Digital nomad jobs – interview with a proofreader, editor, and transcriptionist

In this episode of our interview series, we are meeting with Tanya a proofreader, editor, and transcriptionist who works while driving around Mexico in her van, sometimes alone sometimes in the company of fellow travelers that she meets along the way. In this interview, Tanya shares her story and what her job is about.

I met Tanya virtually in a Facebook group and we exchanged thoughts and travel stories until we finally met in person while I was housesitting in Antigua, Guatemala and she was passing through, after traveling around Mexico for 2.5 years.

It was an awesome meet-up where Tanya shared more of her amazing stories and adventures on the road and how she was juggling between working and living the life of her dreams, exploring the best of Mexico and talking about places that I didn’t even know existed. And I lived in Mexico for 10 years (shame on me). I was fascinated by her adventurous spirit as she dares to go places where I wouldn’t even think about.

I am quite fearful and yet I travel, but with my own precautions. So I admire people like Tanya who seems to really live the life, free from any prejudice and fears.

So of course I didn’t have any hesitation about asking her if she could delight us with her story and here it is.

Please meet Tanya: 42, proofreader, editor, and transcriptionist!

Tanya in her van
Tanya in her van

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first? Where are you from and what do you do for a living right now?

My parents are a combination of French/Italian, British and German, but I was born and grew up in the ‘home counties’ in England, and ended up living in the bohemian little city of Brighton on the south coast for the last 8 years or so before I began my current trip.

Right now I’m attempting to drive the classic ‘PanAmerican Highway’ from Alaska to Argentina, albeit with a whole lot of detours en route!

I’m traveling and living in a little Chevrolet Astro. I typically travel and explore the areas I’m visiting during the day, then settle down to work in the evenings.

I’ve rigged up the van with an auxiliary battery that charges from the engine starter battery while I’m driving, and use this to charge my laptop as I drive via an inverter.

This way I can work from wherever, as long as I can find somewhere with wifi every few days to download new work when necessary.

I currently do a mixture of proofreading and light editing, and (increasingly since the pandemic hit) transcription.

Pre-pandemic I had far more editing and proofreading work, mainly for one or two big clients, but as the reports I was working on for them were based on travels of their staff members to evaluate projects they funded around the world, their reports have obviously been significantly curtailed since travel became more restrictive.

As this work became much harder to come by, I’ve fallen back on transcription – which is typically less well-paid, but very flexible and much more readily available.

Van parked by a forest
Photo © Tanya

What is your background? Your education and your previous job? 

I did a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies at university, and then have worked in all manner of things, ranging from delivery driving to development consultancy, volunteering in London Zoo to doing sales for a safari company in Tanzania.

After slightly grudgingly deciding to move back to the UK and getting bored of temping, I trained up as a proofreader and worked freelance for a few years.

However, I wasn’t very good at self-promotion and was getting restless being in the house all day, so got an office job working for a friendly company doing ‘product compliance‘.

Basically, I was checking paperwork to ensure that companies were doing what they should in terms of ensuring that the products they sell complied with laws regarding sustainable sourcing of materials, passed the requisite tests for safety, had a transparent and legal supply chain and so on.

This experience both expanded my social network and doubled my earnings, working far fewer hours, allowing me to save for my trip (when I wasn’t in the pub with my new friends)!

I continued working freelance in the evenings and weekends to increase my saving rate and retain the clients I’d build up.

What made you decide to become a digital nomad? 

I’d been toying with the idea of a north-to-south PanAmerican motorcycle trip for some 20-odd years, since my mum treated me to a fantastic holiday to Peru just before I left school, and I got hooked!

But I have never had enough money, or was in a relationship I didn’t want to leave for an extended period, or just wasn’t in the right headspace for an extended trip – always some reason not to take the plunge.

Then a couple of years before turning 40 something clicked, and I decided it was now or never.

I didn’t really have enough saved to sustain me, but it was at least enough to get me out there and started, and I figured the rest would take care of itself somehow – the proofreading was flexible, I had reasonably reliable work coming in, and I hoped that would fill the gap.

How did you transition from a regular office job to remote work?

As described, I had worked freelance as a proofreader and editor previously, and I maintained my network of freelance clients while working an office job, working for them in the evenings and weekends – very occasionally even on lunch breaks, and I think I took days off from my office job once or twice when I had a big freelance project underway that required more hours – a slightly delicate juggling act but it was workable!

