How Can I Become an Editor or Proofreader?

Recently I received an email from a reader of my https://normajhill.com/ website, a recently English graduate, who is hoping to become a fiction proofreader, preferably for a traditional publishing company but also possibly as a freelancer. She asked me for some tips, and here are some suggestions I provided to her. I hope some of these tips might be helpful to you, too, if you are hoping to become an editor:

First, be very clear on what “proofreading” is (as compared to other aspects of editing—it is generally the final step in the editing process!). You’ll find a pretty clear explanation here: https://normajhill.com/2021/09/02/editing-levels-6-proofreading-checklist/ 

Become familiar with the most used (and up-to-date) style manuals used for your particular area of proofreading (and other levels of editing). If you are in the United States or Canada, that would be The Chicago Manual of Style for fiction writing https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html. If you live in other countries, other style manuals may be widely accepted instead. And if you’ll be writing nonfiction, there are still other manuals. You’ll find a fairly comprehensive listing of style manuals at: https://normajhill.com/2021/08/02/planning-your-writing-5-style-guides-and-manuals/.

Reading widely in the genres you wish to edit is essential. Keep it up so you continue to be familiar with current editing rules, themes, tropes, sub-genres, etc. If you decide to edit in other genres, I recommend reading widely in those also, before you accept those editing jobs.

Consider joining a local (and/or online) writing group, and offer to help group members with proofreading (or other editing levels) for free or for a small cost; it will give you a good idea of what you might be facing. Also consider joining your national editors’ group and be involved in courses they offer. webinars they have available, and so on. In Canada, that would be https://www.editors.ca/. If they have a local sub-group that meets face-to-face, that is even better; in-person networking is so helpful in developing your skills. Also seek and attend editing lessons at writers’ conferences and groups. 

Join online writers’ groups for your region. For example, in British Columbia, Canada, we have a Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1518194541798581 with many provincial writers, authors, editors, publishers, etc., and in my local part of the province, we have a group as well https://www.facebook.com/groups/519953788213898. Become active in the group(s). Post useful information and comment on what others post. This will get your name and skills recognized. If the group has lists of editors (including proofreaders), make sure you get your name and information on that list.

Note that it usually takes time, experience, and quality work to get hired by a publishing company, especially the medium to large size ones. You can try some of the small publishers, especially those in your region, once your name gets known (as in the suggestions above). But usually, it is necessary to build your proofreading business by doing freelance proofreading—that is, doing it directly for authors. If you have done an excellent job of proofreading (and/or other editing levels), when the authors submit their work to agents and/or publishers, the publishers may take notice; if the writers are self-publishing, their readers will be impressed and many contact you.

However, if you are only doing proofreading, to be noticed positively by agents, publishers, and/or readers also assumes that the other levels of editing (see the first link above) have also been done very well, and that the author is a good writer. Remember that proofreading is the final step before either submitting to an agent or publisher OR before self-publishing. It is wise to at least become well acquainted with the requirements of other editing levels so you can discuss with writers what their manuscript may need beyond simply proofreading. A beautiful proofreading job, when other aspects of the manuscript need a lot of work, will be wasted effort.

You can also get practice proofreading and/or other editing levels by using tools like ProWritingAid and Grammarly for your own writing and self-editing. Even editors need editing, as we often don’t see our own errors. Just remember that the tools are not perfect (though they are getting better), so you have to decide (using Style Guides and your own experience) whether to accept their suggestions; they also sometimes miss obvious errors (especially in spelling), so good editing still requires your sharp editor’s eye.

Proofreading, as the last step of the editing process, also requires sound knowledge of interior book design (pagination, fonts, and other style issues); you won’t just be looking for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. So that is another aspect you’ll need to be good at.

