Why train?

Rosemary Roberts MBE

This article first appeared in the SfEP's then newsletter Copyright in June 2000 and was updated in May 2004.

In early 1995, I started to look for freelance copyeditors and proofreaders for the New Dictionary of National Biography. We handpicked and tested (from among several hundred who expressed interest) perhaps 60 copyeditors and 50 proofreaders. We eventually took on about half that number, which means that the failure rate among people who looked good on paper was 50%.

Why did we have such variable success in recruiting competent, experienced editors and proofreaders to join a prestigious project that offered steady, interesting work? Well, first, a large reference project has very particular requirements. Some of the 'failures' were excellent editorial freelancers, just not reference freelancers.

Those aside, there were many who, with all the right-looking experience on their work records, could not:

  • spot and correct typographical errors
  • use standard symbols correctly
  • make sound style decisions and apply them consistently
  • monitor the factual integrity of a narrative
  • judge where change was needed and intervene economically
  • ask the right questions of the right person in the right form.


So the first answer to the question 'Why train?' is the obvious 'To gain and then improve core editorial skills'. If you have never been taught, systematically, how to edit or proofread you should start now. Nobody would wake up one morning with a desire to be an accountant and set to work without help. Professional editing and proofreading are no different.

Any freelancer on the New DNB's books was working for a client that knew exactly what it wanted and tried to make sure, by every available means, that it got it. But not all clients know what they want or need, or can tell freelancers how to provide it. Some are unaware of the disciplines of the publishing process – which are, roughly, to make radical changes at the front end and minimal ones at the back end – and unschooled freelancers can easily be entangled in the general muddle arising from their clients' ignorance. How many freelancers know a good deal about editing and proofreading but only a little about publishing?

Getting up to speed

Why train? To give a good professional service to all your clients, no matter what publishing process they use or level of in-house expertise they can offer. If you have never worked inside a publishing house you probably lack crucial knowledge about how your role fits in. As in-house experience may not come your way, training is a good substitute.

I'm on my own.
I don't know whether I'm doing it right.
Nobody ever gives me feedback.
I want to speed up.
I'm hopeless at planning.
I can never tell how long a job will take.
I don't know how to …

If you can make any of these statements, you are a typical freelancer, and not necessarily a beginner. We all need to measure ourselves against good practice, find out how we're doing and learn ways of doing it better. A training course is a good investment whether you come away reassured, chastened or brimming with new ideas.

Why train? Because however self-sufficient you are, you probably lack a sense of where you stand and a true perspective on your skills and abilities. The training workshop is a sheltered environment where there are no daft questions and you have a right (having paid!) to ask for feedback from an experienced colleague. (After some courses, too, you have a chance to submit work for detailed feedback – it astonishes me that so few freelancers avail themselves of that offer.)

Staying on top

It is impossible these days to open a newspaper or turn on the television or radio without being conscious of how fast the world of information is changing. Publishing is changing too, and not only technologically.

I have spent all my career in academic and reference work. I have never dealt with trade or educational books, STM, fiction, poetry or journals. To turn the question 'Why train?' on its head for a moment: one of the reasons why I continue to teach editorial skills is to broaden my own experience and keep in touch with changes in the industry.

Who is using freelancers now? Certainly not only the traditional publishers. What do clients want editorial freelancers to do? In some cases, exactly the same as they wanted a decade ago, in others a new and demanding portfolio of writing, editing, designing, reading, and checking tasks. How is technology changing publishing media, production methods, communication? Sometimes radically, sometimes (oddly) hardly at all. If the answers to these questions are interesting and useful to the tutor, how much more to the 'tutees'?

Green and seasoned

Why train? Because your fellow freelancers are a rich source of information about the way you earn your living. Training courses are not only for novices – they are for everyone, and you are guaranteed to learn something both inside and outside the sessions.

By 'training', I mean the entire range of benefits that can be gained from expert instruction, formal and informal learning, precious feedback, correction and/or endorsement of existing practice, new understanding and insights, advice on getting and keeping clients, and problem sharing and solving.

However green you are, however seasoned, someone will have thought of something about this complex job that you have not – and you will meet them on a training course.