After I made the commitment to travel and quit my office job, I let my bigger freelance clients know what I was doing but made it clear to them that I would still be available for work.

In some cases, given that I’d be in a different time-zone, it might even work out better for them. In fact, many of them required fast turnaround times, and this way I could be working overnight (daytime in the Americas, where I would be!) and have work ready for them by the beginning of their working days.

This hasn’t always quite proved to be the case, and I think I have lost at least one of my bigger clients due to the time-zone difference. The issue was that they often require immediate responses to emails to confirm that I’m available for work, for example – and I may well be asleep at the point when they email!

But in general, it has proved workable, especially for those who give a little more notice for upcoming jobs.

Photo © Tanya

What do you think are the main skills needed to do what you do?

For proofreading and editing you definitely need to be meticulous, bordering on pedantic! A good and confident knowledge of your language is a prerequisite, and the ability to concentrate for long periods of time without losing focus and risking missing tiny details.

Likewise, with transcription, you need fine attention to detail, and to be a fast typist – the quicker you are, the more money you make!

The agency I work for specify various levels of ‘verbatim’ – i.e. how faithful they want you to be to what you hear, whether to include every cough and stutter and ‘um’ and ‘er’, or just the essence of what is being said, or something in between.

So you need to have an amount of common sense in this regard – and also some research skills when looking up spellings of places, names and such, sometimes inferred by the context of the surrounding audio – this can be surprisingly time-consuming!

As with any self-employment you also need to be organized and able to prioritize your time effectively and to communicate well with your clients – as well as to keep tabs on your finances and take responsibility for filing tax returns and the like – and it will help you to find new clients if you are effective at marketing yourself and selling your services, having some form of online presence and so on.

I’m not very good at this latter side of things! I trained as a proofreader via a distance learning course with the Publishing Training Centre (PTC), which offers a range of courses in the publishing field.

I then gained confidence in it working for my cousin, who happened to run a business proofing Masters and PhD theses for foreign students at a university – it didn’t pay well but she was excellent at providing feedback on my work, and it was a good proving ground.

From there I started to branch out – when I’d qualified as a proofreader I was added to a database of freelancers with the PTC and found some work that way, then started to get work through word of mouth from happy clients.

I kept an eye on ‘gig’ sites like Gumtree and similar and responded to job ads I thought I’d be a good fit for, and gradually built up a client base.

On the transcription side I took a few weeks’ work at the office of a transcription agency in Brighton, actually proofreading transcripts of the BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ show, which was thoroughly enjoyable, and then dealing with the admin side and allocating work to the transcribers – and then realized that actually, the freelance work the transcribers did was something that would fit in well around my future travels.

I had to pass an online transcription test with the agency, and then signed up and began taking on transcription jobs myself.

I don’t use any specialist kit for this – just a laptop and earphones. There are various software programs you can use, like Express Scribe, and a foot pedal to facilitate moving forwards and backward across the audio, which undoubtedly speeds things up, but I’ve always preferred to keep it simple and have never bothered

woman looking from a lookout
Photo © Tanya

Can you please explain your work flow and the main tasks in your job? 

For me, proofreading in practice usually involves being sent writing in digital form – the course that I did actually was mostly about learning the proofreading marks traditionally used to proof hard copy – that is, physical paper – but I’ve almost never been called on to use these; I’d say 99% of proofreading is now done onscreen, certainly in the UK at least.

I open it in Microsoft Word (usually), select the ‘Track Changes’ tool, and then go through and check it meticulously for:

  • spelling and grammar
  • depending on the requirements of the client, sometimes to ensure that the tone is appropriate to the audience
  • the writing is consistent – I’ve proofed work that has been put together by multiple authors, for example, and the client wanted it to read as if it had all been written by the same one
  • that it’s consistently the right form of English – British, American, Australian etc
  • that it makes sense!

For projects that require greater amounts of editing, this can involve work like restructuring sentences, ensuring that it’s the right length to meet word count requirements, suggesting bits to include or leave out to best fit the brief, and generally ensuring that it reads fluidly and flows well.

This can be a lot more involved and time-consuming than a ‘simple’ proofread.

