Roger W. Smith, “My Career as a Freelancer”


During the 1980’s, I made my living as a freelancer. I never earned much, but I did manage, which was in itself an achievement, to get steady work. In my best year, I made somewhere between 16 and 17 thousand dollars, which was then a creditable though not great income and was proof that I had a legitimate freelance occupation.

I started out doing occasional writing of articles and proofreading. In fact, my entree into freelancing, and into publishing — I was employed full time as an advertising copywriter for three publishers for four years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s — came about through freelance proofreading work for the publisher Putnam’s, which began in 1977. A friend of mine who worked at Putnam’s recommended me to the in house supervisor of freelancers.

While working full time at Columbia University, I had taken, in 1976, a noncredit course at Hunter College taught by T. O’Connor Sloane, a high ranking editor at Doubleday. It was an outstanding course, very well organized, very well presented, and very thorough. I was greatly interested.

The course was taught once a week in the evenings for two or three hours, and when I was there, I became — despite having worked a full day — fully alert and energized. I learned a great deal; every fundamental of proofreading and copyediting, as well as book production, was covered. I took excellent notes and still have them.

I had always thought of myself as a competent speller, but, like most educated people, I wasn’t. (When I was 15, my high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, told me that one area of composition I had to work on was spelling.) Mr. Sloane, the instructor in the Hunter College course devoted part of one class to spelling. He said that overcoming spelling difficulties was simply a matter of recognizing and learning how to spell a few commonly misspelled words. He then produced a handout, a list of the 25 or so most commonly misspelled words. Ones I remember: misspell, judgment, acknowledgment, chaise longue, supersede, accommodate. (Supersede, he explained, comes from the Latin, super seder, to sit above. He had helpful explanations like this enabled one to remember the correct spelling.)

Since that lesson, I have always been an excellent speller.

He discussed fees in the last lesson. He said with irony that the class always tended to laugh when he commented on this topic. The freelance fees he mentioned were then in the neighborhood of $3.50 an hour, which seemed okay.

This course greatly helped me. My friend had previously worked at Funk & Wagnalls and through his intercession I got the opportunity (in around 1976) to take a proofreading/copyediting test there. I did not do well and was not hired. (This was just before I took the evening course with the Doubleday editor.)

The guy who gave me the test, a young editor, was sort of condescending. I was very frustrated, because I was very determined to get into publishing and knew that, if given the opportunity, I would overcome any deficiencies I had and would do well. I had the basic skills, I was certain, was very conscientious and very detail oriented. If I was unsure about the spelling of a word, I would look it up.

When (after taking the Hunter College course), I started freelancing as a proofreader for Putnam’s, I did NOT do good work on the whole. I was worried about overcharging them; worked way too fast and carelessly, as it turned out; submitted bills that were unusually low; and missed lots of errors. (I remember 33 or so in one book, I was later told.)

My in house supervisor/contact, Fred Sawyer, was patient with me and told me to work slower. I got some very good books to proofread. One, by a son of RFK, was about a famed Southern civil rights judge. Another was novel by a very popular science fiction writer, Frank Herbert. The sci fi novel was clever but pretty far out. Weird language and concepts.

Later, I became a pretty good proofreader, working for the Random House College Division and a medical publisher, Raven Press, among other places. The work required intense concentration. It’s awfully easy to pass over typos when reading.

For Random House and a couple of other places, a take home test was required to get hired. One would think that a take home test would be easy — after all, you have unlimited time to complete it — but the Random House proofreading test was extremely hard. It was a different story for me from my experience with the Funk & Wagnalls test, thanks to the Hunter College course, and, with the freelance experience I had by now, I was able to ace the test.

I didn’t do copyediting per se (as opposed to proofreading) until late in my freelance career, but I became very good at it. (I had actually become good at catching errors of fact and grammar in my capacity as a proofreader, where you were allowed to query dubious things in the margins of the proofs. I recall one book on African-American history where the author, who one would think would at least know such things, misspelled W. E. Du Bois’s name throughout.) The bulk of the copyediting I did was for an academic who was the head of a foundation. He couldn’t praise my work enough and acknowledged it in his prefaces.  He kept holding out the promise that he would promote and abet my advancement, but nothing came of it.

I developed into a very good copyeditor. It’s something one has to have a background and aptitude for, obviously, but one also has to have experience. It requires broad knowledge and a sixth sense of what to look for.


— Roger W. Smith

     August 2015





About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He hosts separate websites devoted to the authors Theodore Dreiser and Pitirim A. Sorokin and to classical music as well as family history/genealogy.
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