After working for several years as a manuscript editor at a university press, I decided to ditch the office and strike out on my own as a freelance copy editor and proofreader.
I read and studied books, blogs, and any other resource I could get my hands on, and I planned (though less than I maybe could have) before I made that decision, so I was comfortable with what I was getting into in the career switch. Still, I expected to learn a lot from experience—and I have. I’ve learned more still from editorial colleagues who blog, tweet, and share on Facebook their thoughts and questions about working as an editorial freelancer.
The four lessons
1. It’s up to you to find work, and it’s up to you to keep track of it.
I’ve been lucky to have several former colleagues refer authors to me for editing work, but my regimen of sending informed cold emails has been my primary source of new clients. Keeping my calendar full is a constant project.
When I’m offered work, it’s up to me to figure out whether I have time to fit it in and whether the pay will be worthwhile. (I primarily work with publishers, so for the most part rates are only minimally negotiable.) Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog series on “What to Charge” was invaluable as I sorted out how many projects I needed to take on, and how many hours I needed to work, to make a living income as a freelance editor.
2. Don’t be embarrassed when you don’t know something, but make every effort to figure it out.
Even though I’ve worked for a publisher and have a Masters in Publishing, there’s plenty I don’t know about the publishing industry, about the fine points of style in APA or MLA, and so on—and while I read and study as much as I can, especially when I notice a particular ignorance, I know there’ll always be more to learn.
I’m not embarrassed when I have questions, but I do try my darnedest to find the answers myself. Not only do I learn in the process, but I save the time and effort of my colleagues, whether they’re in online groups like the Editors’ Association of Earth or working for my publisher clients.
3. Engage with like-minded and like-employed folks.
Following the discussions on the many online editorial forums out there was invaluable to me as I prepared to start Arbuckle Editorial and begin working as an editor on my own. Not only is it enjoyable to engage with folks who have similar interests and occupations, these forums are critical for me to stay engaged with other professionals in the editorial industry so that I make sure I’m following best editorial, ethical, and business practices and staying up to date on style guides and current issues in the field.
I mentioned the Editors’ Association of Earth earlier; I also participate (or lurk) in and follow
- the Academic Editors group,
- Business + Professional Development for Editors,
- Editors’ Association of Earth Ad Space,
- ACES chats and other informal discussions with editors on Twitter,
- and blogs like Louise Harnby’s Proofreader’s Parlour, Rich Adin’s An American Editor, Denise Cowle’s blog, and Kia Thomas’s blog, among many others.
4. Don’t get discouraged.
If a potential client doesn’t respond to an email, if they don’t get back to me about an editing test, or even if they go AWOL after a couple of exchanges, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had some good luck checking in with potential clients who at least considered hiring me—maybe an email got lost in their inbox or they just couldn’t make a decision right then. And if not, I’ve found my time better spent searching for other clients than being upset about the one that got away.
Bonus tip: Napping is neutral.
Naps aren’t the worst way to spend your time if you really need it, but I always try to consider why I want to nap—am I just avoiding a project I don’t know how to start or an email I don’t know how to answer? If so, I’d better spend my time strategizing how I’m going to deal with that.
What did you learn when you started out?
I’d love to hear your thoughts! If you’re a new freelancer, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned since you started? If you’ve been doing this work for years, what’s something you wish you’d known when you started?
Photo: Young woman sitting at desk with typewriter, c. 1892. Photo by John Edwin Phillips, Syracuse, N.Y., via Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013647254/.
9 replies on “Four Lessons I’ve Learned in My First Four Months as an Editorial Freelancer”
Hi! Thank you for this post! I’m sitting at my day job, contemplating the eventual leap into full time freelancing (proofreading and indexing). I’m looking to people like you for inspiration, guidance, and hope. Keep posting!
Thank you, Jessica! I wish you so much good luck and wisdom as you contemplate the decision–it’s definitely not an easy one. Definitely let me know if you have any particular questions about the leap into full-time freelancing, and I’ll do my best to answer–or at least give my thoughts–in a new post!
I think the hardest lesson to learn as a freelancer is how to set a schedule for yourself so that you’re not ALWAYS AT WORK. I had to stop freelancing as a full time job in part because the work wasn’t there but also in part because when I did have work, I never felt like I could take time for myself. I was always AT work; whether I had work or not if I stopped for the day and went to watch television or go to dinner or clean my house or take a nap, the work would be calling to me from my office, reminding me of the deadline I had to meet, of the money I needed to be making, of the calls or emails or web contacts I needed to be making…it was endless. When we’re working our 9-to-5 office jobs we have this romanticized idea of working in our pajamas and being free because we’re our own boss if we “go freelance.” But the truth is I never felt more chained to my job or my desk than when I became a full-time freelancer. It’s great as a side job, picking up some extra cash after my other 9-5 job, but full-time? I hope I never have to do it again. I like leaving the office and the work behind and coming home to my life.
I think this is a very common problem, and learning how to schedule yourself and stick to it definitely helps. I’m glad you found a job that works better for you!
I see grammatical mayhem on most Web sites. How can I be forceful but polite in offering my service? I am a retired journalist with 30-plus years experience editing, proofreading and mentoring young reporters. Any help would be welcome.
Hi, Jake–I don’t have much experience with that particular situation, but I have read several discussions about it in some of the social media groups I list above. As I recall, some editors have recommended sending an edited portion of an article to the site moderator, along with a note to let them know you found such-and-such errors, and that you offer editing services at rate, if they’re interested.
Several editors have written blog posts about helping writers understand the necessity of editing (here’s a very recent example: http://westcoasteditors.com/whats-the-point-of-an-editor/). You might find those helpful in crafting your message to these sites. I’d also highly recommend joining the Editors’ Association of Earth group on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/EditorsofEarth/), where you can search through the posts for similar questions to yours!
I would love to know more about your EFA experience. I keep going back and forth about whether to join it or not. I only freelance part time. I recently lost two regular clients who, in a weird coincidence, both went out of business within a month of each other, so I’m hustling for new clients. I’d love to edit more book projects because those are the types of gigs that work within my schedule but don’t really know where to look for those.
Hi Sharon! I’m actually not a member of the EFA, though I am a member of ACES. I’ve only been a member for a few months, and I’m not sure I’m using the resources they offer to the fullest yet. ACES does offer some members-only discussion forums and a members-only editors directory. I haven’t received any contacts from my directory listing there, though again I’ve only been listed for a few months. ACES members also get a discount on PerfectIt and on the association’s training courses–and I’ve found both of those resources super useful! I think being a member of an editors association or society can also help demonstrate how serious you are about editing, though I would guess that that matters in some types of editing more than others.
One last thing–Katharine O’Moore-Klopf and the Editors’ Association of Earth (the Facebook group) maintain a list of book packagers and editing services, many of which hire freelancers for editing work. You can find that list under the “Files” tab on the group’s page once you’re a member. As the document mentions, many of them don’t offer great rates, but it’s still work if you really need it. I would also recommend doing some research on companies before applying or contacting them because some of them are known to have less than stellar practices on how they deal with freelancers. I hope this helps!
I would say that the biggest challenge for me, after balancing work with family commitments (but that’s a challenge for every working mom of young kids), has been and remains finding the time to learn new skills and keep up to date on training in new software, etc. I kind of flew by the seat of my pants for years but am gradually moving toward a more organized approach, setting aside funds so that I can have the time to invest in myself, rather than racing from one deadline to the next and never having the time to sit down and focus on learning.