I’ve carried out proofing and editing work for a broad range of clients, from the BBC to published and aspiring authors, charities, magazines, architects, consultancies, university students, website translators, individuals conducting oral history projects with family members, and so on.

Transcription work involves the typing up of audio files and providing the clients with a coherent transcript, with verbatim details, formatting etc according to their requirements as described. I’ve done this mainly for the Brighton agency, but not exclusively – I had a large project with a US TV company who wanted all the dialogue from their shows typing up, for example.

tanya in the cave
Photo © Tanya

How do you stay focused and motivated while working on your own?

Most of my work involves fairly tight deadlines, so I have no choice but to get on it when required! If I have a really big project then I might be required to stop traveling for a few days or a week and find a base.

Libraries have been pretty safe bets so far, but failing that a quiet restaurant or a coffee shop might do the job, or just a quiet parking place in my van, if the job isn’t too long.

This was mostly the case when I was doing proofreading and editing before the pandemic set in; in those days I was probably getting one big project every two or three months, lasting a few days, which was just about enough to cover my costs in-between times.

Since this work has largely dried up, though, I’ve reverted mostly to transcription.

Typically I’ll do the tourist thing during the day, and reserve my evenings for work, usually after dinner but it depends on how much I have to do.

I’d say on average I work a couple of hours per day, and it’s just become a part of my daily routine. With proofing and editing, I note down what time I start and finish work, then bill my clients accordingly as I usually charge by the minute – some of them have their own requirements in terms of timesheets so I need to ensure I keep records accordingly.

There are apps available that will let you track your time down to the second, but I’ve never needed to be quite that precise!

The transcription agency pay per audio minute and file lengths are all recorded on their site, so I don’t need to keep any special records for that.

I do however add every job to an Excel spreadsheet and total up how much I earn by month, which makes everything a whole lot easier when it comes to submitting tax reports!

I set my van up so I have a ‘leisure battery’ which charges the engine battery when I’m driving, and have an inverter to convert the power from this 12v battery to what my laptop requires to charge.

That is also useful for charging my camera, phone, for the interior lights, and charging various things like drills from time to time when required! (This was essential in the days when I was building the van, but still sometimes comes in useful)!

This is enough to keep me going if I’m doing a few hours’ works a day, and I buy SIM cards in each country, which give me enough data to check for new work, upload files, and download small things like Word documents, etc.

If I need more laptop time, or have bigger items like large audio files I need to download, I’ll usually find myself a library or coffee shop somewhere and plugin there for however long I need – this can be very easy or quite challenging, depending on where you are; I occasionally will plan my route with this in mind.

Tanya driving

How do you find new clients or new jobs? Any particular platforms you use? 

I’m not very good at this; I’ve been lucky in that most of my work has come by word of mouth. I will occasionally look over the ‘gig’ websites – Guru, Fiver, Upwork, as well as more generic sites like Gumtree and Craigslist, and have had a few clients come this way, but on the whole, I’m not too keen on the paid sites.

I don’t like having to give a commission to them for using their services, valuable though I’m sure they are. And there seem to be a lot of people willing to work for very cheap, which I think undervalues what can be very meticulous and time-consuming work that demands a reasonable amount of skill, and is very competitive.

However, I think I do need to be a bit more proactive in finding new clients, especially in this strange ‘new normal’ world we find ourselves in.

So am looking into setting up a LinkedIn profile (recommended by a copywriting friend who has had considerable success using this!) and possibly a simple website, if I can only find the time to work on it!

Photo © Tanya

Where have you been traveling as a digital nomad and what is your favorite country? And why? 

I’m currently attempting to drive from Alaska to Argentina – a trip I originally anticipated doing on a motorbike over a span of two years or so.

However, I’ve somehow found myself in a van, four years on and not yet halfway! So far, I’ve spent time in the west of Canada, Alaska, Cuba, Mexico (mostly!), Belize, Guatemala, and a little of Honduras.

In Honduras I only spent a week and that was all spent getting a diving qualification, so I didn’t really see any of the country – I’ll spend longer there next time!

All of the other places have been outstanding in their own way! But I have to say Mexico has stolen my heart – endlessly diverse, incredibly friendly and hospitable people, colorful and vibrant and incomparable sense of freedom – just being there makes me happy and I really can’t get enough of it!

How to you balance the traveling and the working duties?

