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How to get started freelance editing

Freelance editing is a great way for organised, pedantic people to earn some extra income. I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, and currently have a long-term editing contract with a company where I can set my own hours and work as much as I want each week. It’s kind of awesome, especially since I’m running my own business. When downtime happens, it’s great to have something to fall back on. I adore the freelancer and self-employed lifestyle but I totally get that not everyone is able to live without complete job security.

So if you’ve been thinking that having a little sideline with your writing skills would be nice, I’ve written some steps to help you get started.

Before we get into the thick of it, I want to talk about a few definitions.

Editor vs. Proofreader

An editor is, very simply, someone who helps prepare a piece of text for publication. This can mean critiquing content, providing feedback, sometimes helping locate opportunities for writers, and yes, sometimes proofreading. This is a multi-faceted job, so you have to decide what services you are going to offer.

proofreader is a more specific job. This is someone who corrects or identifies errors in a text in terms of spelling, grammar, sentence construction, flow, word order, etc. This is a technical job and can be a service that an editor offers, or simply the only job you do. This will typically not involve any feedback on the content of the text. You’re simply making it well-written, whatever it is.

So you see, you can be a proofreader who does not edit, or an editor that offers proofreading. You just need to decide what appeals more to your skillset, what you think you would enjoy, and what you are going to advertise to your clients.

There are two other job titles you may see used. A copy editor is someone who does proofreading plus a bit extra; they’ll comment on the structure of your text as well as the technical stuff. A content editor is a quite rigorous job where you are editing both the technical side of things and the actual content of the text. You’ll tell the client if their point comes across clearly, if they could improve their argument in certain sections, or any other sort of detailed feedback that they ask for.

A note about ethics.

I’ve worked a lot of academic writing feedback jobs. I’ve also worked as a university instructor and a teaching assistant, so I’m pretty well versed in a little thing called academic integrity.

If you’re going to offer your services to students of any sort, be aware that university academic integrity policies will put a strict limit on what you can and cannot do to help a student with an assignment. Any violation of this puts the student at risk of penalty or even expulsion, depending on the type of breech of conduct.

A lot of editors will turn away students for this reason. A lot of students (in my experience) don’t really want to improve their writing, but want a piece they’ve written to be fixed (proofread) so that they will get a better grade. Of course there are students who are an exception to this, and this is why you may want to consider working with students.

If you’re going to do this, I would recommend a couple of things.

  • If you’re working with a specific client, check out their university’s plagiarism and academic integrity policies. Make sure that you aren’t offering anything unethical, even if the student asks for it.
  • Develop your own code of conduct. Have a clear statement on your website (we’ll talk more about this later) that explains your position on editing for students.
  • Most universities will have a problem with proofreading, but not with structural feedback. This means that you can provide them with advice on crafting a stronger thesis statement, organising their body paragraphs, or writing a conclusion, but not with altering their content or developing their argument.
  • You can sometimes offer grammar advice. For example, you may be working with a student and notice that they keep using semicolons but clearly have no idea how they work. This would be appropriate to point out. But going through and highlighting each semicolon and explaining how to fix each sentence is going too far.

In short, you’ll want to figure out a strategy for offering services to students that keep both them and you (or your reputation) out of trouble.

Step One: What makes you an editor?

I don’t personally think that you need a degree to prove that you have good editing skills. Sure, it helps, and it goes a long way to convince people of your credibility. But you can do the same with some basic training and a portfolio.

The obvious skill that you require is an exceptional grasp of English grammar and spelling. Writing experience is beneficial, too. Many editors are also writers, either on the side or as their main jobs. The two go hand-in-hand sometimes.

If you believe that you have strong editing skills, but just need to brush up on some basics, here are my suggestions.

Go to the library. There are tons of grammar books and manuals to help you refresh your skills. Read the examples, and get familiar with the common mistakes – comma splices, semicolon misuse, and general punctuation abuse. Next, look for books on editing skills specifically. These can give you good examples on how to approach a text, or how to start providing feedback to your client. It’s a little bit of a DIY approach, but for a determined, well-read person, this could be great.

Take free online editing or writing courses. There are sites like Futurelearn (which I’ve talked about in another post) that offer free online courses from accredited universities. There are definitely more writing courses than editing courses out there, but this can be a great way to learn different structures and styles. Why not take a course on screenwriting and specialise in scripts?

