by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
In an online discussion sparked by my mentioning that I recently got an editing project from the son of a high-school–days friend who knew my work because he works for a law firm for which I do proofreading, someone responded with, in part, “… the world is not a level playing field. I have a friend who cannot get editing work because he doesn’t know the right people and doesn’t know how to properly market himself.”
Putting aside my initial reaction of “Who said the world was fair?” and “The friend should quit whining and do what he needs to do,” here are a few suggestions for anyone who feels the same way — that you only can get editing work if you “know someone.”
Few of us started out by “knowing someone” important in the field. Some of us started as lowly interns, in secretarial positions, or — at best — as gofers and slush-pile readers at publishing houses. Others started in jobs at associations or companies where a natural eye for editing got them out of clerical positions and into something related to in-house publishing. Still others might have been entry-level reporters thanks to journalism degrees.
There’s also the question of who these mysterious “right people” might be. In my book, anyone who has work to offer is a “right person.” So is any colleague who refers me for work, past employer or coworker who remembers and hires or refers me, family member or old friend who cheers me on. Yes, there are major players in the editing world, and we can get to know them by attending conferences, reading their books and blogs, taking their classes, following them on Twitter. But we get work from clients, and the way to get to know them — or for them to get to know us — is to find them and pitch them.
Regardless, most of us started out at ground zero. We didn’t know anyone important. We weren’t known for our skills. If we’ve become successful either in in-house jobs or as freelancers, it’s because we made the effort to develop strong skills, develop networks with colleagues, and make names for ourselves.
Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to become known and to get to know prospective clients (or colleagues who might recommend us, subcontract to us, even hire us or hand off excess work to us).
Someone who “doesn’t know the right people” can remedy that by joining a professional organization, such as the EAC, SfEP, EFA, ACES, etc., to become known and respected among colleagues, or just to have his or her name listed in an association membership directory. And even the rankest newcomer actually may know people who could be leads to work. If that’s you (or if you’re established but have hit a slow time), assess your past employers and coworkers, friends, family, classmates (at all levels), etc., and consider sending them something about what you’re doing and the kind of work you’re looking for.
The reality, though, is that you must market yourself if you want to have a successful editing, proofreading, or other publishing-oriented business. It might seem hard to do, but it’s essential. Work won’t just float in the door without the worker making that kind of effort.
The good news for anyone who feels uncomfortable with that reality is that you can find work without being in with the in crowd. Judging from what I see from colleagues, quite a few find editing work without doing a lot of networking — primarily through cold queries and by using association/organization resources such as job services or directory listings.
If you think you have to know “the right people” to succeed in your editing career, this is the moment to take control and do something about it. The new year is right around the corner. Start planning now to meet some of those people, either online or in person, and to become someone they want to meet — and hire.
You can use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook’s business groups, and a boatload of other online resources to find people worth connecting with because they might need an editor, and to position yourself as both skilled and worth knowing and hiring. That’s marketing yourself, and all it takes is time. It doesn’t require much in the way of interpersonal connections, so those among us who are introverts can manage it without the terrible pressure of interacting in person.
Identify the types of projects you want to do and the kinds of clients who might have such projects for you. Look for them in Literary Market Place, Writer’s Market, online, at websites, in colleagues’ conversations — and go after them. Polish up your résumé, craft a convincing cover letter, and go for it.
You also have to be findable, because sometimes work will come to us without our trying. Being listed in a membership directory is a good way to make it possible to be found for projects without making any further effort. Having a website is essential, even if it’s only minimal. Being at least a little visible in social media can make a difference — especially if you can give as well as take: offer advice, share resources, answer questions. And don’t be shy about mentioning your projects, skills, and successes.
There’s also self-marketing, which includes somewhat traditional approaches such as putting together and mailing out a promotional brochure or postcard; creating and distributing a newsletter about your skills, achievements, and projects; and doing the occasional press release — you start your freelance business, when you land an impressive client (but wait to announce that until after you’ve completed at least once project with that client!), win an award, make a presentation, etc. These kinds of activities will bring you the attention of prospective clients who are not in your network of colleagues or friends and family.
It may seem that some people have better luck than others when it comes to finding work. Whenever I would attribute a new job or project to luck, my beloved dad would say that I made my own luck. And he was right. Luck is a combination of effort and serendipity, among other things. Getting a new editing project because I stay in touch with old friends and do good work for current clients, as in the recent experience that touched off this column, is a form of luck, but I don’t stay in contact with friends to make use of them as potential clients or referrers. I stay in contact because I like them. It’s part of who I am. If those connections result in new work sometimes, that’s a bonus. You can call it luck, if you’d like.
If a one-time project turns into an ongoing relationship and series of projects, that’s a form of luck. It’s also the result of my letting that client know that I enjoyed doing the first project and would like to do more, or my suggesting new topics I could work on for that client, rather than my sitting by the computer waiting for the client to call with a new assignment.
You need a combination of both aggressive and passive marketing efforts to succeed in any profession, including editing. Even passive marketing is better than no marketing. You can’t sit back and wait for success, and you won’t succeed by worrying or whining about not knowing the “right people.”
Instead of complaining about not knowing the right people, make your own luck by looking for them and becoming findable by them.
Have you developed a network? How did you find “the right people” to know? How long did it take? Was there one key moment, effort, or connection that did the trick? Who are your “right people”?
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.