In 2017, to celebrate the launch of our three-level suite of proofreading training courses, the then SfEP (now the CIEP) ran a competition to ask people what they had discovered about the profession of being a proofreader and why training for the role is important. Our winner was Stephen Pigney, who was making the move from academia to launching his business as a freelance proofreader. Here is Stephen’s winning entry.
Wiser now than I once was, I make this confession of former folly: for a long time I believed that proofreading required little more than the ability to spell and punctuate, a sound grasp of grammar and a hawkish eye for detail. A text, a red pen (most likely of a metaphorical and digital kind) and someone reading and correcting the text: this was the image my mind conjured up of proofreading. The process was, I supposed, simultaneously interesting and mechanical. Perhaps it is natural to imagine unfamiliar professions in simple ways; no doubt many consider an aptitude for quick thinking and persuasive argument sufficient to make a lawyer. If such misconceptions encourage ventures into a profession, then they are not without merit. We all have to begin somewhere, and simple-minded confidence is not the worst place to start. So it was that, self-assured about my abilities and knowledge, I forayed into proofreading – and soon learned that I knew far less than I had imagined.
I discovered that there is more to proofreading than meets the eye. I had been mistaken to think only of a proofreader’s relationship with a text, for I had missed how the proofreader stands at a crucial intersection between different people. The eyes of a hawk are not enough; the proofreader needs to see a text as an author, a typesetter, a publisher or a reader sees it. Proofreading is a delicate art of facilitating communication; it consists of honouring and respecting an author’s voice, a typesetter’s skills, a publisher’s vision and a reader’s needs; it requires precision, judgment, tact and informed understanding. Texts are complex artefacts, embodying language, ideas, creativity, design, meaning and (frequently) commercial intention – and this is before they take on life in the hands and minds of their readers. In the process that begins with an idea and ends with a publication, the proofreader has, perhaps uniquely, both an intimate relationship with the text and a connection with each interested party. Yet – and this too must be learned – the ideal proofreader must strive for invisibility: proofreading is noticed not when it is done well, but when it is done ineptly or badly.
‘…proofreading is noticed not when it is done well, but when it is done ineptly or badly.’
There has been much more I have learned: how to follow a brief; how to mark a text; how to work with various formats; how (and when) to raise a query; how to use style guides. I became familiar with numerous resources and how to utilise them; I became acquainted with typographical and publishing conventions, with workflow, schedules and project management, and with the role played by budgets and timescales. And I learned how different texts have varying requirements and present distinct challenges. A marketing brochure, a retailer’s catalogue, a local newsletter, a scholarly monograph, an illustrated book, a blog post, a glossy magazine feature, a novel – all have their own characteristics, demands and potential complications.
A gradual accumulation of experience has contributed to my growing knowledge. Above all, however, I have benefited from training. Good training (such as that offered by the SfEP [now CIEP] or PTC, with their extensive resources, expert tutors and industry recognition) is about professionalisation. I did not so much learn this as have it confirmed: fortunately, when I set out to establish myself as an editor and proofreader, I had the good sense to put training at the heart of my plan. It was through training that my understanding of the proofreader’s role deepened; it was through training that I learned skills and best practice; and it was through training that I became familiar with a wider range of texts than I would have encountered through practice alone.
Acquiring, improving and reinforcing skills and knowledge is reason enough for my professional vision to focus on training – especially given the rapidly changing and digitally evolving world of writing and publishing. But there is much more to training than this. To join a training programme is to connect to a body of knowledge, practice and experience; it is a gateway to recognition, status and a community. It is also about building and strengthening self-confidence. As a freelance proofreader, endeavouring to manage and grow my business from scratch, robust training has given me the confidence that I can develop the skills, expertise and flexibility necessary to enhance my reputation, market myself successfully and, most importantly, provide an exceptional proofreading service. This is why training has been and will remain important to me: it constitutes the fertile foundation from which my business can flourish and my practice can excel.
Stephen Pigney is a former (although still part-time) academic historian. After many years of occasional proofreading and editorial work, in 2017 he set up his full-time editorial business (stephenpigneyeditor.com). As well as editing, he enjoys thinking and writing about many topics, and even pens occasional fiction. He is based in London.
Posted by Margaret Hunter, marketing and PR director
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP
Originally published May 2017; updated June 2021.