Like many communications professions, proofreading is an extremely easy field to get into. In fact, the only things you need to become a proofreader are a computer, an email account, and a Microsoft Word subscription.
It really is that simple.
The catch? Becoming a good proofreader that people want to hire is harder. It requires a near-exhaustive knowledge of the English language, highly efficient reading skills, and a keen eye. Because the barriers to entry are so low, proofreading in Australia has become an oversaturated field, which means standing out is absolutely critical if you’re seeking either contract or full-time work.
In this guide, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to get started on your proofreading journey; the rest (honing your skills to the point of excellence) is up to you.
Let’s dive in.
What Degrees Do Proofreaders Need?
To my knowledge, most Australian universities don’t offer dedicated editing degrees. This means that the degree requirements for proofreading are non-existent.
Note that I say ‘requirements’ – most prospective employers still prefer their English professionals to hold a tertiary degree in a related field, like journalism or communications.
If you’re seriously interested in becoming a career editor, I recommend looking for a degree that features editing courses. For example, my BA in Creative Writing at Griffith University involved a lot of editing work, including a specific editing course.
In the event that you’ve already completed a degree in, say, marketing, a TAFE program can help show employers that you’ve invested time into improving your proofreading skills.
Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd)
Australia and New Zealand’s professional editing association is the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd). Membership of this organisation isn’t a substitute for a degree, but they offer an accreditation scheme which is, realistically, the final step you can take in terms of proofreading qualifications.
To become accredited, you’ll need to pass their accreditation exam. I recommend waiting until you’ve had a few years’ experience in the field before attempting the test, because it’s hideously expensive, clocking in at $775 for a first-time non-IPEd member. The exams also only take place every two years, so, if you fail, it’s a long wait to re-sit. IPEd itself recommends test-takers have at least two years’ full-time editing experience.
What Skills Do Proofreaders Need?
Unlike other forms of editing (copy editing, manuscript assessment, and so on), proofreading doesn’t require a comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter. The sentences, not the topic, are analysed.
This means that excellent English skills are required – I’m talking about subordinate conjunctions, independent clauses, passive voice, and all the rest. Basically, you need to memorise everything relating to the correct construction of a sentence. The three main areas are:
- Standard writing conventions and formatting
If you don’t know a great deal about grammar (how sentences are put together), I recommend reading online articles explaining it. Grammarly, for example, has an easy-to-read library of grammar tips.
To improve your spelling, my somewhat clichéd advice is to read more, and to read widely. Go outside your comfort zone and familiarise yourself with previously unknown words. You could also try reading a dictionary from cover to cover, but I bet you’ll fall asleep after a few pages. Good literature is brain food, and infinitely more entertaining.
The same goes for understanding writing conventions. If you’re interested in proofreading a specific medium, get out there and start reading. Blogging, for example, has very different formatting requirements to a book.
You also need to be very good at spotting tiny errors that editing software misses. In all honesty, this is just a skill that takes practice to become good at; try proofreading a few articles from your local newspaper each day to accustom yourself to close reading.
What Software and Tools Do Proofreaders Need?
A computer. Microsoft Word. An email account. Like I said at the start of this article, those three things are all you really need to become a proofreader. Of course, there are a few other tools that make life easier:
- A printer. Many proofreaders, myself included, find it easier to edit documents if they’re printed out in black and white.
- Some kind of PDF software, like Adobe Acrobat. Occasionally, you’ll need to convert .docx files to .pdf files, and vice versa; it’s handy having a program that makes editing PDFs easy.
- A widely used style guide. I personally use Style Manual, but others, like the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style, are also popular.
- A good dictionary. Don’t rely on a free online edition – get an e-book, hard copy, or paid online version (I personally use Macquarie).
- Editing software. I use Microsoft Word and Grammarly to speed up my editing, but be cautious about relying on software – MS Word’s proofreading is quite primitive, and Grammarly sometimes makes incorrect suggestions.
Should I Take Online Proofreading Courses?
Whether or not you take online proofreading courses is completely up to you. Proofreading is mostly about memorisation, familiarity, and attention to detail – all things you can learn for free quite easily.
What a course does provide, though, is structure, accountability, and a fast-tracked learning environment, which can be helpful if you’re short on time or you like a structured learning style.
Alternatively, if all you’re looking for is proofreading practice, there are plenty of free exercises out there. Just Google ‘proofreading exercises’, and you’ll find a bunch of helpful sites.
In fact, we have a library of proofreading exercises you might find helpful. They come in various difficulties (easy, medium, hard) and have answer sheets explaining which changes have been made and why. Oh, and it’s all free – we don’t even ask for your email address.
