Proofreading for love and for money
May 29, 2020 7:49 AM   Subscribe

These days, is it possible to make anything like a living wage as a proofreader or copyeditor of text?

I'm a librarian in Ohio, and have been home from work since March. During that time I've proofread a lot of my spouse's work documents. I won't say that I find it thrilling, but I do find it generally satisfying to find and correct errors.

Which leads me to wonder--is there any way to do this for money? As an extreme introvert, I think this job would suit me. But I remember halfheartedly researching it about 10 years ago and being discouraged at what I found. I even reached out to an acquaintance at a local publishing house and was told that I would have better luck making $$ as a writer.

I'm guessing the situation, like everything else, has only gotten worse since then. I figured if anyone would know this scene it would be the literary introverts of Metafilter. Does anyone have particular insight into the field? I might be willing to spring for training or certification, such as a UCLA Extension course, if it would get me anywhere.

Thanks! And please assume all errors in this post are the result of my typing it on my phone.
posted by cat friend to Work & Money (12 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Are you willing to freelance? From what I’ve heard there is a market for offering proofreading and copy editing to graduate students.
posted by mekily at 7:56 AM on May 29, 2020

Best answer: I make a decent living as a medical copy editor, and I've been involved in hiring decisions for full-time staff as well as freelancers. It can be hard to get into if you don't have experience. If you have some kind of technical background (medical or other), it can help.
The company I work for doesn't hire copy editors without experience (proofreading for friends and family doesn't count - like we kind of laugh at it if it's on people's resumes, which isn't nice, but that's the truth). We do hire editorial assistants, who can work their way up to copy editing. It is likely you will really have to start at the bottom for this.
For freelancing, I'd look at the website of the Editorial Freelancers Association. We hire freelancers, and frankly, most of them are terrible and don't even pass our basic copy editing test. And then the ones who do well on the test often start doing poor work when we check their stuff later. So it's possible that if you are actually good at this, you may have more of a chance. Pro tip: your resume and cover letter cannot have any errors, and if you are asked for a resume and cover letter, you must provide them rather than just using the application process of the website. Most people don't do that, and they aren't considered.
Feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions.
posted by FencingGal at 8:05 AM on May 29, 2020 [15 favorites]

I got out of that particular trade a few years ago. Caveat—I’m in the northeast. The competition for respectably paid work is brutal, but if you do land something at one of the FANGs for example, you have it made.

Generally, most of the work skews toward picking up tiny things on a computer screen, which gets very tiring after doing that 8 hours a day, full-time, with the constant “my roommate will edit my stuff for free” in freelance and “what do you mean you can’t edit 70 articles in a day?” at start-ups. Pharma and financial pay well, but in my experience most kids who try this start at a branded content start-up and burn out in 5 years.

I love editing for friends, but the fight to get respect and a living wage while slowly beginning to hate reading at all was exhausting and demoralizing. After 15 years in the field, I realized I had never met an editor of any stripe who was overall happy with their work—even the well-compensated ones—so I GTFOed.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 8:12 AM on May 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

We have a freelance copyeditor we use at my marketing agency. I'm also a writer there, sometimes I send her things to check overnight. I don't think we pay her a ton, but I imagine it adds up ok.

I got into this job by doing freelance for the company. I got that because my friend had to fire his freelancer and knew I could use some work. So who you know seems kind of really important.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:24 AM on May 29, 2020

Best answer: I'm a freelance copy editor. 95% of my work is fiction, mostly novel-length. It's possible to make a living, but it's a hustle. It's taken me years to build my clientele, and while I'm usually fully booked, months in advance, anything can happen in a moment to wipe away half of my bookings -- like, say, Corona. I make a living wage but it's totally buttressed by my husband's income, so I can weather these little bumps and keep going.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:53 AM on May 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a full-time freelance copyeditor and proofreader and have made my living this way for decades. However, I had a lot of training and plenty of experience. Like most professions, it isn't just something one can pick up without knowing the ropes. I know that many people think that if they are good at spotting typos, they're as good as in, but unfortunately that's not how it goes. And there is so much more competition these days that you're unlikely to get work without experience.

If all that isn't too discouraging, here are some resources I've pulled together from my amazing colleagues:

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf has compiled an extensive database of info for freelance editors.

Adrienne Montgomery has also put together a lot of useful info.

Here are some relevant blog posts from other colleagues: 1, 2, 3

I'm a member of both the American Copy Editors Society and the Editorial Freelancers Association. Both offer tons of resources, including classes, networking opportunities, job boards, and member directories. The EFA sells a bunch of handy booklets, including some that are specifically about "Freelancing 101"
posted by wisekaren at 9:17 AM on May 29, 2020 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I work in book publishing and frequently hire freelance copyeditors and proofreaders. Rates vary, but they've started to creep up in recent years, especially for copyediting complicated stuff like cookbooks and books with references. Echoing what others have said above about needing experience and/or passing a test. Being great at catching errors is critical, but to me the #1 most-important quality for a freelancer is an ability to always meet deadlines. If you want to work for book publishers, it might be worth setting up an LLC, since recent regulations around independent contractors increased paperwork / hassle involved in hiring out work to individuals under their SSN.
posted by libraryhead at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2020

Best answer: My friend makes a good living editing self-published ebooks sold on Amazon etc.
posted by catquas at 10:28 AM on May 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

One more thing. I make a decent living as a copy editor now, after twenty years. I made very low wages when I first started in the publishing job (technical library assistant) that eventually got me into copy editing at the same organization and then into my current job. I just plugged my salary then into an inflation calculator, and it wouldn't even be $30,000 now - this with a BA and an MA in English.
posted by FencingGal at 11:02 AM on May 29, 2020

Best answer: I've been relying on copyediting and proofreading as my sole income for almost four years now. Trying to make rent in Toronto was really hard. Making rent in Vancouver has been, to my surprise, comparatively painless – and it's a legendarily expensive city.

Like you, I'm in a two-income household, which helps. I make a living wage in the sense that I can pay my half of the rent, bills, and expenses, but I have little disposable income and I'm building up next to no savings. I could seek out more clients and I'm confident that in my niche (academic book publishing) I could get them, but part of why I do this is to leave myself more time to do creative work and to handle the lion's share of the household work. That said, even if I edited full time, I'd still probably only crack $45k/year, and it would take a toll on my brain. It's not just staring at a computer screen, it's reading so much bad prose.
posted by Beardman at 11:42 AM on May 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

A related job, that involves a fair bit of copy-editing, is to become a consultant who helps foreign students with their college/grad-school applications. I've seen people charge $100+ per essay. This field is easier to enter if you have a fancy degree of some sort.
posted by tinymegalo at 3:38 PM on May 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for your helpful answers, everyone.
posted by cat friend at 7:16 AM on May 30, 2020

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