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5 Things Successful Freelance Proofreaders Do to Get Ahead… Even Without an English Degree

Are you a weary traveler in the world of freelance proofreading and editing?

I know, it’s really tough out there. There are droves of talented folks — and droves of, um, not-so-talented folks — all competing for what seems like a rather small amount of work.

So how do the most successful ones get the work? Moreover, how can you get the work? How can you give yourself an edge over the less-qualified competition? How can you gain repeat business so you can spend less time searching and more time earning?

Over the last six years as a freelancer (and as a marketer, ‘cause let’s face it, we all have to market ourselves!), I’ve observed a number of qualified people who’ve blossomed into successful freelance proofreaders and/or editors. By and large, the most successful ones (read: the ones making the most money!) all tend to do the same five things that I believe are essential to their rise to the top — and higher income — in comparison to freelancers who are simply “really good at grammar and spelling,” but maybe not much else.

And, perhaps surprisingly, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English is not one of those 5 things.

So what are they?

1. Successful freelance proofreaders find a niche and work it.

Mainstream advice — and maybe even your college English professor — may tell you “Diversify! Get out there in front of as many people as you can. Niches don’t matter!” But the advantage to sticking with a specific niche is you become an expert. Your portfolio becomes specialized. You get a leg up over the jack-of-all-trades editor/proofreader who will proofread anything from fortune cookie inserts to Playboy articles.

Niche industries are everywhere: ritzy restaurant menus, legal transcripts, user manuals, novels, or Amazon listings, just to name a handful.  When you focus in on a niche industry, you greatly increase your chances of getting referrals and repeat clients from within that industry. Some niches can be much more profitable than others, too.

For example, I chose to focus on court reporters as my niche. Occasionally I’ll proofread master’s theses or website content, but over the years I’ve learned to stick with court reporters. I used to work in a busy agency where in my downtime I helped court reporters proofread their transcripts. Through lots of trial and error, I learned the ins and outs of the court reporting world, and I focused on making myself as efficient as possible when it came to proofreading transcripts.

5 things successful proofreaders have in common

[WARNING: Don’t even think about attempting to find clients in this particular niche without experience or training. If you’ve never proofread a transcript before, you need to understand it’s NOT the same as proofreading other texts. Plus, court reporters can smell incompetence from a mile away, and it can ruin your reputation if you try to get work without knowing exactly what you’re looking for, dos and don’ts, etc. If you can’t tell me what colloquy is, when to capitalize plaintiff/defendant, or what five things belong on the appearance page, you’re not ready.]

But transcript proofreading isn’t the only proofreading niche you can work in. Think about how much content is put into print! Blog posts, books, websites, college essays, ads, graphic design, social media posts… the list doesn’t stop. And then within those categories are even smaller niches you can proofread. People who are interested in proofreading books might narrow their interest down into romance novels or mysteries or biographies.

But before you pick a niche and start marketing yourself, it’s SO IMPORTANT to make sure you are trained as a proofreader. Just like in the court reporting world, it’s super easy to ruin your reputation in whatever niche you explore if you don’t have the proper skills.

Related Resources

2. Successful freelance proofreaders are always learning.

Finding mentors in their niche, seeking training, and asking questions are all ways high earners in the freelance editing and proofreading world invest in themselves.

They know they don’t already know it all. They know the limits of their English degree (if they have one, that is). They know they can become their personal best when they learn from the best, so they seek out those who’ve gone before them to ask questions and look for specialized training before diving into uncharted waters unprepared.

In the competitive field of freelance editing and proofreading, it can often feel like you’re just another crocodile amidst the swarm circling the unsuspecting swimmer, all waiting to jump at the next job on Craigslist. If you can find higher-earning, successful mentors in your niche, they should be willing to help out someone new in the industry.

Don’t expect an immediate response — they could be very busy — and don’t expect them to just give away all their knowledge, but you should feel free to contact them. They know what works, they really know what they’re doing, and they likely already have a steady flow of referrals due to their track record of excellent work. If that’s the case, they shouldn’t have any problem giving you a little advice, or encouragement, or help you figure out your next move as a budding freelancer.

Let’s go back to that English degree. Too many new editors and proofreaders start out thinking they know it all. English degree in hand, they expect their skill set to be a one-size-fits-all for wherever they end up.

BONUS TIP: The wisest newbies (and there are wise newbies!) research their niche(s) first, and never (ever!) assume they already know the ropes. With so many industries with the potential need for proofreading and editing services, you can make a safe bet they’re not all using Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or the AP Stylebook. Some industries have completely separate books and guides dedicated to their particular format and style preferences. It can even vary from company to company. 

Being aware of these preferences is paramount — and being open to spending the time on continuing education beyond that English degree could go a long way in distinguishing you from the competition.

Related Resources

3. Successful freelance proofreaders answer e-mails astonishingly fast.

This is just plain old good customer service. Even in freelancing, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

If you take a day or two, or weeks to answer an e-mail, or if you never answer at all, just think about the message it sends. It certainly doesn’t communicate to your client or prospect that you’re attentive to them, so why should they expect you to be attentive to their work?

This is particularly crucial in niche industries with strict deadlines. If your client has their deadline, plus their own client has a deadline, taking more than a few hours to simply acknowledge receipt of your assignment is bad news. If you know the client well and they’re already familiar with how you work, a simple response of “Thanks!” is enough to provide them with the reassurance you’ve received the job and that you’ll complete it on time. Otherwise, respond and write, “Hi, just confirming receipt and will begin the job promptly! You should expect a turnaround in X days. Thank you for your business.”

A quick response tells your client you are on top of things — including their work.

