Buyer beware!

Training for freelance proofreaders and copyeditors from a user's perspective

Helen Bailey, formerly of John Wiley & Sons

A letter arrives on my desk – a novelty in these days of email. I start to read and my heart sinks. Another standard round-robin letter from a hopeful new freelancer. When I reach the third paragraph – 'I have a fully equipped home office …' – the letter is thrown in the bin.

I feel sorry for the sender, who seems to have thought that attending a training course would automatically lead to a successful and lucrative career. This is based on several misconceptions:

  • Publishers are crying out for freelancers and work is found easily.
  • A brief course will qualify anyone for this route to easy money.
  • Publishers don't mind receiving six identical letters a day when the latest batch of hopefuls graduate.

Considerable variation

However, I don't have time for sentiment towards a stranger. Anyone who had done some research to start with would have found considerable variation in the quality of courses available. If someone emails me for advice before commencing a course, I can be more sympathetic, if realistic.

At Wiley we have a database of around 350 freelancers, and receive about 10 unsolicited applications for work from experienced freelancers each week. A new, inexperienced person asking to be added to this database needs to be able to demonstrate the following:

  • onscreen editing
  • relevant experience/knowledge of subjects in our publishing programme
  • a qualification from a reputable source, such as the CIEP or the Publishing Training Centre (PTC).

Even then, competition is tough. I usually suggest they think about approaching other organizations that produce text material in need of editing and proofing, such as financial or teaching institutions. I have heard of successful freelancers who started by working with a friend who ran a design office, or who have edited newsletters for local voluntary groups. Real experience is more valuable than anything else.

Need to know

So why do I recommend training courses at all? Simply because they show that the applicant is taking this career change seriously. Whatever past experience has led people to try to be freelancers, they recognize they need to know more about the practical issues they will encounter. They also understand that there are other people out there who know more about this field than they do, and that it might be a good idea to learn from them.

The ability to commit to a course and complete it gives individuals a sense of achievement. This might help boost their confidence when they encounter rejection from prospective customers like me.

Digital world

Training is essential for experienced freelancers, too. I mentioned that onscreen editing is a prerequisite – but I have to admit that many people on our database do not offer this service. However, we live in a digital world, and soon I will not be able to offer work to these people.

This might mean that taking a course on this specific area will be the only way to keep regular work coming in. It is also likely that computer literacy skills need brushing up, and plenty of computer memory and a broadband connection will be required.

The basics

The most obvious reason for training is to show that you understand the basics. You will know how to use proof correction marks clearly and with confidence. When a client asks for a 'light' copyedit, you will understand what to focus on.

And when 'language polishing' is required, you will know how far to go before you have rewritten the entire book. Customers will only pay for what they want you to do, not what you think is necessary.


Think carefully before contacting prospective customers. Try to find out in advance what kind of service they might require, and be sure it falls within your capabilities. Although I have been scathing about introductory letters, I can make some positive comments, too:

  • Differentiate yourself – why should anyone read your letter, let alone allow you to tackle an important manuscript?
  • Check your grammar, punctuation and spelling with care. Errors will definitely mean your letter is ignored.
  • Please don't leave voicemail messages asking for a return call offering work. It won't happen.

Finally, beware of using template letters – the round-robin letter-writers usually describe themselves as 'conscientious', but some are only 'conscious'. If only they had been when printing out the letter …

About the author …

Helen Bailey was vice president and publishing director (content management) at John Wiley & Sons at Chichester, responsible for the production of journals and books in print and electronic formats.