12 Crucial Tips for Success as a Freelance Editor
If you’ve made the switch from in-house to freelance editor, you’ll know it’s a pretty sweet deal: flexible schedule, choosing your own clients, and perhaps best of all, escaping that oppressive cubicle life. However, you’ve probably also realized it’s a lot of hard work to grow your client base and expand your portfolio all by yourself.
That’s why once you've become a freelance editor, you should always be thinking about ways to go above and beyond. How can you maximize your efficiency, manage your business smoothly, and show potential clients that you’re the best possible fit for their projects?
To address all of these questions and more, we’ve put together a list of tips from some of our best freelance editors, which should help you thrive even in the most competitive circles! Read on for these 12 crucial tips for freelance editing success.
1. Build the admin side first
When it comes to running a successful freelance editing business, it’s not just the editing work itself you have to worry about, but also the administrative work. As an in-house editor, your clients, projects, and pay were organized for you — but as a freelance editor, you’ll need to take care of all that admin yourself.
This means you’ll need a designated spreadsheet to track your progress for each project. You’ll also have to develop contracts, invoice templates, and a reliable payment system for clients. According to editor Lisa Gilliam, these elements should be prepared even before you start taking on projects, ideally with the help of professional tools:
“Have your contract ready to go. Have a project-tracking spreadsheet ready to go. Set up billing and payment systems ready ahead of time, and bookkeeping if you’re feeling thorough — I use Zoho Books now, and I wish I’d used a system like this from the start.”
2. Track your hours rigorously
Gilliam also emphasizes the importance of maintaining detailed records, particularly when it comes to tracking your hours. Not only will this spare you the stress and inaccuracy of guessing on your invoices, but it will also help you determine better timelines and rates for clients in the future.
“I actually didn’t start doing this until my third year in business,” says Gilliam. “I use ManicTime for time-tracking now, but that means I’ve lost some valuable data from my first two years.
“Time-tracking numbers can be used to more accurately estimate per-project pricing and scheduling. You can also use it to calculate how much you’re making per hour on each project after the fact (if you charge per project, per page, or per word). With your historical data, you can even see the difference in editing speed from where you started out, to where you are now.” So start tracking now, if you haven’t already — the tools available make it surprisingly easy.
3. Charge what you’re worth
Speaking of rates, how should you go about setting them, especially if you’re just starting out? You probably had a set salary as an in-house editor, but now you alone will have to decide what to charge clients. This can be a daunting prospect, even as an experienced pro.
Luckily, we’ve prepared a whole separate article to help you set your freelance editing rates. The most important takeaways are:
- You’ll no longer receive a steady salary,
- You’ll have to think about business costs,
- Your experience/genre affects the rates, and
- Rates are not fixed; they evolve over time.
As a freelance editor, you don’t want to accidentally overcharge your clients. However, you also don’t want super-low rates that fail to compensate for your time! If you want your business to be sustainable, you have to charge what you’re worth. So keep in mind that your rates should not only include editing services, but administrative tasks as well.
Pro tip: the handy calculator on this page will give you an idea of what authors expect their freelance editors to charge. Simply enter your typical genre and word count to find out.
4. Know how to file your taxes
Another hurdle as a freelance editor is figuring out your taxes. We’d recommend you speak to a tax advisor early, and check out this exhaustive article on managing taxes as a freelance editor. It might seem formidable at first, but once you’re armed with the right knowledge, filing your taxes becomes a breeze. Editor Leonora Bulbeck can attest to this:
“Filling in a self-assessment tax form sounds terrifying, and every freelancer I know has said that doing their taxes is a downside of the job. It really isn’t. I maintain my accounts throughout the year, doing it little and often so it doesn’t seem like such an intimidating process. When I go to fill in my self-assessment, it takes me 20 minutes. It’s completely painless.”
Hear that? Completely painless. Educate yourself, maintain your accounts regularly, and you’ll be perfectly fine.
5. Find a niche and stick to it
Now let’s talk about how to appeal to clients. If you don’t already have a defined editing niche, it’s time to find one! Clients are much more likely to choose a specialist with experience in their genre or subject, rather than a generalist who’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
This is why we ask our Reedsy editors to choose just a few genres to feature on their profiles. We want their expertise to be entirely relevant, and for authors to be able to find the highest quality editors in their genre, without muddling through tons of vague and overstuffed profiles.
Not sure what your niche is? Take a close look at the genres you’ve edited and analyze them for the following criteria:
- Total number of books edited,
- Commercial success (book sales, reviews), and
- How much fun you had while editing.
Don’t underestimate the last factor. You shouldn’t force yourself to work on projects that you don’t enjoy! Also, know that the books you read in your spare time aren’t always the same as the books you enjoy editing. Monitor yourself for which manuscripts satisfy you as an editor, and what kind of balance you’re hoping to strike between different types of projects.
6. Balance honesty with tact
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to editing; if you can’t be honest with a client about their manuscript, you won’t be able to help them. That said, your suggestions should always come from a place of constructive criticism — focusing not on the problems, but on their solutions.
This may be somewhat difficult, depending on what type of editing you do. For example, if you’re a copy editor, most of your edits will be pretty inoffensive anyway (a comma here, a paragraph break there).
But as a developmental editor or even a line editor, you’ll have to make more significant edits that might feel personal to the author. That’s why, no matter how much work a manuscript requires, you need to stay positive and make it feel like a manageable job.
Luckily, even if you’re a natural pessimist, you can work on your communication style so that your clients don’t feel attacked. For example:
❌ Chapter 8 is a mess. It’s going to take forever to fix.
