You don’t need an English degree — or any degree! — to be an exceptional proofreader.
In fact, I’m a college dropout! Not having a degree has never held me back from any proofreading job and none of the numerous clients I’ve worked with over the years have cared that I didn’t have one.
That’s because, for one, there’s not a proofreading-specific degree. Even an English degree doesn’t mean you know how to proofread. That’s because proofing isn’t only knowing grammar and spelling. And two, an English degree doesn’t prepare you to set up and run a successful proofreading business.
What clients care about instead are these nine non-negotiable points you must have to be an awesome proofreader who will stand out above the crowd.
1. Be able to find and fix grammar/punctuation errors and typos.
You don’t need to have every spelling and grammar rule memorized, but errors need to stand out to you. Your grammar and spelling skills will improve through practice and experience. While you will always be improving, there will still be sticky grammar situations or new-to-you words that come up that you need to double-check or research. In that case, you can use your resources like the grammar masterclasses I offer inside my courses, reference manuals, and online style guides and dictionaries.
2. Be willing to research when you don’t know an answer.
While it’s impossible to know every single spelling, grammar rule, and term out there, it is possible to research to make sure you’re proofreading a document correctly. The answer you’re looking for could be the correct spelling, proper capitalization, an obscure grammar rule, or checking if the right word was used in a highly technical document. Research takes a little bit of extra time so proofreaders who are just there for the money and are trying to skate by won’t go that extra mile to be the proofreading expert for their clients. Taking time to check a dictionary or style guide, utilize Facebook groups, or even pull up Google (my go-to!) will put you head and shoulders above other proofreaders!
3. Be organized and responsible.
There’s no question you have to be good at grammar. However, proofreading is more than fixing punctuation errors and typos. To do a great job for clients, you also need to be organized and responsible with your business. When clients send you their work, they want you to make the process straightforward and stress-free. They don’t want a barrage of emails to follow up on details you should have coordinated with them from the start or have to reconfirm information they already told you. Your clients should feel at ease that you’re going to take care of their work and send it back on time because you’ve shown up professionally from the start. And for yourself, you will feel much more confident and focused when you have everything organized for yourself and your clients.
4. Have your business set up before you start working with clients.
Before you start marketing, you should have everything in your business ready to go. That includes having your rates, turnaround time, terms of service, and contract set up. You should know what your onboarding and offboarding processes are for clients and how you will handle the proofreading process itself. Having this set up before you start looking for clients will help you be more confident as you approach potential clients. You will have answers to the questions they ask and can hit the ground running as soon as you have a lead. It will also help you be more professional in your communications with a potential client as you discuss your rates and services. And it will help you make sure you are getting paid what you’re worth!
5. Be completely fluent in English.
Proofreaders are the final step in the editing project, and your clients are depending on you to catch any errors that are still there before they hit publish. If you’re not fluent in English, it is impossible to work with all the nuances of the English language to catch sneaky errors. You do not have to be a native English speaker, but you must be fluent. Note: If you are proofreading transcripts for US court reporters, you must especially be fluent in conversational US English due to the nature of the spoken word inside transcripts.
6. Be able to manage your time so you can return jobs, answer emails, and invoice promptly.
Your clients are busy people and they depend on the deadlines they give you. Proofreading is a very flexible business where you work on the schedule you set for yourself – and it’s important that when you accept a job for a client, you will complete it on time for them. It takes good time management skills and discipline to schedule time to work on projects. Beyond the proofreading jobs themselves, you should also be scheduling in time to promptly answer emails and manage invoices, contracts, etc.
7. Be open to feedback and willing to learn and grow.
You are human, which means you will make mistakes occasionally. Of course, being human isn’t an excuse to get sloppy. The better trained you are, the fewer mistakes you will make. But being human is something we can’t escape from, so how you recover from the mistakes and learn from them will make you that much stronger as a proofer. If a client has feedback for you to help you both work better together and it is something you realize you can improve on, lean into that feedback, make the changes you need to, and keep moving forward. You’ll be stronger for it!
8. Have experience proofreading the types of documents you’ll be working on for clients.
Being good at catching grammar errors and typos, while imperative, is not the same as proofreading a document itself. You should know how to efficiently use the software your client needs you to use, and you should know how to proofread the documents they want you to proof. As a general proofreader, you should be familiar with the common software clients will ask you to use (Google Docs, Word, Adobe, Kami, etc.) and how to proof content like books, blog posts, presentations, and websites. As a transcript proofreader, you must have experience proofreading in the transcripts themselves due to unique factors like legal terminology, format, and proofing the spoken word (a very challenging but fun experience). The first time you work for a client should never be the first time you’ve proofread a document. You owe it to your clients and to yourself to show up with experience, not winging it and hoping you get it right enough to get a paycheck at the end.
(That sounds like a catch-22, right? You’re supposed to have experience to work with clients but you need clients to get experience. The best way to solve that problem? Get training where you can work in real-life documents you’ll be working on with your clients! That counts as experience and it’s a safe space to practice and learn rather than on a paying client expecting you to be the expert.)
9. Be kind and thoughtful.
This is perhaps the most underrated skill listed here. People love working with kind, thoughtful people. You may have excellent proofing skills, but if you make your client feel dumb for their mistakes or you’re curt and rude in your communications via email or social media, you won’t keep that client very long. In a world where trolls show up everywhere and bad days happen, having a proofreader as a bright spot in their day, someone they can count on to be positive and encouraging will be the proofreader they keep coming back to and referring to others.
The awesome thing about these nine skills is if you know you’d love to proofread but you need help developing these skills, you absolutely can! You can learn how to proofread, set up your business, manage your time, and even how to research. Just because you don’t know how now doesn’t mean you can’t in the future.
Want to learn more about proofreading? Check out the differences between general and transcript proofreading here and see which sounds like the better fit for you!