I prioritize the traveling, as that’s what I’m there for, but then I also want to keep that going for as long as possible, which comes at a price – so I try to have something on the go all the time to keep money trickling in, however slowly.

At various stages of my trip, I’ve had other people along for the ride, and in those times I tend to work a lot less as there are two of us splitting costs.

Otherwise, as I say I usually spend an hour or two working most evenings, and on the occasions where I get a more demanding and involved piece of work I may throw out the anchors for a few days, or however long is required.

I don’t find it especially stressful unless I’m somewhere I’m not sure I’ll find phone reception, or WIFI if I need heavier internet use – I actually quite like having something to focus on aside from just exploring the place/having fun; it gives me a little structure and is kind of reassuring!

Did the present pandemic affect your work? How did you face the challenges? 

Absolutely. My main and best-paying proofreading clients disappeared and haven’t come back, so I’m having to work something like five times the hours to make similar money.

In practical terms, this translates to working a little bit each day instead of having one intensive project just once every two or three months.

Additionally, I was quite reliant on libraries and coffee shops for workspaces, and now many libraries are closed and I’m a lot more reluctant to spend long periods of time in enclosed spaces if there are many people present.

Much as I hate to admit it, Starbucks cafés have become something of a lifeline, where they exist – they usually have a well-ventilated semi-outdoor section that I’m a lot happier sitting in, and excellent wifi. I don’t even drink coffee!

Tanya checking her van

How much can somebody earn with your profession approximately? Can you give a range? 

It can vary hugely. Proofreading and editing can range from something like GBP £15 an hour up to £35 or so if you’re experienced or specialized in a particular subject.

However, if you’re using the ‘gig’ sites be aware that there are people, usually from developing countries, who will bid for work at rates of £10 an hour or even less, and you may be competing against these if you use them!

Obviously many people offering work may opt not to go to the lowest bidder, but rather to the person they think is most suitable for the job.

With the agency I use, transcription tends to pay between GBP £0.6 and £1 per audio minute, depending on the level of verbatim they require, the number of speakers, how clearly or otherwise people are speaking, the strength of accents, and so on.

I suspect if you get into things like legal transcription (transcribing for courts) and other specialist areas this will be higher, but I never have so can’t confirm!

The van parked in a natural landscape

And last what advice would you give to those who want to follow your path? Can you share three tips or as many as you want? 

  • Qualification isn’t necessary for proofing and editing, but I found it very useful in getting to grips with the basics of what’s expected and gaining confidence to call myself a proofreader, and also to give yourself an edge over others who may not have one if you’re competing for work.
  • Word of mouth can be a surprisingly effective way to get work
  • It pays to be polite and friendly with your clients, to keep your work to a high standard and to make sure you submit it when you say you will – a good way to make sure you get repeat business from clients too.
  • It’s very useful to have an online presence and some way to promote what you do and gain visibility.
  • Proofing especially can be tiring as it involves high levels of focus in sometimes complex subjects. Make sure you incorporate breaks and try to be well rested before you start; I’ve come out of intensive multi-day sessions of it exhausted!

Anything else you wish to add?

It can be tough working while on the move – obviously it takes time out from what you really want to be doing with your time, and can sometimes be hard to find the motivation.

But it’s a means to a very worthy end, at least as far as I’m concerned, and means I can extend my trip far, far longer than I would have been able to, had I had just a set amount to spend and that was that.

Of course, there’s an argument that you could just postpone beginning your trip until you’ve saved enough to travel for longer, without having to divide your time between travel and work, and that’s entirely valid – but in my case, I felt I’d waited long enough (maybe even ten years too long!) – and as I say I actually quite enjoy having a little work to do as I go.

About Tanya

tanya in the cave

I’m a pretty ordinary human who just got sick of the nagging voice in the back of my head that constantly asked me what I was doing with my time on this planet, and decided that the moment had come to get out and do the things I had always wanted to while I was still young and free enough to enjoy it! I love to travel, learn languages, meet people and experience new cultures, hike in wild places, take photos and make memories – though really I’m an introvert at heart! I can’t put into words how much I enjoy my current lifestyle, despite all the hardships and stresses that come with living in a tiny space and so far from friends and family – I enjoyed life before but somehow I feel like I’m only just really waking up to the potential that it really has!

Tanya can be contacted here.