How to Become a Freelance Editor in 7 Steps
If you're hoping to become a freelance editor, chances are you’ve already thought about the benefits: flexible hours, working from home, and handpicking your own projects. Seems pretty great, right? But before any editor can enter the freelance holy land, they need to set themselves up as a business — a process riddled with potential pitfalls.
Luckily, with the help of Reedsy’s veteran editors, we’ve put together everything you need to get through these treacherous waters unscathed! Here's how to become a freelance editor in 7 steps, which you can navigate using the table of contents to your left.
Step 1: Educate yourself as a small business owner
Freelance editing isn’t just about the editing itself. If you ignore your business needs, you'll be broke by the end of the year. Here are a few suggestions for what to include in your business plan:
- Setting up a website and social media accounts
- Allocating money for expenses and living costs
- Paying taxes as a freelancer
You've probably started to create your plan already, but just in case, here's a full article on how to set up your business as a freelance editor. And if taxes are particularly unnerving to you, we have a post about that too!
Step 2: Develop your marketable skills as an editor
Make sure you have the skills and experience to win jobs and impress clients. This will require some degree of self-improvement, regardless of how skilled you already are. After all, you'll no longer rely on your publisher to gain clients — now you'll have to do it yourself, which means going the extra mile.
A veteran of a Big Five publisher might think they have what it takes to be a freelancer. This may very well be true! However, there’s always more you can do, both in-house and as you're beginning to freelance. Here are three tips to that effect:
Edit a broad range of projects
According to Laurie Chittenden, former executive editor at HarperCollins and Macmillan, flexibility is an invaluable quality as a freelancer. “If you can edit both fiction and non-fiction across different genres,” says Chittenden, “it will open more doors when searching for projects.”
So take on as many different books as you can (within reason) while still at your in-house job; that way, you'll have a greater range of services to offer as a freelancer.
Know how to identify a book’s market
“Being able to identify the reader will help an editor shape a book for that market,” Chittenden adds. “You’ll also be able to teach an author how to talk about and position their book.” If you're never quite sure what a book's target audience should look like, perhaps this article can help.
Look at freelance jobs from every perspective
“In-house editors should start thinking about how their reading can encompass the work of multiple editors, not just their particular niche within the house,” says Rebecca Heyman. “Freelancers are often tasked with wearing multiple hats at once, since authors have far more limited budgets compared with the budget for a traditionally published project.”
This relates to Chittenden's tip about editing different genres — you'll be even more valuable as a freelancer if you also have experience with different types of editing. That said, there's no need to become an expert in everything. Better to have one focused niche, like developmental editing, but dabble in other kinds of editing that you can perform in a pinch.
Step 3: Build and invest in your online presence
Clients in the 21st century are not going to look for you in the yellow pages. They’ll either find you online or through word-of-mouth (after which they’ll look for you online). With that in mind, your web presence is key! A few things you'll need to do are...
Set up a website
This is probably the number-one weapon in your promotional arsenal. Without a website, you might as well advertise your editing services at the bottom of a recycling bin. You can hire someone else to create your website, or build it on a service platform like Squarespace, WordPress, Wix or Weebly — which is exactly what literary editor Constance Renfrow did.
“It was much easier to put together than I’d anticipated, and great because it still looks professional. Aesthetic is a very important element of an editor’s website: a clean, professional look is much more trustworthy than something that appears outdated, rushed, or sloppy.”
Another pro tip: Invest in a unique domain name that looks professional and makes it easy for clients to find you. Consider using your name and the word “editorial,” like JaneDoeEditorial.com.
Maintain a blog
Some freelance editors have a blog on their website, which they update regularly with posts. The idea is to create valuable content for authors, while also showcasing your expertise to these potential clients. Your posts might include:
- Writing tips
- Publisher comparisons
- Editing techniques
- Stories from ‘the trenches’
- Interviews or Q&As
- Pitch critiques of author-submitted synopses.
Be warned that blog success requires a lot of extra work. Not only do you have to post consistently, you also need to bone up on search engine optimization (SEO) to get people to actually read your posts! However, if you can capture the right audience with your blog, you'll never have to worry about finding clients again.
Get on social media
“I love Twitter!” says Rebecca Heyman. “It’s currently the only social media platform I engage on, and it’s a gem for finding writers, other editors, and industry professionals to interact with. I use it to express my views on writing and editing, and I also run a hashtag “event” each month called #firstlinefrenzy. Authors tweet me the first line of their novels, and I give live, interactive feedback.”
Some authors host groups on Facebooks, others prefer Instagram. But if there’s one piece of advice we can offer, it’s to not overextend yourself on social. Pick two platforms at most, and make them work for you.
Set up a Reedsy profile
A Reedsy profile lets you display your experience and portfolio, and increases your likelihood of showing up in Google searches. If you have a significant amount of experience, you can ask the Reedsy team to verify your profile — and if you’re successful, you’ll be able to field requests and start collaborating on the Reedsy marketplace within days.
Step 4: Charge reasonable rates
Don’t fool yourself as you're getting started with freelancing — your first priority is still making a living. What's the point of all that freedom if you’re going to drown in work for little-to-no money? So before you do anything else, you need to create a sensible budget and figure out how much to charge your clients.
Set a baseline rate
Figuring out what to charge as a freelancer can be tricky. That's why we created an entire post on how to set your freelance editing rates! But perhaps the most important thing to remember is not to undercut yourself. Rebecca Heyman says she sees this far too frequently:
“I frequently click through freelance editors’ websites when I meet a peer on social media,” says Heyman. “Too often, I find myself cringing at their ridiculously low rates. How do people make a living this way? Well, they don’t – and low rates signal to the world that you are a hobbyist, not a professional book editor."
Should you work for less to start with?
