Launching into a career as a freelance editor is relatively easy. Unlike our web and graphic design colleagues, editors can start working on their own without too much investment in expensive software or equipment.
There are the usual prerequisites of course: You need a staunch command of language and a natural grace with rational and creative discourse.
There are the usual prerequisites of course: You need a staunch command of language and a natural grace with rational and creative discourse. A precision with words and an uncanny sense of good structure and narrative skills also helps.
And because editors work with all sorts of people with different editorial goals in mind, you also need thick-skinned diplomatic skills— to tease out ideas and endure rounds of revisions. You're on your way to being a versatile editor when you can take apart a piece, then re-stitch it together again, and still convey the author’s original intentions.
But I learned early on that creative and technical ability alone wasn’t enough to succeed. Freelancing is a business after all. First, spend the time mastering the basics of marketing, operations and service delivery, and productivity. Read the “Freelancing 101 – The Basics” and “9 Tips for New Freelancers”. Michelle Goodman's Anti 9-to-5 blog and her book My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire were my companions when the idea of freelancing first jolted me out of my cubicle.
Then, get your freelance editing business off the ground with these guidelines:
Leverage Your Editorial Experience
1. Make your experience count. The cardinal rule before jumping into freelance editing is to gain some experience in the services you are trying to sell. You certainly can’t say you’re a fiction editor until you have a few novels and short stories under your belt. You can’t list developmental editing as a skill until you’ve helped someone refine a concept for a report or article from scratch. Take a good look at your past work experience and see if you can refashion your resume into some tangible editorial expertise.
I started my freelance editing business after working in many difference capacities as an economics researcher, communications specialist, and technical writer. I drafted policy reports and research briefs from scratch, so I presented that as research and developmental editing experience. I managed the publication of books and high profile publications, so I listed that under content editing and technical editing. Look at what you’ve done and mine those freelance ducats in your resume.
2. Edit what you know and start in a niche. “Write what you know” is the adage that freelance writers know best. While there are merits to being either a specialist or generalist, learn from your writer colleagues and “edit what you know” when you first start freelancing as an editor. Familiarity in terms of topic, but also in the network of clients you cultivate, helps to establish your footing. Expertise matters. Experts are in demand and so you’ll be better off finding work this way.
Before I started working as a freelance editor, I came from a background in business and economics. Even if I had wanted to write or edit light travel and leisure stories, or work on memoirs and other creative nonfiction, I probably wouldn't have been successful based on my background.
Instead, I focused first on pitching and winning projects that I had a strong expertise in, and which I could complete with minimal growing pains. While you may be tempted to market yourself in a broad way, especially if you have eclectic interests, start by cultivating a niche first. Re-inventing yourself as an editor takes time. Once you’ve established your freelance editing career, you can branch out and explore other genres and formats.
Learn How to Manage Your Editorial Clients
1. Figure out what your client really needs. As an editor, I frequently get clients who present a completed draft of their report or article and tell me they only want a straightforward copyedit and proofread. In their minds, this means they want someone to root out any spelling errors missed by spell-check and fix errors in grammar and punctuation. "It won’t take more than a couple hours and just needs the ‘extra eyeballs’," they say.
If you find that a draft has significant developmental or content issues, let your client know and encourage them to opt for a deeper edit.
When I ask to see the draft or excerpt of the work, I find that in most cases the “no big deal” copyedit and proofread are never sufficient. I then go on to explain that copyediting only deals with surface mistakes and rough spots— not fundamental flaws in a work.
If you find that a draft has significant developmental or content issues, let your client know and encourage them to opt for a deeper edit. A client may have a groundbreaking, brilliant story, but it may need more than just a run through the editing wringer to get it ready for publication.
Colleague and freelance editor Stacy Ennis in a forthcoming book with Night Owls Press pioneers a simple editing-assessment questionnaire for helping your clients determine what their editorial needs are:
- Do I need help getting started, creating an outline, conducting research, or remaining motivated while writing? If so, get a developmental edit.
- Do I feel confident with my outline, concept, and ability to stay on topic and motivated, but need help with tone, flow, transitions, and overall effectiveness? If so, undergo a content edit.
- Do I feel confident about my manuscript and want it to stay as-is, with just minor revisions for syntax, spelling, punctuation, and other sentence-level errors? If so, arrange for a copyedit.
- Has your manuscript already been edited for any or all of the above, and just needs another vetting for remaining errors? If so, muster a proofread.
