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Last updated on Mar 10, 2021

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 cubicle life. However, you’ve probably also realized freelance editing requires a lot of hard work to grow your client base and expand your portfolio.

Are you a beginner in editing? Check out our comprehensive how to become an editor guide! Or if you're specifically interested in copy editing, check out our article on how to become a copy editor

Once you’ve decided to become a full-time 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 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! 

1. Build the admin side first

When it comes to starting a successful freelance editing business, you have to pay attention to both the editing and 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.

Keep a schedule 

Have a designated spreadsheet to track your progress for each project. This helps you stay on top of what’s due when so that you can plan your days effectively. It also reveals how much free time you’ll be having in the near future, meaning whether you can take on new projects or not. 

Create templates for essential documents 

You’ll also have to develop documents like:

On top of that, you also want to establish 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.”

If you manage your work on Reedsy, we help take care of the payment system by dividing your fee up into installments per your preference. This will be established from the very beginning, when you send a quote, so that the terms of the collaboration are clear from the start. 

Create your Reedsy freelancer account

We have some great projects already lined up for you to work on.

Learn more about how Reedsy can help.

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 the time you spend on freelance editing and managing your business, if you haven’t already — there are some good time trackers out there to help you.

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.

How much do freelance editors make per hour?

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, especially when most of them don’t have the budget that publishing houses do. However, you also don’t want super-low rates that fail to compensate for your time! Keep in mind that your rates should not only include editing services, but administrative tasks as well.

Pro tip: this handy calculator 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 freelance editing hurdle is figuring out your taxes. We 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. (Knowing your taxes also help you avoid one of many freelancer scams.)

5. Find your editing niche

Now let’s talk about how to appeal to clients. If you don’t already have a defined editing niche, now’s the time to find one! Having a specialty helps you better market yourself and get editing jobs. Clients are much more likely to choose an experienced specialist 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 profiles.

Not sure what your niche is? Take a close look at the genres you’ve edited and analyze each of them for the following criteria:

  • Total number of books edited,
  • Commercial success (book sales, reviews), and
  • How much fun you had while editing.

Freelance Editor | What's your niche?

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, stylistic comments made as a copy editor (add a comma here, a paragraph break there) will be less likely to offend than developmental edit comments regarding themes and plotting. But 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 needs some restructuring to be more comprehensive.

✅ 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 raises an issue but also quickly sets the author on a clear path to remedying them. Phrasing your suggestions this way will not only foster a better editor-client relationship, but also improve efficiency overall.

7. Be explicit when guiding new authors

Freelance editing often means patiently working with new authors, many of whom will know little about 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.

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: what forms of the manuscript do you use (physical copies, Microsoft Word, Google Doc)? How should changes be tracked or understood? Then inform them of your expected timeline, and be transparent about the cost.

Freelance Editing | Working with New Writers

Leonara Bulbeck even goes so far as to advise additional edits for new authors who aren’t aware of the whole process. “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.”

💡 Pro-tip: There are some great books on editing out there that provide helpful tips on how to deal with authors. 

8. Learn to say no 

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. Think of it this way: as your freelance editing business grows, you get the luxury of choosing projects that suit your schedule and interests the most. 

Of course, it is not always easy to break out of that “striving” mindset that urges you to accept every opportunity. 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

Freelance Editor | Create and maintain an online presence.

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 a 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 (and even LinkedIn) are great ways to share your experience and expertise in an approachable way, and to find new clients through followers and hashtags (#WritingCommunity is a must-use one). You can also use social media to publicize your website — yay, synergy!

💡 Follow Reedsy on LinkedIn for some regular freelance tips and publishing industry updates! 

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.

In-person and video-call conferences (which you can find via social media) all provide a good space where you can portray your confidence in your expertise and in your communication skills. 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.

11. Join a freelance editor community

Transitioning into freelance work is not easy, and some support is never not useful. And while you don’t have an office and automatic colleagues as you would in an in-house job, there are many editor communities out there that will be glad to have your back. Twitter and Facebook groups like the Editors' Association of Earth (EAE) are very helpful. They’re where freelance editors can find and share helpful general freelancing tips, as well as advice on real-life situations.

“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 reasons to become a freelance editor: 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.”

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 acknowledgments of a bestseller, and continue doing the best work that you can do. 💯

– Originally published on Nov 28, 2019