How Much Should Proofreading Cost?
How long is a piece of string? Proofreading costs vary hugely and are dependent on factors like:
- Years of professional editing experience
- Turnaround times
If you look on sites like Fiverr, you can find listings like this:
$5 for 1,000 words? That seems incredibly cheap. For context, an editorial proofreading task I had last week involved two different documents clocking in at around 700 words. It took me roughly 45 minutes to edit and mark them up with comments, which cost the client $30.
But here’s the thing: I was editing complex business documents and had to explain each change I was making.
This particular freelancer edits books, which are normally written fairly simply, and doesn’t mark up his changes; proofreading novels means he’ll receive 50,000+ words per job, meaning it’s easier for him to charge less. His prices are also listed in American dollars, so he’s really charging AU$7 per 1,000 words.
When creating your pricing, you need to factor in:
- Security of work (if you’re likely to get less work per client, consider charging more per word/hour).
- How long it will take you (if editing 1,000 words takes you an hour, are you really going to be happy with $7?)
- What the rest of the market charges (have fun competing on Fiverr if you’re trying to sell proofreading services at $40 per hour)
You can see what we charge for our proofreading services here.
Has AI Killed Proofreading as a Career?
If you’re thinking about starting a career as a proofreader, you’re probably wondering whether large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT have already made you obsolete.
While AI has evolved incredibly fast over the last few years, I haven’t come across any tools capable of replacing human proofreaders (yet). LLMs and dedicated proofreading tools like Grammarly are very good at picking up basic errors, but they can’t differentiate between different styles and often make incorrect suggestions. At the moment, you’re still necessary.
With that said: I can’t recommend you pursue a dedicated career as a business proofreader. It’s simply a matter of time before AI tools advance to the point where they can effectively replace humans. Grammarly has already added a custom stylesheet feature; I imagine it won’t be long before you can switch between mainstream style guides with a house style ‘layer’ on top.
If you do want to edit for businesses, make sure you’re supplementing your proofreading skills with other capabilities, such as copy editing, structural editing, and content strategy. You’ll be more employable, and you’ll earn significantly more. (One interesting side-effect of AI is that I’ve begun receiving requests to ‘proofread’ AI-generated content, although, in reality, the work has been copy editing, not proofreading.)
Demand for business proofreading has already begun dropping substantially. The impressions our proofreading page receives from Google, for example, are roughly a quarter of what they were two years ago (and, over that time, our SERP positions have actually improved). As more and more businesses become comfortable using LLMs and proofreading tools, I expect only book publishers and media brands will need external human proofreaders – companies will, almost exclusively, use AI or internal resources.
So, in sum: nurture your proofreading skills. You’ll still be able to find work. Just don’t neglect other, more in-demand skills like structural editing – trying to make it as a dedicated proofreader in the next five to 10 years will be very, very hard.
How Do I Find Entry-Level Proofreading Jobs?
Feel like you’re ready to get started in the big, bad world of editing? Not so fast. Unless you’re angling for an in-house editing job, you need to create a sales pipeline (hello, marketing).
How you do that is, again, completely up to you. Here are a couple of options:
- Browse Seek, Indeed, and other job platforms for proofreading and editing jobs.
- Use LinkedIn Jobs. It’s less competitive than public platforms like Seek, and you can see how many people have applied for a given job. In my opinion, you also have a better chance of receiving a response to your application.
- Create a website and use SEO to rank for the appropriate search terms (don’t bother unless you’re set on a career as a freelancer – it takes a huge amount of time and effort, and a not-insignificant amount of money).
- Advertise your services on Fiverr, Gumtree, and other service aggregation sites.
- Pass the IPEd test and get listed in their national directory.
- Reach out to family and friends who might need help with business or creative documents.
- Connect with other editors on LinkedIn. You’re welcome to connect with me – just send a request and a message telling me you read this article.
It will take time to build up a portfolio, and there’ll probably be times when you feel like becoming an editor is an impossibly difficult task. That’s normal. We’ve all been there. My advice is to persevere.
When you do manage to land a client, make sure you treat them like they’re paying you $100 an hour – give them your best, even if it feels like it’s not worth it. In the world of editing, a reputation for quality will bring in customers faster than anything else.
Changelogs provide transparency into when and why we make changes to certain articles. We do not log minor stylistic changes or grammatical fixes.
18 September 2023
- IPEd exam price updated.
- Section titled ‘Has AI Killed Proofreading as a Career?’ added.