This is a matter of great contention‚ and to be honest, there is no cut-and-dried correct answer. Here's Heyman’s advice:
“Don’t offer discounts just because you’re new. Too many newbies offer cut-rate prices to gain traction and experience, but this essentially sets you up for a lifetime of taking less than you’re worth. If you want to become a book editor, seek out smaller jobs but charge a regular rate.”
Other freelancers will argue that your rate should reflect your experience: a 20-year veteran with multiple bestsellers should probably charge more than a rookie. With that in mind, new editors might find it prudent to benchmark their rates against freelancers with similar experience.
Step 5: Network with real people at author events
As much as we all connect on LinkedIn and Facebook these days, an editor’s most important interactions still involve real-world networking. So while business cards can seem obsolete, you still might want to invest in them!
Attend networking events
In addition to getting business cards, start thinking about where you can hand them out. Book fairs, festivals, and individual events targeted at authors and publishers are all great places to network as a freelance editor.
Once you start attending these events, you will definitely find someone who will be interested in what you have to offer — or at least someone who knows someone. Constance Renfrow attends her fair share of real-life events, during which she rarely takes the hard-sell approach:
“About once or twice a month, I try to go to book launches, open mics, writing/book club events, the occasional convention. At these events, I tend to just go with the flow. I’ve found that if the conversation comes to writing and editing and literature naturally, my passion for those subjects will come through.”
Be helpful to others
While getting paid for your work is obviously crucial, the best freelancers are willing to help others in small ways, no strings attached. This might mean referring authors to other freelancers, walking clients through the publishing process without pitching their services, or replying to emails simply to offer advice.
Indeed, “paying it forward” is a great way to make yourself known — not just as a knowledgable editor, but as a friendly, desirable collaborator.
“I suppose, more than anything I aim to be a good literary citizen,” says Renfrow. ”Through every step forward I take, I try to bring others with me, and I’ve found that opportunities (clients, publications, readings, etc.) open up to me as a result.”
Communicate what you offer
When you network, speak confidently about your work as a freelancer. Find language that reflects your professionalism and creativity: “I’m a freelance novel consultant” or “I work with authors to develop their books for publication” will communicate a lot while remaining succinct.
Then as conversation proceeds, you can bring up past projects and specific qualifications that will impress authors — for example, any books you've worked on with name recognition, or how many projects you've completed in your career.
Avoid sounding predatory
You should also ask authors about their work, of course, but you don't want to jump all over them asking if they need an editor. Freelancers can develop bad reputations if authors feel pressured to hire them. Let prospective clients know what you’re about — but don’t be too pushy in early conversations.
For more advice on networking and other aspects of the freelance life, check out these 12 tips for success as a freelance editor!
Step 6: Clarify expectations with clients
Editorial work really is all about communication. As a freelance editor, you need to articulate your suggestions in a way that the author will receive positively and ensure you’re on the same page throughout the project. Answer these questions for your client at the outset:
- Will you focus on developmental or line edits?
- Will the author require a copy editor or a proofreader at the end?
- What sort of follow-up they can expect? Phone calls? Another read-through?
“Freelancers need to be very clear about what they're going to provide,” says fiction editor Parisa Zolfaghari. “One person's copy edit is another person's content edit.
“Remember not to offer too much for free in addition to the service you are providing. If more work needs to be done, it is perfectly professional to let the client know that this will increase the final price, or that they need to look elsewhere for those services.”
Keep them updated
Needless to say, you should clearly inform every client how long it will take to edit their book from start to finish — and if anything changes, notify them immediately.
Also, even if their project is perfectly on-track, many clients will grow anxious if they don’t hear from you on a regular basis. So if you’re off the grid for a few days or taking time to work on another project, let them know when they can expect a reply.
It can also be useful to provide clients with sample edited chapters near the start of the project — or even before you start working together, says Zolfaghari. “Samples can be a handy way to connect with an author and ensure that you're both on the same page.” Providing samples will give the client a concrete idea of the level of detail they can expect, as well as how long it will take to edit each chapter.
Step 7: Protect yourself
Increased liability is a notable downside of freelance work. Without the backing of a publisher, you have to deal with non-paying and unresponsive clients alone. So what can you do to protect yourself in these scenarios?
Get your contracts right
At the very least, your contract with a client should include:
- A defining scope: the work being agreed to.
- A fee schedule: the amount the client will pay and when.
- A cancellation policy: how much is owed if the client cancels the project.
- An indemnity clause: to ensure that any damages accrued by the client cannot be passed on to you (for example, if a book turns out to violate copyright law).
In addition to these, Rebecca Heyman uses a contractual clause to ensure that her work is protected. “My contract clearly states that I retain the retain the copyright on all editorial marks and suggestions until I’m paid in full, at which time the rights revert to the author,” says Heyman.
Err on the side of caution
Don’t be afraid to refuse any amendment to the contract if the author is trying to tale advantage! You are the service provider and these are your rules. Of course, you should try your best to accommodate a client’s needs, but always protect yourself first and foremost.
Bonus tip: Aim for personal growth
It’s easy to feel isolated and uninspired as a freelance editor, especially when your dog is the closest thing you have to a coworker. That's why it's so important to keep your eyes on the prize and never stop growing as an editor. Heyman puts it this way:
“Professional development is your responsibility, both to yourself and your clients. Recently I met another freelance editor on Twitter, and we decided to critique one another’s critiques. The process was so enlightening, and now we meet via Skype to talk about our work and the craft of editing. I’ve learned so much, and I know my author-clients will benefit.”
If you want to see what it’s really like to be a freelance editor, check out this video featuring NY-based literary editor Laura Mae Isaacman! And if you have any more questions about how to become a freelance editor, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out our FAQs here.
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