In consulting and engaging with your client in this way, enlighten them to the complexities and true value of the editing process (you are not just a human spell checker!). To learn more about the different types of editing in more detail, read the University of Chicago series on editing, writing, and publishing. My favorites are The Subversive Copy Editor, which comes with an interesting blog, too, and Developmental Editing.
2. Give your client options to expand the project scope— letting you charge higher rates and giving your clients more value for their buck. Present your clients several options (at least two) with increasing degrees of service. For example, if your client presents a completed piece of work to you, offer three scenarios: option one - a simple proofread only; option two - both a proofread and copyedit; or option three - the editing trifecta of proofread, copyedit, and content or substantive edit.
Clearly outline how each option will improve upon a piece. Your goal is to slant the client toward the all-in-one package that gives you the chance to show off your editorial chops.
3. Set the terms of engagement. Set your milestones, stamping a date on what you will deliver to clients. If your work requires only a final delivery date, then use interim milestones to send your clients an update on where you are. Finally, learn how to negotiate your rates with clients.
Resist the urge to outmaneuver your competitors on price and instead price strategically to offer more value at higher rates for a more sustainable customer base.
Once you have your client intake process down, it’s time to figure out how to do your own bookkeeping and accounting. The goal is to minimize the time you spend keeping track of your earnings and expenses and sending out invoicing and managing your bills.
There are many D-I-Y options such as FreeAgent, Freshbooks, LessAccounting, and Quickbooks, but your best bet is to hire an accountant.
Even if you hire an assistant to handle your books, you’ll still have to keep track of everything. Save PDF copies of invoices, receipts, and client proposals in labeled folders for your accountant to sift through. Setting up a system and process may be touch-and-go during the first few months, but once it’s up and running, the paperwork should take less and less of your time.
4. Get more out of existing clients. Hunting for new clients is time-consuming and incredibly challenging. Don’t forget to revisit your existing client base. For example, if you completed a content edit for an author’s book, suggest working on the marketing copy for posters, a future website, or promotional fliers. If you wrote a series of blog posts for a fledgling company, suggest managing their blog. Clients are always happy to stay and work with the same vendor because screening new people is time-consuming.
Promote Your Editorial Services
1. Learn how to pitch new and potential clients effectively. When submitting your proposal to clients, outline exactly what your services can do for them and their project. Don’t just say that you will polish and streamline their prose. That’s the mandate of every editor and it doesn’t do anything to distinguish you from other equally talented editors.
Position yourself as the ideal candidate by being specific in pointing out areas of improvement and touting your experience in doing similar projects. Here are more essential steps to crafting the perfect pitch. Pitching and writing proposals can be very time consuming, so standardize the process and learn how to structure your proposals in a clear, concise way. I keep a series of templates for correspondence: for my introduction, pitch, and proposal.
2. Cultivate a strong editor profile and "brand". Once you’ve got a few projects under your belt, spend a few weeks developing your online presence. This usually consists of three things: a website/blog, an online portfolio, and a professional profile.
As most clients will never get to meet you face-to-face, a well-designed website is crucial to your success as an editor. In many ways, a website essentially becomes you and your editorial brand; the experience that a client has on your website— positive or negative— is often the most significant interaction—aside from working with you— she will have. Here are general rules that should govern your online presence as a freelance editor:
a. Make sure your site and blog are easy to use and navigate. Do your mockups on a tool like Balsamiq, Pencil Project, or Mockup Screens, which let you build website mockups called wireframes. (But if all this sounds intimidating, go with an outsourced web designer and save yourself the trouble.)
b. Develop your online brand. Colors, typeface, and logo design are all important because they are usually the first impression clients have of you. Browse the articles at 1st Web Designer, a web design blog and Smashing Magazine, on the latest in trends in digital design. I Love Typography is the authoritative resource on typography, type design, and lettering, or check out the Font Shop to pick up quirky typefaces for your branding needs.
c. Invest in a consult on content strategy, which is the creation, delivery, and the management of your content from your website copy and contact form design, to the presentation of your online portfolio. Read Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson or Melissa Rach and their Brain Traffic blog, one of the best resources on user experience design and content strategy.
d. Stay active on social media networks. Aside from staying active in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, another outlet for networking and support are LinkedIn groups for writing and editing professionals. Prove yourself helpful and thoughtful in your interactions. HR specialists looking for potential editors to hire for various projects and contracts often monitor these professional groups.
