Copy editing! Proofreading! Wow!
January 7, 2009 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Are copy editing and proofreading viable ways of supporting myself in a foreign country?

All things being relative, I should point out that for my purposes, foreign country = outside of North America.

I once read that various media outlets and advertisers often hire native English speakers to clean up any stylistic or grammatical fuck-ups in whatever writing they happen to produce. Is there any truth to this?

I graduated from college semi-recently. I'm attempting to travel, learn a language, and yes, Broaden My Horizons! But! I'll need a way to support myself while doing so. I'm only fluent in English. Other than that, I can speak some French, although I'm completely mediocre in that respect. I have a little bit of experience writing and editing, but not much. I was thinking of doing the English teaching thing, but certification is expensive and I doubt I'd be a great teacher.

SO: Is this an idea I should pursue? If so, how would I go about doing it?

posted by Lemon of Byzantium to Work & Money (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Based on my experience, the short answer is no. But please don't let that stop you from traveling, learning a language and broadening your horizons.

If you'd like a more nuanced answer, you're welcome to email/IM.
posted by veggieboy at 10:34 AM on January 7, 2009

The major employers of roving editors are newspapers, and nobody's hiring there these days, sorry.
posted by bonaldi at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2009

Sorry, this answer will be 100% European-centric, because that's where my own recent outside-North-America writing/editing job search was focused.

You can definitely find European companies that specifically want native English speakers to work on their English materials. However, you face tons of competition from a) people from the UK, b) native English speakers already legally residing in the country in question, c) people who legitimately claim English as one of their multiple native languages, and d) people who speak English extremely well and are willing to risk lying about it being one of their native languages.

You also face the legal restrictions on hiring non-EU workers; basically all EU applicants get in line before you (up to a certain amount of time). Unfortunately, "being a good writer" or "being a good editor" isn't as easy to concretely prove as a rare, "we need this non-EU citizen"-qualifying skill as something like "x degree, y certifications, and z years using this specific programming language" is.

I had a promising interview at a Dutch company that specializes in advertising/marketing writing done by native English speakers, and the facts from paragraph #2, combined with the legal reality of paragraph #3, meant they couldn't justify hiring me.

I ended up finding a job, but my education and experience are actually in a different and more specialized type of writing. I don't think I would've found anything otherwise, or at least I would've been searching for much longer. Oh, and I have five years of experience in my field.

However, there's no harm in trying! Watch sites like Expatica, EURES, MeFi Jobs, and region-specific sites for ads that call for native English speakers. I also recommend picking some big, multi-national corporations and watching their careers pages; they're the kind of companies that can afford to hire a non-national.

In the meantime, try to get more experience in writing and/or editing. Also, work on your French. Even if you don't end up in a Francophone country, I think employers like to see someone who is flexible enough to start learning another language as an adult.
posted by transporter accident amy at 11:19 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who is editing, proofreading and writing in... Kuwait....

Any writing aptitude you can claim/demonstrate/allege, it would be a big help. English remains much the language of international business so these businesses usually have a native-English speaker or two. It comes in handy for Web content, brochures, internal communication, etc., having a professional appearance. To the right of my monitor, a desk calendar from an aluminum smelter in Bahrain.

As people have related, Europe might well be a tough nut to crack, but the Middle East economies are doing relatively well. Dubai, the UAE's getting a bit hopeless b/c of high rent, congestion, etc., but lotsa people in the region speak well of life and opportunities in Qatar--a tiny country that just happens to be no. 3 in the world in amount of natural gas.
posted by ambient2 at 11:46 AM on January 7, 2009

I translate in Germany and do some proof-reading. I have no qualifications for what I do other than ability and a BA in "Modern Thought and Literature". I'd say it's possible, over time, on a self-employed basis, to build up a broad enough customer base to live from this -- if you're competent and quick and present yourself well -- but just barely, and it certainly won't happen right away. I have all my customers from contacts at the university (I'm getting a masters in philosophy) and word-of-mouth. You could gather customers in academic circles by: putting up signs at the local universities; and basically being involved in the universities at some level, establishing a social life there, talking to people, going to parties, handing out business cards, etc. I have no idea how you would do this in the business world. There is less money in proof-reading than in translation, in my experience, and the work is more annoying to boot.

If your goal is just to live in a foreign country somewhere, then I would say: move to a cheap city (like Berlin, Prague, etc.), and put out signs and classified ads for proof-reading and tutoring and everything English-related. There are certainly a lot of people here in Berlin who make a living tutoring or teaching English, and I think most of them don't have any qualifications other than being native speakers, but here you only need about 1000 Euros a month to live comfortably. You need absolutely no qualifications to tutor kids privately. Before I was translating I was desperate for money and just put out a classified ad offering tutoring, and got one student a few days later...and then her cousin needed help...and pretty soon I was tutoring 6-7 different kids just through word-of-mouth. By the end I was making 20 Euros an hour. However, I was spending half my time unpaid just travelling all over the fucking city in the subway going to the different kids' homes, which is why I was so eager to change careers.

And btw, I don't think advertisers hire any native-speakers for proof-reading here, because I see a whole lot of fucked-up ads in what people obviously think is "English".

Moving to a cheap city is the most important thing, in my experience.
posted by creasy boy at 1:57 PM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

I made a living doing this for several years in central Europe. I worked as an English teacher for various companies for a while, and then I started marketing myself as a copy editor/proofreader. I got a business license and green card in the country I was working in. I put together a little packet with a resume, a couple letters of reference from satisfied former customers, and walked it door-to-door at swanky-looking companies. It took about a week of footwork doing this before I got any bites, but once I did, they supported me for a long time.

Given, this strategy works best in emerging economies where the ground rules about hiring, and about how you find new employees, are more flexible.

But really, if you wanna go do it, just go do it. It's something you can make work, if you give it a good enough shot. If you want to go live abroad, then do it -- you'll figure out how once you're on the ground.
posted by jennyjenny at 4:09 PM on January 7, 2009

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