Ask Amber: Is it possible to make money at home by proofreading?

Is it possible to make money working from home as a proofreader?

This is one of the questions I get asked most often, and the short answer is: yes.  It is.

I happen to think most things are possible if you work hard enough, though, so perhaps a better question here would be: is it EASY to make a living working from home as a proofreader?

Actually, I suspect this is what most people who ask the first question reallywanted to know anyway, and the short answer to that one is: no. It most definitely isn’t.

This will possibly come as a surprise to some people. There seems to be this preconception amongst people who want to work from home that proofreading is an easy way to do it. After all, there are all those adverts in magazines and newspapers promising that if you just send away for their correspondence course, you’ll be earning a small fortune in no time, all from sitting back at home and doing what you love best: reading.

There’s also a popular misconception that proofreading itself is easy.

This is an idea that tends to be held by people who go around telling everyone who’ll listen that they can’t read a newspaper (or blog post, as I know to my cost) without instantly focusing on all the errors in it, and how they’d “be really good at proofreading”. And I should make it clear that I’m not saying they wouldn’t be.

But proofreading as a profession is much more skilled than most people tend to give it credit for. Professional proofreaders complete rigorous training and testing, and do a job which involves many hours of intense concentration and fact-checking. They are often experts in their particular fields (publishers of books about history, for instance, like to employ proofreaders who specialise in proofreading historical texts, while publishers of medical textbooks prefer proofreaders who understand all those medical terms. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to that rule, and that people without specialist knowledge can’t ever become proofreaders, but it is something to bear in mind) and do much more than just correct typos and nitpick over grammar.

Add to this the fact that professional proofreading is a highly competitive field, especially for those who want to work from home. As noted above, proofreading is something a lot of people think they’ll be good at. It’s something anyone who has completed a correspondence course from the back of a newspaper (Note: I’m not saying for a moment that all such courses are pointless, simply that you need to tread carefully) is able to claim some degree of “qualification” in. Because of this, there are lots of would-be proofreaders for every possible work-from-home job, and the result of all of this competition is exactly what you’d expect it to be: people end up charging very low rates in a bid to win the job, employers come to EXPECT proofreaders to charge very low rates, the profession becomes undervalued, and it becomes hard to make a reasonable living at it without working around the clock for not very much money.

Now that I’ve spread all that doom and gloom, though, let me just lighten the mood a little by saying that all hope is not lost. People DO make a living working from home as proofreaders: of course they do. And if you really want to join them, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it your best shot.

To give yourself the best possible chance, I’d advise you to:

  • Get a well-respected qualification

Strictly speaking, you don’t actually need any qualifications to be a proofreader, but it’s a good idea to get some if you can: it’ll help prove to prospective clients that you really do know what you’re doing, and if you want to proofread for large publishers, they will expect you to know the British Standards Institution symbols. (Small businesses, particularly online ones, probably won’t use these.) In the UK, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders is the professional body for proofreaders. They run training courses (yes, some of them can be done by correspondence!), maintain a register of qualified proofreaders, and are a great source of advice and information for those starting out in their career as well as those who are more established.

  • Specialise

As I said above, you’ll have a much better chance of landing a job as a proofreader if you’re able to say you specialise in a particular subject. This is most true for those looking to proofread for publishing houses, but it can also be true of people looking to make a living proofreading for small businesses, etc. If you already have a degree or other qualification, that could be a good start: if not, think about your hobbies and other interests and consider targeting jobs in those sectors, where you have a little bit of knowledge ad are familiar with the terminology used.

  • Be realistic

Again, despite popular opinion, this isn’t an easy way to make a living from home. You won’t be sitting around in your comfortable chair, flicking through a great new unpublished novel with a box of chocolates by your side. It’s hard work, and can be very tiring. (That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun too, though.)

  • Network

As with so many freelance jobs, it’s often a matter of who you know rather than what you know. Sad, but true. If you’re able to, doing some work experience with a publisher may give you a better chance of getting some freelance work for them, but it’s also a good idea to network as much as possible (without being pushy) with the types of people who may become clients.

Finally: don’t send letters or emails to prospective clients telling them their writing sucks and they need to hire you as a proofreader. Just trust me on that one…