From combat boots to copyediting

How I transitioned from a life in the military to a career in editing and proofreading.

This particular post has been a few months in the making. I sat on the idea for a quite a while but for some reason, kept putting it off. Writing about punctuation conventions or linguistics is one thing, but when it came to a personal account of my journey from the military to where I find myself now, I couldn’t quite find the right words to do justice to the two (rather different) career paths that have lead me to where I am now.

I suppose I should start at the beginning and 'Day 00' − the first day of basic military training at RAF Halton − and a parade square full of cars loaded with ironing boards and suitcases packed with black Kiwi boot polish, Brasso and clothes that would now be referred to forevermore as ‘civvies’.

Recruit training was probably exactly as your would imagine it: rows of bed spaces lined up next to each other separated by wooden cabinets; daily morning inspections with recruits stood to attention, having every inch of their personal space scrutinised for the tiniest speck of dust. Being reprimanded for a miniscule crease in your shirt or a stray thread on your trousers may sound excessive, but instilling such attention to detail from day one is fundamental to an effective force because when it comes to the ‘real stuff’, maintaining high standards is non-negotiable.

I served for over 13 years in the end, both on overseas deployments and home soil, with a varied list of job roles including working as an air traffic control assistant, supporting frontline rotary operations, training new recruits and even providing security for the 2012 Olympics! As my career progressed, I learned about defence writing, how to compile organisational reports and produce clear and coherent written communications (you can probably see where I’m going with this now!)

Op Herrick 2010

The RAF gave me many opportunities that I will forever be grateful for and tools that still serve me well today. Attention to detail, communication, flexibility and working to strict deadlines are great transferable skills for any profession but fit particularly well within the editorial industry. Of course, professional training also played an important role in my transition, and I would urge anyone seriously considering an editorial career to do the same.

I now specialise in copyediting memoirs and non-fiction military history, defence and aviation-related texts. My military experience has been invaluable when working on military history publications, where accuracy and, crucially, authenticity is paramount. I still get to use some of the skills I developed in the military every day, doing something that I love and suits me down to a T.

Joining the military is one of the most exciting things I have done in my life. My reason for leaving the RAF ultimately came down to stability for my family. Had I not met my husband and not had children, I almost certainly would still be serving today. After I left the service, I initially secured a job in the private sector. However, although my employer was reasonably flexible and understanding of parenting commitments, it still felt like a compromise and didn’t give me the balance that I felt I needed. At this point, it became abundantly clear that it was time to take a leap of faith and enter the realms of self-employment.

Working as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader means I now have complete control over my work schedule, and I have been able to forge a new identity beyond the military. I have the ability to move my business with me if my still-serving husband is posted and we decide to relocate. It also means I have more freedom to grow my career in a way that fits around my young children.

Transitioning from a life in the RAF to a proofreader may seem an unusual trajectory at first glance. However, for me, it really did make perfect sense.

Fancy freelancing?

If you too are thinking of a career within the world of editorial freelancing, here are a few tips that may help you on your journey:

1. Training. I thought I knew what proofreading was, and then I did my training. Not only will completing professional training give you the confidence to charge for your skillset, but it also tells potential clients that you know what you’re doing. In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and the Publishing Training Centre training courses are considered the ‘gold standard’ within the publishing industry.

2. Networking. Although the people in your networking groups might not personally need your services, they may know other people who do. However, just as important as job referrals is the support and advice that you can gain from connecting with other business owners (and not just within the editorial industry). Self-employment can be lonely, so joining groups and attending networking events can make a huge difference to your mental wellbeing.

3. Tell everyone. Some of my first paid jobs came from friends and ex-colleagues. So, don’t be shy to shout about what you are doing. Most people will be really supportive and more than happy to help you if they can.

4. Professional membership. There are so many benefits to joining an editorial society. For a start, it shows to the world that you are serious about your profession. Membership also opens up a wealth opportunities for continuing professional development, resources, networking and accessing valuable advice from fellow and seasoned editors. Associations for editors include the CIEP in the UK and the Editorial Freelancers Association and the American Copy Editors Society in the US.

5. Niche. It’s an increasingly competitive market out there, so you need to give potential clients a reason to pick you. For some people, choosing their niche, may be an obvious decision because they have experience and specialist knowledge within a particular field, e.g. medicine, law or, in my case, military and aviation. For others, it may take a bit more time to decide on the area that they want to focus on, but, in my opinion, it’s definitely worth doing when you start out.

Jessica Brown is a copyeditor, proofreader and RAF veteran. Specialising in non-fiction, military history and aviation-related texts, she provides professional editorial support to publishers, independent writers and businesses.

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