So You Want to Be a Proofreader?

Does this make your palms sweaty?

Ah, the ancient art of proofreading: as the last step in the publication process, the proofreader is like a hockey goalie, stopping those hard-to-find mistakes that have made it past everybody else. If that sounds like a noble calling, proofreading might be the job for you.

To be honest, this isn’t the greatest market for proofreaders that ever was. Now that we do so much on Internet platforms, where errors can be fixed after publication, some sites and companies seem to think they can do without somebody to make sure all the t’s are crossed and the appositive commas are marching two by two. But for those who want to get it right the first time—or those who have to get it right the first time—if one of your strongest skills is your eagle eye for text, there’s still a market for that, and it’s worth honing that skill and making it marketable.

Advertising companies, for example, are willing to pay $25-$30 an hour for someone to make sure that a glaring error in their PowerPoint presentation doesn’t undermine their professionalism in the eyes of a client. You can’t fix and re-publish a one-shot meeting, and the right proofreader can save a million-dollar account. In the same vein, companies that print posters and other hard-copy advertising materials don’t want to spend millions of dollars on a really fun trifold with 3-D printing that’s got a great big error on the front cover.

Literary publications, too, want to guard their reputations by producing print materials marked by old-fashioned perfection. But realistically, most of the jobs available for proofreaders these days are going to be in more prosaic businesses; one of my best-paying gigs ever was proofreading corporate in-house surveys. Which wasn’t the most glamorous task I’ve ever been given, but it allowed me to cut through my student loans like a knife through butter.

The key to getting one of these jobs, unfortunately—like way too many professions these days—is to get one of these jobs. Yeah, it’s frustrating. You have to keep a sharp eye out for entry-level jobs; the opportunity to get your foot in the door doesn’t come along every day. This means that when an opportunity does come up in a job search, you have to be ready to strike.

If you have an interest in proofreading and no experience, it might do you some good to get some volunteer experience, or volunteer at a temp or other office job to take on some proofreading responsibilities. Then ask your supervisor to write you a testimonial, and that might give you an edge over other entry-level applicants. If you have an online writing or other portfolio, make sure to give potential employers an easy way to link to it, and make VERY sure that it is absolutely typo free. Remember, what you’re offering a company is the chance to look more professional and polished than any competitors. So just because your samples are on the Internet doesn’t mean the standards are any lower. Before you publish, make sure everything is perfect.

Once you do manage to get an employer’s attention, you have to deliver. If you get called in to interview, they aren’t just going to trust you to do what you say you can do. There will almost certainly be a test. And being the best speller in your college English class is not going to cut it. Professional publishers and advertisers worry about things you never hear about in school these days: correct use of hyphens, for example, mystified and tripped me up on my first proofreading test; I didn’t even realize there WERE rules, I thought people just did what seemed logical. Nope!

You will also want to go in with at least some grasp on one or more style guides. Style guides are how different members of the same organization come to an agreement on which of several ways the English language allows you to write a particular bit of information they’re all going to go with. (For instance, you can write AM and PM upper- or lower-case, but it would look odd if the same newspaper used both at random.) In school you might have learned some MLA style; there are some non-academic milieux in which this will still be useful, but if you want to go anywhere near news you will want to study at least the AP (Associated Press) handbook, and you should probably dabble in the Chicago Manual of Style as well. The AP manual is quicker to master, but I consider the CMS to be the king of style guides, since it has an answer for very nearly every situation.

Once you get down to taking the test, there are a few things you can do to avoid getting in your own way. You MUST use the dictionary if they give you the option to do so. Once you start looking up compound words in the dictionary, you will be amazed to find out how little your school actually taught about compound words. (One word, two words, or hyphen? Only the dictionary is the final arbiter.) And you might not be aware that your habitual spelling of the word is not Merriam-Webster’s first choice, but is rather the number two variation.

I know, job hunting is maddeningly time-consuming as it is. But once you get close enough to the prize to actually take that test, it’s worth spending an extra fifteen or twenty minutes at their office making sure to look up every word you have any funny feeling about. Those two extra spelling errors you point out can be the edge that gets you the job instead of the person who breezed through assuming their spelling skills were perfect. You might even have less experience, but if you can show an employer that your attention to detail and caring are superior, you might convince them that you’re the one they want.