✅ Chapter 8 is a little confusing. I’d suggest eliminating the flashback and incorporating the information that it reveals into Chapter 11. You might also condense the rest of the chapter to quicken the pacing and keep the reader’s attention, since it’s such an important scene.
As you can see, the second statement is much more positive and solution-focused. It gets the point across — that the chapter has issues — but quickly sets the author on a clear path to remedying them. Phrasing your editing suggestions this way will not only foster a better editor-client relationship, but also improve efficiency overall.
7. Guide new authors carefully
You’ll also have to be patient when guiding new authors, as some clients will have no idea what to expect from the editing process. And while you should be clear and communicative with all your clients, it’s especially crucial for those who have never worked with an editor before.
That’s why it’s good to start every potential collaboration by inquiring about the author’s previous experience, even if they seem like they know their stuff. For those who are completely new to collaborative editing, lay it out step-by-step. Explain your particular process: how do you work on a manuscript (through Google Docs, physical pages, etc.)? Then inform them of your expected timeline, and be transparent about the cost.
Leonara Bulbeck even goes so far as to advise additional edits for new authors, since one round won’t necessarily fix everything, and revisions may even produce new errors. “I have now embraced explicitly advising authors to seek a proofread after a developmental or copy edit, akin to what happens in the traditional publishing industry,” Bulbeck says.
“Errors can easily be introduced as part of the editing process… when we’re talking about thousands or tens of thousands of edits to a manuscript, another professional pair of eyes really needs to check through everything to make sure nothing has escaped.”
8. Don’t take on too much
On that note, it’s absolutely fine to recommend another editor for a task you can’t do yourself, or to pass on a project when you have too much on your plate. The truth is, as your freelance editing business grows, you’ll no longer have the capacity to work on every single manuscript.
This is a good problem to have, of course — but it can still take some time to break out of that “striving” mindset, where you have trouble turning down opportunities even if you don’t have time for them. Once again, the experienced Bulbeck has some wise words on the matter:
“The uncertainty of freelancing can easily make you addicted to saying yes to everything that comes your way… It’s taken me a long time to learn, but if you haven’t got the time, or something is outside your field of expertise, it’s okay to say no. Declining work is not being impolite; it’s about respecting yourself, being aware of the client’s needs and maintaining integrity in your work.”
9. Get a website and social media accounts
Even if you already have a strong brand and robust client base, it never hurts to thoroughly establish yourself #online. At the very least, you should do the following three things:
Build a professional website. This should be where you display your full editing portfolio and list your contact info for clients. You can also use your website to blog about relevant topics and demonstrate that you’re true expert in your field! For bonus points, conduct keyword research beforehand, so you know which editing topics people tend to search for — if you play your cards right, tons of clients will come your way organically.
As for where to host your website, it’s fine to use a template-based CMS like WordPress when you’re just getting started. However, as your business grows, you should invest in a custom website that looks a little more elegant and unique. (If you don’t know how to build a website, you can find someone to do it for you right here.)
Set up social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are great ways to share your experience and expertise in an approachable way, and to find new clients through followers and hashtags. You can also use social media to publicize your website — yay, synergy!
Create a LinkedIn profile. While you can and should network on social media, LinkedIn is a different beast entirely. If you don’t have an account, sign up now, offering as many details as possible about your work. Connect with tons of people and ask fellow freelancers how they’ve found clients through LinkedIn, so you can employ similar strategies.
10. Brand yourself in-person
Having a strong web presence is undoubtedly vital, but what about branding yourself as a human being? To become an author’s trusted collaborator, you’ll have to prove that you’re a friendly, communicative person who will guide them steadfastly through the editing process.
When you meet people at industry events, through acquaintances, or even via video chat with potential clients, try to project confidence and knowledge about your niche. Again, this is extra-important with first-time authors, who want a freelance editor who can both do the job and show them the ropes of publishing.
To really up your game, you can use LinkedIn and Facebook to find conventions in your area. Try to attend as many as possible so you can network with fellow professionals and, of course, authors who might want to hire you. Don’t forget to exchange contact details!
11. Join a community for advice and support
As a freelance editor, you may sometimes feel uncertain, isolated, and lost — this is the downside of not working in an office with other people to advise and encourage you.
But just because you’ve taken your business solo, doesn’t mean you have to go it alone! Joining freelance groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other platforms is a great way to gain both a sense of community and access to helpful freelancing tips.
“I belong to several professional associations, some editor groups on Facebook, and a few Slack workspaces,” says Lisa Gilliam. “I’m also the coordinator for my state’s Editorial Freelancers Association chapter, so several times a year, I get to talk shop with editors from my area, meaning I get the best of both worlds — online and in-person camaraderie!”
12. Stay positive and keep yourself motivated
In addition to joining freelancer groups and finding like-minded people, you can stay motivated simply by remembering why you chose this path in the first place. There’s a myriad of reasons to become a freelance editor, but for most of us, the big ones are: that wonderfully flexible schedule, the ability to pick and choose your own clients, and the knowledge that you can make a life-changing difference. As Leonora Bulbeck says:
“I love having that direct contact with authors and seeing them go from manuscript to published. I'd never once communicated with an author while working in the industry, but you can really feel your impact and value when you have that direct author-connection in freelancing.
“I also love being self-reliant, being able to work from anywhere with an Internet connection and managing myself. It would take an awful lot to get me back into a nine-to-five.”
If you can keep these things in mind, you should have no trouble staying motivated, even through the most challenging projects and clients. Because at the end of the day, you’ll be making someone’s dreams come true — maybe even helping them become a famous author. Envision your name in the acknowledgements of a bestseller, and continue doing the best work that you can do. 💯
Got any more questions about succeeding as a freelance editor, or perhaps a few tips of your own? Leave them in the comments below!