An American Editor

February 10, 2014

On the Basics: Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

There it was again: yet another LinkedIn discussion asking how to get started in editing, or how to start freelancing as an editor. Versions of this topic must pop up there at least once a week — probably more often, given the zillions of LinkedIn groups, of which I only see a dozen or so. The question comes up so often that I thought it might make the basis of a useful essay here.

The original question is often full of typos, which doesn’t bode well for the asker’s ability to either accept my response or succeed in our field. I do my best not to criticize such posts, but sometimes will say, “If you want to be a professional editor or proofreader, you need to make sure your posts are letter-perfect.”

My first reaction to “How do I start editing/proofreading/freelancing or promoting my editing business?” is usually “It depends. Do you have any experience, training, skills?” If the answer is “no,” I suggest taking some courses from local or online programs through universities, writers’ centers, and professional organizations before trying to get a job as an editor or pitch oneself as a freelance editor. You don’t necessarily need a degree or completed certificate, but you need something to ensure you know what you’re doing and can assure prospective clients or employers that you have at least basic skills in the profession.

I also suggest getting and studying one of the major style manuals — Associated Press, Chicago, American Psychological Association, Government Printing Office, etc., depending on the kind of editing someone might want to do — because knowing what they are and what they require will be a standard necessity for any professional editor. The best way to lose a prospective client is not to know what “AP,” “CMOS,” “APA,” or “GPO” means, or to do a first project using the standards for one when the client calls for another.

And, of course, there is a raft of important books to get, read, and absorb: The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys by Amy Einsohn; Copyediting: A Practical Guide, by Karen Judd; and The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, by Richard Adin, edited and with a foreword and introductions by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter and Jack M. Lyon and index by Sue Nedrow.

Be prepared to take tests to demonstrate your skills. Prospective employers and clients won’t take your word for your having the experience and skills they expect from you. Even if you have substantial experience, you’ll have to prove yourself, so don’t get in a huff when asked to take a test. Employers and clients know that it’s too easy to hang out a shingle and call oneself an editor, or a freelancer, without the least bit of experience or training. Think of tests as opportunities to show your stuff and prove your worth.

Assuming the person has some experience and skill in editing, or is willing to get some training before trying to enter the field, I have a few standard responses to the “how to get started” question. Here they are in greater detail than usual.

  • Contact everyone you’ve ever worked with or for to let them know you’re available for editing work, and ask them to keep you in mind if their colleagues need an editor. Past and current colleagues and employers know your work and skill level, and are often glad to help you get the word out about being available for jobs or freelance projects. Just contacting people from your work past to let them know you’re available is likely to result in at least one good lead.
  • Let friends and family know as well, especially if you’re looking for freelance projects. You might be surprised at who among them either needs an editor or knows of others who do, and you can usually count on them to be your biggest cheerleaders.
  • Ask those same previous colleagues for references or testimonials that you can post to a website or use in a promotional brochure. Their opinions will have credibility.
  • Join the American Copy Editors Society, Editorial Freelancers Association, and/or National Association of Independent Writers and Editors for access to their job services and directory listings for members, discussion lists, courses, interaction with colleagues, and other resources, all of which will enhance your professionalism, network, and resources. If you have special training or expertise, look for other organizations in that field.
  • Set up a website. You’ll need it to get found, function as an easily accessible portfolio by displaying testimonials to and examples of your skills, and establish a professional-looking, domain-based e-mail address.
  • Participate actively in LinkedIn and association environments, offering advice as well as asking for help — networking is a two-way process. Try to give as much as you take. Make sure all posts in those environments are grammatically and otherwise perfect, because that’s the best way to show that you know what you’re doing and are worth hiring.
  • Contact publishers to pitch your services. Direct contact can be surprisingly effective. Just be sure that your messages and query letters are perfect!
  • Subscribe to this blog (An American Editor) to learn more about the world of publishing and the nature of both editing and freelancing. Join the Copy Editing List to plug into the insights and wisdom of some of the most knowledgeable and experienced editors around. Subscribe to Copyediting newsletter and its related blogs to stay abreast of trends in language and the editing profession, and for access to its resources, such as courses on grammar and other aspects of editing, a job board, and more.
  • Get my “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business” booklet from the EFA for tips on starting your business and making it a success.
  • Start saving now to attend the annual Communication Central conference for freelancers (this year, Sept. 26–27, 2014, in Rochester, NY) to meet colleagues, learn how to make the most of important editing tools, and enhance your business and marketing skills. It’s the only conference specifically for freelance writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, and other professionals in the publishing field who want to freelance or do better at freelancing, and many of the sessions are of value to in-house editors as well.
  • Use your imagination. If you don’t have at least a spark of creativity and originality in how you approach your career, the road to success will be challenging. Don’t rely only on what other editors say about how they approach their work and their search for clients or jobs. Have an approach of your own. As long as it’s based on good practice, ethical behavior, and genuine skills and experience, it will serve you well.

Best of luck to all who seek to enter the rewarding field of editing.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.


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