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/.