I am often surprised by posts on message boards for professional writers and editors in which the poster asks, “Do I really need to buy the Chicago Manual of Style? It costs money.” Another question that often comes up is “Do I really need Microsoft Word, or can I get by with a free, open source word processor?” The answer is that you do need to own the essential reference manuals and other tools of your trade.
I understand that many people in our field are involuntary freelancers. They lost their job, have been unable to find another one, and are trying to use their knowledge of grammar and spelling to pay the bills. In a situation like that, people are often broke and need to pinch pennies in any way they can. However, trying to do a job without the tools to do it right does a disservice to your clients and ultimately will sabotage your efforts to establish a successful freelance business. Also, compared to what you will earn as the steadily working, in-demand professional you want to be, the cost of these tools is minimal.
The bible for grammar, style, usage, and punctuation is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). We have hard copies ($65 each, one for each desk) and a subscription to the online version ($60 for two years) because sometimes it’s easier to look up rules in one place and sometimes it’s easier to find them in the other. Make sure you have the latest edition (the 16th). Most publishers have in-house styles that override CMS in certain ways, and CMS style is not appropriate for all content. However, you can’t break the rules appropriately unless you know what they are.
Several of our clients use American Psychological Association (APA) style, so we have the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association ($29.95). Purdue University offers an excellent free guide to APA style, which we use as a quick reference for many rules, and the APA’s website itself has a good deal of information. However, having the actual book on hand is still essential to ensure correct and professional work.
Associated Press (AP) style comes up occasionally, so we subscribe to the AP Stylebook Online ($26).
If a client asked us to use the MLA [Modern Language Association] Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style, or any other style guide or dictionary, we would purchase it in a heartbeat and get up to speed.
Standard equipment is a reliable PC or Mac with a big enough screen that you can easily edit documents, including in a split-screen or side-by-side view. (My next investment will be in a second 19-inch monitor so I can have different documents up side by side in full-screen view. My neck and eyes will thank me ever so much!) You also need reliable high-speed Internet service to send and receive large files, respond to emails quickly, and do the fact-checking and reference checking required for many projects.
You need the Microsoft Office suite. I used OpenOffice a few times because a client briefly rebelled against the tyranny of Microsoft, and for tracking changes and applying paragraph and character styles, it is clumsy and frustrating. Plus, you need to be sure that your work translates without bugs into the software downstream users have, and that is almost certainly MS Office. You might be tempted to use Google Docs and related apps, but content often does not convert between these and the corresponding Office products without introducing significant (and sometimes very weird) errors. Probably most of your work will be in Word, but Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides can come your way at any time as input to a manuscript or the primary components of a project. In addition, Excel is an excellent tool for tracking everything from invoice data to project status.
You will almost certainly need to mark up PDFs for some projects. The free Adobe Reader has some markup capabilities, but to work fluently with PDFs you should have Acrobat Standard or Pro.
Sometimes a client will need you to have other software. For example, some publishers use MathType to render equations in Word that will flow without distortion into InDesign and other platforms. The first time a publisher indicated this was how it wanted to handle equations, MathType was on my computer by the end of the day. As more publishers try to streamline the proofreading process, their use of Adobe’s InCopy may increase, and indeed that’s something we’re looking at for our own book production process.
Bottom line: Don’t try to do this business on the cheap. Invest in the resources you need to service your clients professionally.