4. Successful freelance proofreaders aren’t afraid to market themselves, and they do it well.

If they are afraid of marketing, they do everything they can to get over that fear.

Sitting around waiting for work to come to you or waiting for jobs to be posted can get you places.


But taking action with well-orchestrated marketing techniques can get you more work much faster than if you just sat and waited for it to come to you via an UpWork invite or a CareerBuilder alert.

Marketing is where it is smart to diversify! Find anywhere your target customer may be hiding, and promote yourself. Create a website (here’s our step-by-step guide), brush up on your LinkedIn know-how, and grow your business.

Now, when it comes to marketing, highly successful proofreaders and editors know their English degree probably doesn’t cover how to thrive as a freelancer. Do some research on online marketing, and for the love of all that is written, don’t be boring with your marketing. It’s okay to be weird.

5. Successful freelance proofreaders don’t give up. Ever.

If you are itching to build your own career as a freelancer — and we all know what the flexibility of a solid freelance career can offer — then you should want, with every fiber of your freelance being, to do things the right way.

That means when the going gets tough, you stick it out. You don’t take shortcuts. If you make mistakes or lose a client, you patch up the bruised ego, learn from those mistakes, and move on as a better professional because of them.

Highly successful freelancers in proofreading and editing — or any industry, for that matter — always strive for excellence, and they are keenly aware of their existence as an imperfect human being. Mistakes and setbacks, miscommunication and dropped balls can happen to anyone for any number of reasons. It’s what action you take with those new experiences that builds true character and helps you become the freelancer you want to be, living the life you want.

The major plus about making mistakes is you are granted immediate access to the areas that need improvement. In a way, you get a free lesson in self-improvement— and it doesn’t cost you a cent. In my book, that’s money saved that you can spend on a cocktail when you’re rocking the freelance life in Bali.

Suggested reading: The 3 Pillars of Success in Proofreading — and in Life


Do you have some tips, dos and don’ts, crazy client stories, or something else to share about your journey in the world of proofreading/editing? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment!

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  1. Your article piqued my interest even though I’m not proofreading for money yet. You’ve listed basic good-business practices that transfer well to any industry, including clothing alterations which is my business.

    1. Sweet 😀 I’m glad you found it interesting. You are right — good communication and marketing are essential to any industry!

  2. While I am not in the industry of proofreading for pay as of yet, your article piqued my interest. I found it helpful not only for proofreading but just in good business manners and trying to work online. I am currently trying to freelance my skills and work from home besides starting a blog.

    1. Hi Rusty!

      Have you signed up for our free 7-day intro course yet? A lot of our readers and students find it very helpful when determining if proofreading is right for them. 🙂

      1. No I haven’t but think it might be something I would be interested in doing before fully committing.

  3. I was a medical transcriptionist for several years. I earned my AA Certification for medical transcription in 1998. Is there much need for proofreaders in the medical field? How and where would you go about advertising and putting out the word in this field?

    1. Hi Julie!

      Wherever there is written text, there is a need for proofreaders. I’m not entirely sure where you would market to become a medical proofreader, but I’m confident there’s a niche out there. The course offers all the information you need in Module 8 for marketing yourself as a proofreader and finding your target client. You also might be interested in our sister site, Transcribe Anywhere. Here is a post about the difference between medical and general transcription and what the market currently looks like there. Hope this helps! 🙂

  4. I’m a court reporter and I’ve used proofers for many years. I think what we want is someone who really knows English grammar and punctuation, has a wide knowledge, and understands the legal format – but mainly, someone who doesn’t get lazy after a few weeks or months of working with the same reporter. That is the main problem I find: Everyone does a great job at first, and then, later, get too comfortable and proof too fast. Smart and diligent – a rare combination.

    1. Mark! Thank you for your feedback. It’s great to hear from court reporters on what they value in a proofreader. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  5. Interesting article, full of good advice.
    So much more to learn than “just” proofreading. Appreciate the fact that an English degree is not a requirement.
    Finding a niche is valid in any industry and waiting for the clients to arrive hardly ever gives a result. At least not until you are well known and established in a niche.
    Thank you for publishing this.

  6. So if I am a freelance proofreader and I just use, for example, amberbrownproofreader as a web domain name and create a website, do I need to register that as a business name? Or can I just work freelance under that website name.

    1. Good question! Each state has different guidelines for registering a business name, so you should probably research what is required by your state. 🙂

      1. Okay thanks! I checked and I don’t think La requires me to do that. So that would mean I’m working under my own name, and when I bill a client through Freshbooks it would be my name and not my website name? Since I don’t technically have a business, I’m just freelancing under my name. Sorry for all the questions it is just so much to take in!

        1. You should be able to bill under your name, but just to be sure, you should consult regulations in your state. 🙂

  7. I notice so many typos in online articles. I’m sure they are just entered incorrectly and that the writer did not make those mistakes.
    But, why do some of the major newspapers not proofread their online material?
    Recently, I had to tell a Huffington Post writer about the obvious error.

  8. Hi! I’m just curious…I listened to your webinar yesterday was intrigued. I, too, am a word nerd, have some background in transcription for the legal profession and am looking for a way to supplement, then replace, my current income. In your webinar, you say (multiple times) that there is literally TONS of work out there. Then I go to this blog, and one of the first sentences is “There are droves of talented folks — and droves of, um, not-so-talented folks — all competing for what seems like a rather small amount of work.” So, which is it?

    1. Hi, Lorri! What we mean is that it can seem like a small amount of work when you niche down, but there are many niches out there! Just think about the amount of written content available, and they all must be proofread first. 🙂

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