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Last updated on Apr 19, 2022

How to Become a Proofreader: the Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Proofreaders are keen-eyed professionals whose job is to go over texts to make sure no typos and grammatical mistakes are present. Essentially, you'll be reading for a living, and you can do it from your own home, so what's not to like? If you’re interested in having this career, here is a comprehensive 6-step guide on how to become a proofreader:

1. Understand proofreaders' duties

Proofreading is the final stage in the editorial process — it comes after structural and copy editing. What exactly does a proofreader do? A proofreader double-checks texts for errors and mistakes, such as:

  • Typographical errors;
  • Inconsistencies in style or layout;
  • Awkward page and word breaks;
  • Missing punctuation and spelling mistakes; and
  • Any other issues that might spoil the reading experience.

How to Become a Proofreader | Example

Below is a table that clarifies the editorial process and the position that proofreading holds in it. This applies the best to books — in article or copywriting you may have content editing followed by proofreading. Either way, proofreading is an integral part of making any text look spot-on and professional! 

Stage 1:
Development edit

Stage 2:
Copy edit 

Stage 3:
Proofread

Revises ‘big picture’ aspects of the book like character, plot, and themes. 

Polishes the book by the sentence, refining the style, tone, and grammar. 

Provides a safety net that catches any errors that the copy edit has let slip. 

🎓 What qualifications do you need to be a proofreader?

You don't need special qualifications and certifications to become a professional proofreader, but most will have a bachelor's degree in fields like English, Journalism, and Communications. You can study in other fields as well, especially if you want to work on technical or academic content.

Having some credentials will always be helpful, especially if you've got no experience to begin with. You can also opt for shorter training programs that focus on proofreading skills and technique, which often come with a certificate. 

💰 How much do proofreaders make?

According to ZipRecruiter, professional proofreaders make around $25/hour on average. As of 2021, that means that proofreaders make around $51k a year on average. 

That being said, proofreaders with more experience and expertise can command even higher fees, with top professionals making between $30-$35 an hour. Professional proofreaders on Reedsy, for instance, can make anywhere between $600-$1,000 working on a book. 

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2. Choose your proofreading specialty

Media is very prevalent in our life nowadays, which means that there’s a wealth of material for proofreaders to, well, proofread. You can pick any number of areas to focus on, though the key to getting a leg up is to find a specific niche. Your niche is your competitive advantage: clients will appreciate expertise in most cases more than a melange of barely related work experiences! Some options you’ll have may include:

  • Books; 
  • Website pages;
  • Blog posts;
  • Legal documents;
  • Transcripts;
  • Court reports;
  • Essays.

Since each will have their specific requirements in terms of language and format, it’s best to hone your specialty in one or two. 

If you want to work in publishing, it’s even beneficial to narrow your focus down to several genres, since they can require quite different skills. Proofreading a fantasy novel, for instance, may demand sharp attention to the mechanics of an imaginary language. Meanwhile, a proofreader who’s working on a nonfiction history book will be doing a lot of fact-checking.

3. Know your style guides inside out

Style guides are manuals that provide standard guidelines for the writing and formatting of various documents. If you’re going to become a proofreader, you’re going to want to know them like the back of your hand.

Which style guides you learn, of course, depends on your niche and the types of texts you’ll work with. However, at the very least, you should acquaint yourself with the following styles:

  • Chicago Style;
  • APA Style; and
  • AP Style.

If your niche is academic or scholarly in nature, you might also want to consider learning MLA and Turabian Style. Knowing these style guides will help you follow consistent rules whenever you’re editing a manuscript.

You can find the handbooks to these styles (which are essential books on editing for editorial professionals) in libraries or on the internet. Having the one you're following on hand is always a plus, even when you become an experienced proofreader!

4. Take a proofreading course  

Since there’s more to just the written word when it comes to proofreading, we highly recommend signing up to a proofreading course to be guided through these duties. A course not only gives you a head start on understanding style guides and grammar rules, it also provides a chance for you to practice proofreading and get feedback from veteran professionals. 

Of course, each program offers different things: some might be more tailored to fiction proofreading, others to legal paperwork; some can offer more theoretical knowledge, others come with a mentorship program. The point is to find a curriculum that can best help you develop in the niche you have choosen — you can start your search here, with our summary of the best proofreading courses you can find in the market right now. 

Beyond the work that the course you enrol into give you, here are some other options to up your proofreading skills:

Practice, practice, practice

They say practice makes perfect, so get going! For everything that you write (even emails), proofread it. And don’t stop with correcting grammar and spelling mistakes, think about your punctuation rules and consistency in language as well.

For more material to work on, offer to proofread a friend’s work. Think about the context of this piece — is it a cover letter, an essay, or something else? What style guide would it follow? What kind of English is used — British or American? The answers to these questions will give you the standards which the piece needs to satisfy, which is the basis of your proofreading work! 

Become a Proofreader | UK and US Versions of the Harry Potter Books
US vs. UK English: sometimes it's just swapping s's for z's, and sometimes it's replacing philospher with sorcerer

It’s helpful to practice asking these questions and read with these criteria in mind to sharpen your skills. The more you do it, the more adept you’ll be at noticing discrepancies and errors.

Take a proofreading test

Now that you’ve studied up and practiced your skills, it’s time to test them out! There are tons of tests out there, ranging from multiple-choice quizzes to textual exercises, that are great for gauging your ability to find and recognize key errors and inconsistencies. For some quick tests, check out these sites:

5. Search for freelance proofreading jobs

Once you’re all trained up in the proofreading department, you’re ready to start finding jobs. But first, a word of warning: beginners in any editorial field will have less access to quality projects in their desired specialty or genre. Do take smaller offers that come in at the beginning of your proofreading career, and always keep your eyes out for opportunities that are adjacent to your chosen specialty. If you manage to weather this challenging first stage, you’ll emerge on the other side with the skills and track record to pull you through the rest of your proofreading career. 

Since most proofreading tasks are done on a freelance basis — even publishing houses outsource this task often, to be more economical — you’ll likely find proofreading jobs on marketplaces like Reedsy or other freelancer job sites which connect you with writers in need of a proof.

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If you feel like working with a publisher or a publication, you might want to follow their editors on Twitter. Managing or production editors will be your point of contact if you're freelance proofreading for a publishing house. They will often post something when a project becomes available. 

💡 Pro-tip: Impress your potential clients with these freelance proposal and invoice templates. 

Setting your rates

In many cases, as with working on Reedsy, you’ll get to set your own proofreading rates. Remember not to undercharge! We recommend thinking about how much you need to cover your living and business costs (think office space and time spent on keeping the books) in order to come up with an absolute minimum, below which you should not accept. Experience and exposure is too often used as an excuse to underpay, and you should not accept that, especially if you have nailed down the fundamental skills for the job!

6. Keep building your portfolio

Before you know it, you’ll start finding jobs with ease and commanding higher wages. But, don’t forget: keep building your résumé! Make sure it’s updated to include the latest projects you think are relevant to your career goals. In other words, focus on presenting pieces that reflect what you want to keep working on. So if you want to proofread more fantasy novels, highlight projects that involve other-worldly elements, even if they are review articles or short stories. That way, only the suitable clients will send you a request.

Proofreading, just like any other editorial job, will come with its challenges. It’s not uncommon for newcomers to have to deal with low wages, competitive job prospects, and long hours. But if you put your mind to it and really invest in your craft, then making it as a proofreader will be more than worth it in the long run.

– Originally published on May 08, 2020