Getting started as a freelance proofreader

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In this article, editorial freelancer Sam Kelly shares his personal journey into proofreading, with the help of the CIEP.

There are as many routes into editorial freelancing as there are opinions on the serial comma. In fact, here’s mine! Like many of my colleagues I’ve never worked in-house or followed a traditional publishing career structure. Here’s my story so far – how does it compare to yours?

I specialise in proofreading communications for organisations and agencies, although I also enjoy working on non-fiction books, and certainly wouldn’t say no to working on fiction in the future. I’ve been a member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) for about two and a half years.

Until early 2018, though, I wrote and talked about Argentine football for English-language audiences. That was an enjoyable job – sometimes – but it was hardly regular. I knew a fair few football writers either in person or via Twitter, but I felt a long way from the central action of the profession, and while I enjoyed writing and watching football, and loved broadcasting, there were other basic elements of the job which, looking back, I wasn’t comfortable with.

When I decided to look into proofreading as a job I knew I wanted to approach it differently, to avoid falling into the same rut I’d got into with my football writing; I wanted to train properly, I wanted to get involved with a professional group, and I wanted to be proactive about not feeling stuck a million miles away from the action.

Finding training

After researching courses, I plumped for the Publishing Training Centre’s Basic Proofreading course, based in no small part on a write-up on Louise Harnby’s blog.  I asked my tutor if she had any advice, she didn’t miss a beat: ‘Work out a niche, at least to begin with, and join the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.’ (That’s what the CIEP was called, back then.)

The ’niche’ advice is useful for people starting out, I think. It can be a good way to gain a foothold initially, though I’d advise not feeling too married to ‘your’ area later on, as my football writing career had already shown me. A third piece of advice from my tutor – to keep on top of things with regular training – is another that I’ve taken. I’ve taken courses on how to use Word plugins like PerfectIt and tentatively had a go at some macros, and I’ve taken (and recommended) the CIEP’s course on proofreading theses and dissertations.

Getting involved with a professional group

Being part of a professional group, whichever one you choose, keeps you connected. You can learn informally from the many varied conversations, even if you’re more of a lurker than a contributor.

So a few months after that chat with my tutor, I joined what is now the CIEP. I threw myself into the online community right away and was met with a very warm welcome from new members and veterans. That community spilled over from the members’ forum onto LinkedIn and Twitter, and the diversity of professional backgrounds and specialities the CIEP’s members have means that I’ve picked up tips on everything from how to market myself to good books to read, and from useful courses and resources to some groan-inducing dad jokes.

Being part of the action

It’s easy to feel isolated as a freelancer, especially since so many of us work from home. I think it’s important to have somewhere to have those ‘watercooler’ conversations, so online forums and communities are a great way of staying connected with your colleagues.

As well as hanging out in the CIEP members’ forums, I also attend my local group meeting, Cloud Club, which meets regularly via Zoom. Listening to the thoughts and experiences of others, and thinking about how they can apply to your own situation, is a great help at any stage of your freelance career.

Professional development

What has really helped me early in my career is having a structure and goals to work towards, and this is an area where the CIEP really has been irreplaceable; I’ve advanced from Entry-Level to Intermediate membership and have my eyes on stepping up to Professional membership before long. It might seem a bit daft to some, but the sense of progression that comes with tracking my progress towards those goals really helps me to focus. Without some sort of structure I’d be reduced to simply buying myself a nice bottle of whisky or rum each time I clock up another hundred hours’ billable work on my spreadsheet.

The CIEP has helped my career by giving me that structure, further training, and the odd referral from a colleague, but most of all through the sense of community. I was looking forward to meeting many of my colleagues at its annual conference this year, but  when the email arrived announcing that it was cancelled due to COVID-19, there was a small, selfish part of me that was a tiny bit glad. I’d made the decision the day before that making the trip this year just wasn’t going to be possible. So when that email landed in my inbox I did, just for a moment, think, ‘well I won’t be missing it, at least …’

I’ll be there whenever it is possible though, with bells on. I’ve got friends and acquaintances to put real-life faces and voices to, and I look forward to meeting them all, because at its heart the CIEP is something it’s easy to lose track of, perhaps especially as a freelancer: it’s not simply a community of professionals, it’s a professional community.

After two and a half years as a proofreader, I’m glad I made the switch to this career, and glad that I put the groundwork in first to do the proper training and find a professional home. The work is more regular, and much more varied, and because I no longer feel obliged to watch football as my job I’ve even started enjoying that more as well! Next up is the first course in the CIEP’s copyediting training suite, to add another string to my bow, and as a special treat to myself I’m having a nice shiny new website logo designed – I may as well have some pretty business cards to hand round when I finally get to that conference!

Sam Kelly of Undisputed Proof ( has been proofreading for non-fiction publishers, students, communications companies and organisations since 2018. While he no longer writes about sport, he still presents and produces the world’s longest-running Argentine football podcast, Hand Of Pod. Back in the old days he enjoyed taking long walks around Buenos Aires and playing pool. He dreams of one day being able to do these things again.

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