FAQs: What makes a professional proofreader or copy-editor?

Page owner: Standards director

Click any of the frequently asked questions below to see the corresponding answer.

What makes a professional proofreader or copy-editor?

Being able to do the work is one thing, being able to do it so well that strangers will pay you to do it for them is a second, and being able to do it so well that other professionals will pay you to do it for them is a third. It takes time, training and practice to get to the second or third stages. Many skilled freelance proofreaders and copy-editors struggle to make a living; many in-house proofreaders or copy-editors spend much of their time on other work. As well as skills and experience, you will need luck, training, hard work and a professional attitude.

The SfEP can help you, if you are prepared to put in the work to help yourself. This is not an easy business to make your living in!

Could I be a professional?

You need to be tactful, disciplined and reliable. If there isn't time or the money to do a perfect job, or even the job your client (or your boss) has asked for, you will need to make sure that you understand what they want, and help them work out the best result that can be achieved within the time or budget available.

Could I be a professional proofreader?

To be a professional proofreader takes good general knowledge, a wide vocabulary and the ability to express ideas concisely. You don't have to like what the author wants to say, or their style, but you should still do your best for them. You will certainly need to be tolerant, and it helps to be a saint. For a taster of what it's like to be a proofreader, try the SfEP course Proofreading 1: Introduction.

Could I be a professional copy-editor?

You will need skills at asking the right question, at the right time, in the right way: it isn't your name on the book or article or website, so if you believe something needs to be changed you will need to persuade someone who has already spent a lot of time and trouble on it.

A professional must be able to work to a deadline and a budget. This is a skill we have to learn, not one we're born with. A professional must also understand what the reader wants: the way we read on the beach is different from the way we read for our jobs. Finally, few freelance copy-editors can make a living working on just one type of text.

To get a taste of copy-editing, try the SfEP course Copy-editing 1: Introduction.

So what makes a professional?

'Professional' is partly a mass of knowledge, skills and experience, partly training and 'continuous professional development' (CPD) and partly a basic attitude. You can be a professional before you acquire the knowledge, skills and experience, but only if you know your limitations and are honest about them. If you’re working in-house, your boss will want you to provide value for the time and training invested in you. If you're a new freelance some clients will be happy to give you the chance to learn while working for them, but they won't employ you a second time if you mislead them, let them down or take on more than you are capable of.

I'm already an expert in my field. Why do I need training?

Experienced proofreaders and copy-editors know that the next job could contain problems that they've never seen before, and professionals know how to behave when that happens. How you deal with an unexpected problem will show your boss or your clients, and other proofreaders and copy-editors, whether you're a professional or an amateur.

Recognising such a problem will tell you where you need training. But the world does not stand still: you will constantly need to refresh your skills, gain new ones (for example, as technology changes) and update your knowledge.

If you haven't a broad and deep experience of different types of proofreading and copy-editing, you will limit the kinds of work you can take on. Anyone who has experienced an employer or client being taken over or moving production elsewhere will know how risky this is.