I’m currently exploring CarbonMade for a more creative way to present my portfolio. Another portfolio-boosting tool is Scribd, a document-sharing site that takes a YouTube-like approach to text. Scribd lets you upload sample chapters, articles, reports, and even whole books. Share links to particular pieces with your prospective clients. I use About.me as a central footprint for my professional profile and LinkedIn as a more extensive resume.
3. Do guest posts to build up experience writing in areas outside your expertise. To build up my experience in more creative nonfiction, I wrote. (Yes, editors don’t just edit.) I wrote widely, submitting guest posts, to show off my word-slinging skills and to build authority as an editorial expert in areas and topics I was interested in.
While most guest posts don’t pay the bills (you usually do them for free), they allow you to build a portfolio, gain exposure, and build a byline, establishing your voice and expertise in a particular field. Writing guest posts are also great ways to market and promote. Be sure to include your website on your accompanying bio.
Bonus Tools for The Editor’s Arsenal
1. Publishing tools. As an editor you may be asked to put together a newsletter or to collect and curate content for your clients. Paper.li, Letter.ly, Feed Journal, and Storify are services that let you aggregate content from blog articles, tweets, and other content scattered on the Web into visually-pleasing formats. For those venturing into e-books, check out Calibre and Sigil, free tools which let you produce popular e-book formats.
2. SEO Management tools. Try Scribe, a WordPress plugin that enables you to scan your blog posts and online documents for SEO improvements.
The downside of this tool is that it’s finicky, limited to certain platforms, and only works with a few WordPress themes. Another SEO analytical tool is Web SEO, which provides a set of free tools to help you optimize your documents for search engines. It also helps you identify duplicate content and count the number of incoming links you have.
3. Research tools. Two of the best tools I’ve used for researching an article I’ve had to write or for collecting sources for a report or book project I’m editing are Evernote and Scrible. Evernote is an indispensable research tool designed to store and organize bits of information and files you collect: You can e-mail information to Evernote, capture portions of Web pages, drop in photos, or scan a document for safekeeping into your account.
For example, as an editor or writer, you’ll often sift through massive amounts of information on the Web. Evernote lets you cut and paste snippets of an article or story you’re reading for retrieval later. There’s even a handy browser add-on that enables you to clip information from a web page directly into Evernote. Tagging makes your searches more meaningful. I often tag my files with the names of projects or clients for easy retrieval when I’m juggling multiple projects.
Scrible functions more like an annotation tool letting you mark up web pages and save and manage them online. In the old days, editors used to keep track of background reading on the web by cutting and pasting to a document and doing the annotations there. With Scrible, that laborious process is now made seamless so that you never have to leave your browser when you take notes.
4. Distraction control. Install Freedom, Anti-Social, or RescueTime, which provide temporary barriers to your access to certain websites on the Internet. Add all your social media sites to the blacklist and write and edit in distraction-free zone.
Stay Informed, Feed Your Creative Muse
Stay up-to-date on the news and commentary related to your industry, which serves as excellent fodder and material to share on blogs, Facebook posts, or tweets. Curate the information and present yourself as an authority in your field.
Great blogs and sites for editors and writers include Galley Cat, Write It Sideways, Writers Digest’s There Are No Rules, and the Word Factory. To be stellar at your craft, you have to read widely. Pore over Kevin Kelly's classic "The Best Magazine Articles Ever" for some of the best article writing and journalism of the last few decades. It shows you what to strive for as an editor. If you keep tabs on digital and indie publishing like I do, you’ll want to read PBS Idea Lab, Digital Book World, Publishing Perspectives, TeleRead, InReads, IndieReader, and AgentQueryConnect.
When I’m feeling stuck, staring helplessly at my blinking cursor on my computer screen, I take a creative break and head to my favorite sites for a jolt of inspiration. A favorite for quirky and thought-provoking news is BoingBoing. Another site, Brain Pickings, offers brilliant juxtapositions of topics and ideas (one example: “All the Time in the World: What a charred ancient tree can teach us about impermanence, deep time, and our place in the universe”) that always leaves me spinning with new ideas for my own work. I also check out Creative Mornings, which offers TED-like video presentations of inspiring speakers that get the creative juices flowing. For great long-form nonfiction reads, I head to Long Form to download articles to my Kindle.
A profitable freelance editing business starts with your passion and creativity, but survives for the long-term with your business acumen. Most freelancers make the mistake of muddling through their first few months without any strategy. Don't neglect your core business areas, find good clients, and develop your personal brand and expertise as an editor— and you’ll be on your way to getting started as a freelance editor.
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Swellphotography.