Take a paid online course. There are plenty of online editing qualifications that you can obtain. Simply searching online will yield many results from single courses to entire diplomas or degrees to qualify you to be an editor. But maybe you only want to be a copy editor, a content editor, or a proofreader? You can decide what level of qualification feels right to you. I can’t recommend any particular programs as I haven’t found them necessary – I have an English MA, among other degrees, so that’s` enough for me.

Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read excellent classical literature. Read trashy romance novels from the thrift store. You need to be exposed to both good and bad writing. Read newspaper articles, books, flyers, or anything with text. Then, try editing them. Yes, I’m advocating for defacing books with pens – red ones, if that makes you happy! Give the author feedback right on the pages. Tell them what is unconvincing, what they could do better.

I know I may get some flack from people who are adamant that being an editor requires years of specialised training, expensive courses, and numerous credentials. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree, and I have many of those things myself! The only thing you really require is skill and knowledge, which can be acquired through diligent self-study and collaboration when possible. We live in an increasingly accessible digital world, and you can teach yourself to do nearly anything via the internet. Formal education is amazing for providing focus and direct access to knowledge. I’m a huge fan. But knowledge is no longer only available to a small section of people who can afford and manage it.

Anyways, rant over.

Something you definitely need to have are great communication skills. I’m not saying that every client is going to be sensitive about their work, but writers are notoriously touchy about criticism (I know I am – I’ve tried to get better!). Knowing how to deliver feedback in an effective and appropriate way is critical to the job. Sometimes, your client won’t understand what’s wrong with an issue you’ve identified – they’ve written it, after all, and they may think it sounds okay. You need to be able to explain specifically what the problem is, and provide some suggestions on how to resolve it.

You may also want to obtain a few reference books. This is kind of an old-school approach since you can search for basically anything online, but I like having some reference books on hand if for no other reason than to read over when I’m procrastinating, thus refreshing some of my knowledge. I really like Gabay’s Copywriter’s Compendium, which is a great resource for copy writers and copy editors alike, and The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn is a good all-around editing guide. I’m not getting anything for recommending these, I’ve just found them useful personally. You can also add a basic grammar handbook to the mix – there are dozens at used book stores for you to choose from.

So with that all said, what’s the other most important thing you need to get started?

Step Two: Your portfolio

Even though you’re aiming to be an editor, not a writer, a portfolio of your work is a great way to demonstrate your skills, especially if you don’t have any experience.

The first step is to get your own website. This can be a free website (though this looks the least professional), a super budget option (like a free Tumblr page with a purchased domain attached, which sometimes runs as low as $0.99 a year), a monthly subscription site (like Wix, Squarespace, etc.), or a fully hosted web domain. This last option is what I have, since I run my website as a business in many capacities, but this is also an investment of time and money. It’s up to you what you choose.

On this website, you’ll want to have a couple of different sections or pages.

  • Who you are: think of this as somewhere between an “About Me” page and a resume. You want to give your clients an idea of the person behind the services, and I find that many writers (especially writers of fiction) tend to like interesting humans and want to know that their precious manuscript is going to someone reliable. To this end, there is some customer service built into the job.
  • What services you offer: you might want to look at my services page as an example. I’ve got several different packages on offer that show what I’m willing to do and who would want each specific package. Determine what it is you want to offer, how you want to present those services, and how you want your potential clients to contact you (web form, email address, phone number, etc.) If you’re going to accept clients who are students, you should outline specifically what you will offer them according to your own rules and research.
  • Your portfolio: this is where examples of your work will be found.
  • Testimonials: if you don’t have any to start with, you can leave this section off for now. Having testimonials from people you have provided editing for is invaluable, and will go a long way to making you sound legit.

One thing that I didn’t add here is your prices. Most editors simply don’t provide their prices online. Why? I don’t really think there’s just one reason. It encourages people to contact you rather than waffle around looking at your site. It stops other people from trying to undercut you. And it stops clients from taking advantage of you. For example, if you wrote on your page that you edit at a rate of $5 per page, and a client sent you one page of size 6 text? Would you be happy editing that or turning them away? Avoid these situations by negotiating each contract individually.

That being said, it’s good to have a pricing structure established for your own use. You might want to try editing a sample text and timing it – how much can you get done in an hour when just proofreading? Or how long does it take for you to provide a full critique of a blog post? Doing these sorts of tests can help you figure out your own prices.

But anyways, back to the portfolio.

