How I got started

One of the most commonly asked questions among those considering a career in proofreading or editing is: ‘How did you get started?’ Here, Richard Hutchinson starts a regular feature on the blog where members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) share stories of how they did just that.

Computer + Code

What possible connection could there be between writing software for a computer and editing learned texts on the writings of Late Antiquity? I’m going to suggest that there’s quite a bit of overlap there. But I’ll start with some background.

Before I started proofreading

Back at the dawn of civilisation (we’re talking the 1980s here) I managed to get a degree in mathematics. Having discovered early on that I wasn’t really a mathematician after all, I decided to go into a career in modelling. That probably gives you the wrong impression about the way I look – I mean computer modelling, initially in the defence field. From there I moved into more general software engineering, and then spent the next 25 years or so trying to keep up with the rapid developments in computers and technology.

The job came to involve more and more document development and review, and less of the more interesting stuff. So I decided I needed a change. I hit upon proofreading (I’ll come to why in a moment) and my research led me to the SfEP Introduction to proofreading course. This convinced me that I was on the right track, and I went on to complete the Publishing Training Centre’s (PTC) Basic proofreading by distance learning course. I was lucky that I was able to do this while working part-time at the old job, and this continued to be the case as I took my first faltering steps into freelancing.

I decided to focus on publishers rather than businesses or individuals, mainly because networking, marketing and so on aren’t among my strengths. I also decided to play to my technical background and target subjects like maths, physics and computing. So the first book I worked on was about … English Renaissance literature. This break had come through a friend who worked at a local publisher. More work came after I answered a plea for journal copy-editors that was broadcast on the SfEPAnnounce mailing list, and I slowly built up enough experience to be able to upgrade to ordinary membership and take out an SfEP Directory entry. This has turned out to be the single most useful piece of marketing I’ve done – almost all my work comes via my Directory entry.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I summoned up the courage to take the leap into full-time freelancing. I haven’t looked back since.

A change? Or more of the same?

So why do I think that writing software and editing/proofreading are not so far apart? Most computer languages have a strict syntax you need to follow if you’re going to persuade the computer to obey your instructions. That means paying attention to what’s been written at a character-by-character level. You also have to understand the language at a semantic level – while the characters you write may make some sense to the computer, it may not take them to mean what you intended. And when you’re reviewing other people’s code, you also need to pay attention to the overall structure, and its suitability for a place in the system in which it’s to be deployed. An overriding requirement for a software engineer is, or should be, attention to detail. Replace ‘code’ with ‘text’, and I think you get the picture.

And if you were to suggest that the similarities might also include staring at pages of incomprehensible jargon, wondering what on earth they might mean, who am I to argue?

Go further

To find out more about how Richard and two other members of the SfEP (John Firth and Gale Winskill) embarked on freelance careers in editing and proofreading, book the ‘How we got started’ session at our annual conference. The seminar covers what they did, why they did it and things they wish they’d known beforehand.

If you’d like to share the story of how you got started, do get in touch.

Richard Hutchinson

Richard Hutchinson

Richard Hutchinson still can’t quite believe that people will pay him money to read books, and are (mostly) happy to have their mistakes pointed out. An advanced member of the SfEP, he works as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader on books and journals in maths, science and a variety of other subjects – see for details.


This article was proofread by SfEP associate Emma Wilkin.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.


2 thoughts on “How I got started

  1. Sally Asnicar

    Thanks for sharing Richard Hutchinson’s article about how his career ‘morphed’ into editing and proofreading. A common theme is that people don’t generally leave school or uni and set out to be proofreaders and editors. Like Richard, we usually have careers that may be entirely unrelated but for one reason or another, and often a fair number of years down the track, we evolve into it. While it’s a prerequisite we all have excellent English grammar and spelling skills, there is a lot more to editing and proofreading than spotting spelling mistakes, bad punctuation or misplaced prepositions. It’s a good idea to do at least one course to learn the skills that editors and proofreaders need. As Richard points out, becoming a full-time freelancer takes time and courage. You have to be prepared for an uncertain (and miserably low) income initially and actively seek out those first few clients. Eventually, once the clients start coming to you and your income improves to a point you actually feel like you have a ‘real’ job, it becomes very satisfying. I became a freelancer in my mid-40s after having three children in the space of five years (time was running out)! The idea of going back to full-time work became very unappealing, so I decided to utilise my strength in English and build a home business from it. I love the fact that I can work in my PJs, bake a cake when my neck seizes up from concentrating on a piece of work for too long, and I can walk the dog to meet the kids from school. That said, I often work on weekends (laptop is useful during daughter’s horseriding lessons) and sometimes I work through the night. The best part is the flexibility. The worst part is probably the fact I only earn about half the income I would be getting if I was still in my corporate career in the city – but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything!

  2. Pingback: How I got started - Graham Hughes - SfEP blog

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