If you want to proofread (or otherwise edit) in a particular genre, check out organizations that focus on that, as they may well have connections to publishers of romance, genre writers who are looking for editors, and also may provide lots of training on their websites and at conferences, webinars, and seminars. For example, for the romance genre:

  • Romance Writers of America https://www.rwa.org/
  • There are also branches of Romance writers in various locations across Canada. Google “Romance writers of Canada” and you’ll find links to these groups.
  • You might also check out https://www.publishersglobal.com/directory/canada/subject/romance-publishers
  • Facebook has Romance writer and editor groups such as Romance Editor Q&A, Paranormal Romance Authors and Editors, YA/Sweet Romance Authors, and Editors Unite. You can search them on Facebook and maybe join and ask questions. Note that several groups are for sub-genres/niche types of romance writing. Since romance is such a popular genre, you might even consider specializing in one or two niches; that might be a way to increase the interest of writers, agents, and publishers.
  • You could also try googling “Romance publishing jobs,” or “Romance publishing companies,” or “Romance publishing presses,” or “Romance publishing houses.”

Whatever genres you are interested in proofreading and/or other editing levels, it is wise to focus on genres that you enjoy reading—and in which, perhaps, you also enjoy writing, perhaps at the short story level or even book level. Personally, I am not into “romance” so far as editing/ proofreading goes. Yes, I’ve done a few edits in the past, as a freelance editor for writer friends, but I no longer accept any requests for editing/proofing books in that genre. I don’t really enjoy reading romance, I certainly don’t write in that genre, and I feel therefore that I am not a quality editor for romances.

Doing a quick google search just now, I notice that a lot of the “romance publishers” are self-publishing companies rather than traditional publishing companies. While self-publishing companies do offer editing/proofreading services, their costs may be exorbitant, and the quality of their work is too often lacking. You might be tempted to seek work with these companies, but keep in mind that unless they have a good reputation (unfortunately, many are truly “vanity publishers” and out just out to make a big profit off new, inexperienced writers), working for them might end up giving yourself a “bad name” because of your connection with them. There are several websites, such as https://writerbeware.blog/ that regularly review self-publishing (and sometimes hybrid publishing) companies; I would recommend checking these websites regularly to ensure that any publishers you are seeking work with are worthwhile.

I still think your best initial option in seeking proofreading (or other editing) work would be to join writing groups (general writing groups OR specific romance groups) and do some freelance proofreading. If you do an excellent job, your name will get around and you’ll get other jobs. Ask your clients for “testimonials” which you can use to apply to publishing companies/presses. Also list on your editing site (you have one, I hope?) successfully published (traditional or self-published) books you’ve edited.

Check out the shelves of your local bookstore, large bookstore chains, libraries, and online booksellers (Amazon, Kobo, etc.), in the romance section. Make a list of publishers of books which are similar to the kind you’d like to proofread, and then search online for websites (and reviews and information) about those companies. Include reviews by sites that are not directly connected to the publisher you’re researching and are therefore probably more objective. This could be a good way to find more of those small presses you’re interested in.

As I’ve already mentioned, romance has many sub-genres, so consider focusing on the ones you really enjoy and would love to proofread (for example: historical romance, or erotica, or whatever). Small presses often focus on niche/sub genres, so just looking for general romance publishers to work for could be difficult. Meanwhile, continue to get “practice” by proofreading as a freelancer, directly for authors, to provide “proof” of your abilities which you can present when you apply to publishing companies/presses.

Check out Jane Friedman’s “2023-2024 Key Book Publishing Paths” https://www.janefriedman.com/key-book-publishing-path/ which lays out clearly (on one sheet!) the current publishing paths authors can take, and describes the differences between the Big Five, Other traditional, Small presses, and special cases in traditional publishing; as well as indie/self-pub options such as assisted and hybrid, indie/DIY, and social. When you clearly understand the different publishing options, you will be able to think about where you might fit in best as a proof-reader, or at least where would be your best option to get started in the business.

If you really want publishers to be interested in your proofreading skills, I’d also highly recommend that you learn to do editing at other levels—at minimum as a copy editor/line editor, and ideally also as a structural editor, if not also a developmental editor. Large publishers are almost always looking for experienced and proven editors, if they have any opening at all. Small presses usually have very limited numbers of employees, and they are looking for people who have multiple skills.

In the past, I have written quite on this topic on Quora. Here are some of my posts you might find helpful.

Has this post been helpful? What questions do you have related to becoming a proofreader and/or editor at various other levels? If you are already a proofreader and/or other level editor, what suggestions can you add to this list? Please add your suggestions and questions in the comments section.

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