s decisions are based on their business models and their customers’ needs. You’re the best person to make the detailed decisions about your business precisely because it’s your business, and your business serves your customers. A business owner, by definition, needs to take ownership, and that means finding the courage to act.

Effective Advice-Seeking vs. Inertia-Inducing Thinking…

Here are 2 simple case studies that demonstrate the difference between effective advice-seeking and inertia-inducing thinking. These are fictional but are based on conversations that I’ve had with real new starters.

Effective advice-seeking: Ali has decided to set up a proofreading business. Let’s assume that he’s completed high-quality training, and followed through with a mentoring program. In the course of his business planning he has recognized the value of having a website that can operate as his shop front. In the process of building the website he reaches out to editorial colleagues whom he’s met via his national editorial society and online editorial forums. He asks them about their experiences of website building and the choices they’ve made:

  • Which host do you use and have you found it reliable?
  • Have you paid for a custom domain name and email address, and if so why?
  • Can you recommend specialist articles on effective webpage layout that helped you to maximize the impact of your message?
  • Did you hire a professional designer or did you use predesigned templates? If the latter, were you able to customize them with little or no technical knowledge?
  • What are your favorite plug-ins and widgets?
  • Do you blog? If so, is your blog separate from or connected to your business website?

Ali’s colleagues provide a range of responses.

  • Several different self-build hosts are discussed (e.g., WordPress and Weebly). Some hired specialists to do the design for them; others felt more technically competent to customize inbuilt templates. Ali feels confident in doing some basic customization and so elects to use a WordPress theme.
  • There is consensus that having a custom domain name is good professional business practice but there are diverging opinions on custom email addresses. Ali considers his budget and decides that the value added by having a custom domain name is well worth the annual fee. And although there is no consensus about having a custom email address, the additional cost that the host charges for the custom email address is marginal and within his budget, and he believes it will consolidate his branding.
  • Ali has been offered several useful links to online articles about effective webpage layout. He reads this guidance and applies some of the key learning points to his web copy.
  • Many different widgets and plug-ins are talked about, and initially he selects two free ones that are not included in his predesigned template but which he feels will enhance his visitors’ ability to navigate his site.
  • The blogging discussion is lengthy and insightful thread that gives him much food for thought. The responses show that a properly asked question can lead to the acquisition of even more important information than direct answers to the original question. In this case, one theme emerges: it takes a lot of effort to maintain a dynamic blog. Ali finds this instructive and makes a note to put the issue on hold until he has completed the task of building the service element of his website.

Overall, the answers to Ali’s questions supply him with insights into his colleagues’ experiences. And although the decisions he makes are influenced by these experiences, his final choices need to be based on his business requirements. These might be the same, similar or different to any one of the colleagues who contributed to the discussion.

Inertia-inducing thinking: Josh, too, has set up a proofreading business. Like Ali, he’s completed the requisite training and believes he has the technical know-how to provide a high-quality service. Josh is seeking similar guidance to Ali, but he frames his questions differently and in a way that could lead to inertia.

  • Which host should I use? Which is the most reliable?
  • Should I pay a designer and how much will it cost? Or should I do it myself?
  • How many pages/tabs should I have, and how should they be labelled?
  • How much information should be on each page?
  • Which subject specialisms should I list?
  • Which plug-ins are essential and which are the best?
  • Which color scheme should I use?
  • How long should my portfolio be?
  • Must I have a blog and, if so, what should it be about?

The answers to Josh’s questions are just more questions because:

  • No one knows which host would be most suitable for him; they only know which host worked best for them. Several are mentioned, but there’s no definitive answer.
  • No one knows whether Josh should hire a designer or self-build because they don’t know anything about his technical skills or budget.
  • How many tabs he will need, and how they should be labelled, will depend on what he’s selling, what he wants to say, and to whom he is communicating.
  • Which subject specialisms he lists will depend on the clients he wants to target and his own particular knowledge base.
  • Preferences for color schemes are highly subjective.
  • Decisions about portfolios will depend on what he wants to communicate and to whom.
  • Whether he should blog or not will depend on the time he has available, the information he wants to share, and the readership he wishes to attract.

Because Josh’s questions focus on the detail of his business requirements, which are known only to him, he doesn’t receive any definitive answers. As a result, he is paralyzed by indecision. While Ali’s website is now live, and operating as a shop front that he can link to via a number of other online platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter,, and several specialist editorial directories), Josh is still digitally undiscoverable because he’s waiting for other people to make the decisions for him, decisions that are based on a business that isn’t theirs.

Too Many Cooks…

Even a well-asked question that generates lots of responses can be problematic for the new entrant to the field because he or she doesn’t have enough experience to evaluate the usefulness of the responses. In Ali’s case, 15 colleagues could advise having a separate blog, and 15 could advise attaching a blog to his business website. But how does he work out which is the best approach for his editorial business?

Professional networks are fabulous resources, often rich in content, but we need to recognize that the responses we receive to well-asked questions are still dependent on who’s online that day, who bothers to join in the discussion, and what their particular experiences are. Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen; sometimes the best cooks aren’t even in the kitchen. This can lead to confusion rather than clarity.

If you’re a new entrant to the field who’s asking lots of good questions but feels overwhelmed by the diverse opinions on offer, consider consulting a business coach or mentor who can spend time focusing specifically on your business requirements and help you sift through the all the advice you’ve received.

There’s No One True Way to Furnish a House…

As the two examples above demonstrate, there’s no single way of building and designing an effective website. When we look at various successful editorial professionals’ websites, we see that there are a hundred different ways to do it. None of these is right or wrong; they’re just different ways that people choose to express the information they want to communicate to a customer. We each have to work out what we want to say and decide whether the information looks appealing, is easily navigable for our readers, and communicates a clear message that says we can provide solutions to our customers’ problems. In Josh’s case, it’s not about what I think or like — it’s about what Josh thinks and likes, and what Josh believes his customers will think and like. My website layout reflects what I think works for me and my customers. Josh’s should do the same for him and his customers.

This applies to all aspects of editorial business ownership. The editorial business is like a house. More established editorial pros can give us sensible advice on how to locate a plot, dig the foundations, construct the walls, and lay on a roof to prevent us getting wet during rainy days, but only we can furnish our individual houses in a way that suits our financial requirements, our particular skills, our backgrounds, and our customers.

Seek advice by all means, but don’t wait for others to make decisions about the detail of your business. Research, ask, learn; consult a business coach/mentor if you’re struggling to clarify your thinking. Then place information within the framework of your own editorial business needs and act.

Further Reading for New Starters:

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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