The point of the portfolio is to demonstrate the following:

  • the types of work that you will edit
  • the quality of your work
  • your flexibility for different writing styles

You can either post samples of edited text, or screenshots of edited work. The second is a bit more unorthodox, I’ll admit, but I think it’s kind of nice to show your clients what exactly they’re signing up for. A screenshot of a thoroughly annotated word document shows the kind of editing that you provide, whether its conversational or formal, and if you’re very picky or more general in your feedback.

If you just want to post text that you’ve edited, think about using both text that you’ve written and text from other people. You might ask friends or family members if they have anything they’ve written you can help with, or just grab something from the public domain (never without permission). You can, of course, offer some editing for free to build up this portfolio, but tread lightly. Only do this for a few samples, and don’t make a habit of it. You should never undervalue your work.

Some types of edited text you might want to include in your portfolio could be:

  • sample chapters from books
  • blog posts
  • poems
  • academic articles or papers
  • reviews
  • reports or presentation slides
  • flyers or marketing materials
  • job descriptions
  • scripts or screenplays
  • comic book pages

Again, you should tailor your portfolio to the kind of materials you want to edit, or at least related pieces of work.

You might also want to include a sort of foreword to your samples explaining what you did to them. This is optional, of course, but in some cases context is helpful.

Once you’ve got your website up and running, it’s time to drum up some business.

Step Three: Finding work (or letting work find you)

One of the first things you should do is to start setting up profiles in the right places. There are a ton of freelancing website out there that you might want to try: Fiverr, Freelancer, and Upwork are all popular options. For some people, these sorts of websites are how they’ve gotten their big breaks into editing. You can list your services or bid on jobs posted by potential clients. Be clear on the types of services you can offer, and write compelling pitches to try and land the jobs. I’ve heard of these jobs sometimes turning into long term contracts, so you may have some success here.

You should also advertise on your own social media channels. Don’t be shy, and tell your friends that you’re offering editing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You never know who has been secretly harbouring a novel, or who knows someone else in desperate need of an editor.

You can also promote locally. Look for places around your town that have public message boards – coffee shops and libraries are likely spots, and also places writers tend to frequent. You might even find clients via Kijiji or Craigslist, depending on how much these types of online message boards are used in your area. I once landed a pretty great research assistant/editor/random task helper job off Kijiji that I enjoyed!

I’ve found some of my best editing contracts on Indeed, to be honest. Searching for editing or copyediting jobs and throwing in keywords like “remote” or “work from home” can pull up some interesting hits. Other job search engines would probably work for this too.

If you’re super gutsy, you can try some cold calls. Reach out to local publishing houses and see if they are hiring editors or need people on-call. Be aware that they might not be interested if you don’t have any formal credentials – it’s just how things go, sometimes.

Look for local writing guilds. If your area has a writing federation or association, you may find that editors are welcome to join and participate in their events. There is often a membership fee, but you can sometimes be entered into their database of local editors for their writers to contact. There are great opportunities for networking through these sorts of groups.

Speaking of groups, I’ve recently found out that Facebook groups for writers are a big thing. I just joined Canada Writes, which is run by CBC (I believe). I’ve seen plenty of people asking for editor recommendations or pitching their own services. Just be sure that when you join a group, you’re abiding by their rules and not spamming your services. Be polite, and try to participate outside of just promoting yourself.

It’s good to keep in mind that November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. By the end of the month there is a bit of a wave of finished manuscripts looking for some sharp eyes to read them. If you’re participating in the event (and using the official NaNoWriMo website), you might even find some leads in the local group you are partnered with.

If you find this whole process a little bit intimidating, just remember that there are clients for every type of editor out there. Many writers who are new to the industry themselves would be more comfortable with an editor who has a small client list and more personable approach, instead of a big glossy website and intimidating online advertising.

I hope that this article has been helpful to you, and that you are feeling inspired to try out this line of work! If you have any suggestions about tips or topics that I haven’t covered, just leave me a comment below so we can build up the knowledge base. Good luck!

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Welcome to The Lucky Sprout! I’m Rebecca and I’m a creative consultant, entrepreneur, and maker of things. I love inspiring others to step up into their purpose, and here on my blog you’ll find all kinds of content to inspire and empower you.

If you want to connect with me, I’m never far – you can find me being silly on Instagram, roaming farmers markets, or sipping tea lattes under the nearest blanket!

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© Offshoot Creative Consulting + Rebecca Wilson, 2019.

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