An American Editor

January 17, 2018

What Not to Do as a Newcomer to Freelance Editing

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many people inadvertently make gaffes when they’re just starting out as freelance editors (or writers, proofreaders, indexers, graphic artists, layout and design providers, etc.). As you start out, or as you look for opportunities in new areas of skills, topics, or services, you don’t want to be the person remembered for a clumsy entry into a community of colleagues.

Keep in mind that most colleagues are more than generous about sharing advice and even fixing problematic sentences — essentially doing your work for you. Be careful not to take advantage of that generosity.

With that in mind, here are a few things not to do when you’re starting out. Or even if you’ve been in the profession for a while!

  • Jump into a discussion group or list to ask how to get started. It might seem like a logical thing to do, but there are so many resources to check out that it shouldn’t be necessary to ask such a general question. Most established freelancers are more than willing to share information, but get tired of the same old “how do I get started” questions that could easily be answered by doing a little research yourself — looking through group archives, doing online searches, consulting bookstores, etc. Once you’ve done some of that basic research, ask something specific.
  • Make your first comment in a discussion list or group a request (or what looks like a demand) that people send you their “overflow” work or refer you for projects. Wait until you have contributed something — preferably several things — useful to the group before you expect people to consider you as someone to refer, recommend, or subcontract to. At least let members of the community know what your background, training, and experience are. Established colleagues are not going to recommend, refer, or subcontract to someone we don’t know and whose skills and experience aren’t evident.
  • Have typos and clunky language in your first — or any — posts to groups of colleagues. Yes, many online environments are considered virtual water coolers or almost family gatherings, and some communities are more forgiving of errors in posts among colleagues than others. And yes, we all make mistakes. But our online presence is often the only way colleagues meet us. If we want people to think well of us as professionals, we have to make our posts as clean, error-free, and coherent as possible. You don’t want to be remembered for error-filled posts when an opportunity arises to be referred, recommended, or hired by a colleague.
  • Ignore the rules of a group. Editorial professionals, especially editors and proofreaders, are supposed to be detail-oriented (perhaps to an extreme extent). If you join a discussion list that calls for tags or labels on messages, use ’em. If the group discourages personal or off-topic posts, pay attention.
  • Complain — to a client or to colleagues — about late payment before it’s been 30 days after you billed for a project, unless the client has clearly agreed to pay sooner than that. Payment by 30 days after invoice date is a standard in the business world. Some clients use 30 business days, and others are using 45 or 60 days. Some will cut and mail that check on day 30, so it won’t reach you for another couple of days. We have a right to be paid on time, but “on time” could mean day 31 or 32. Even if your agreement or contract is to be paid 10 or 15 days after the invoice date, give it a couple of days before checking on the payment if it doesn’t arrive by the agreed-upon date, and make the inquiry polite, not frantic or arrogant.
  • Tell clients you need to be paid because you can’t pay your rent or buy groceries until you receive their payments. Clients don’t care — at least, most of them don’t. They care about getting top-quality work back as scheduled. They also don’t need to get the sense that you can’t manage your finances, even if their lateness is causing the problem. If you have to chase late payments, state the matter in terms of being paid because you did the work as agreed, not because you need the money for essentials.
  • Accept a project deadline and/or fee without seeing the complete document or nature of the assignment first, or accept an editing or proofreading client’s description of the document’s number of pages and level of editing or proofreading needed. A client’s definition of a “page” and what the manuscript needs can be very deceptive. Until the you see the manuscript, you don’t know if the client’s page is single-spaced, in 8- or 9-point type, with next to no margins. Whether you use 250 words or 1,800 characters as your standard definition of a page, use it to determine the actual length of the manuscript.

Clients also tend to think their projects are better than they really are, and “only need a light edit/only need proofreading.” When you actually look at the document, it may need a heavy, intensive edit — one that is substantive or developmental — that will take two, three or 10 times longer than a light edit or proofread.

If you base your estimated fee or deadline on what the client says, you’re likely to cheat yourself — and work yourself to a frazzle for far less money than you should receive.

  • Accept a project when you don’t really know how to use the software program(s) it requires, unless you let the client know ahead of time that that’s the case. Clients don’t want to be your learning curve. Figuring out how to use a new program or application will slow down your editing speed, which could result in missing a deadline or earning less than you should.
  • Respond to a job listing when you aren’t qualified for the project. That only makes you look unprofessional, wastes the prospective client’s time (and yours), and makes the group sponsoring the listing service look bad. Focus on the opportunities that you really are qualified for and your results are likely to improve.
  • Answer questions that weren’t asked. If you can’t respond to what someone actually asked about in a forum, group or discussion list, don’t. If you have a related but different angle, start a new discussion rather than dilute the original one with information that isn’t helpful to the original poster.
  • Fail to look things up that are easily found online or in group/list archives. Most questions about starting out as an editor, a freelancer, or both have already been answered, either in the group you belong to or elsewhere, but so have many questions about usage, grammar, and other aspects of editing. Learn how to check the archives of the discussion lists, forums, and groups you belong to so you don’t ask questions that have been answered dozens of times.
  • Cry poor. This may seem harsh, but try not to use poverty to beg for work or as the reason you aren’t using current technology. Most of us have been there — short of cash, desperate for income, stuck with late-paying clients — and will be sympathetic, but would rather see someone make an effort to overcome these situations than play on that sympathy. Again, we deserve to be hired and paid for our professional services, not because we’re broke.
  • Bulk up your posts to a discussion list or forum with tons of repeated previous message content. As a colleague who manages a list said recently, when asking listmembers to trim their posts, “We’re editors here, so let’s edit.”

What “newbie” goofs did you make when starting out as an editor or freelancer? What would you advise colleagues not to do?

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, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues (2018: September 21–22 in Rochester, NY), and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.



  1. Reblogged this on .


    Comment by coddaired — January 17, 2018 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  2. This is a good list. I am a newbie editor so I don’t really have much to put forth, but I’m happy to say I’m not guilty of these gaffes. I guess my biggest frustration is *don’t undercut your colleagues*. I earned my certificate in September but have been unable to land any work– and I believe a big reason is because other “professional copyeditors” (without so much as a website, let alone any actual credentials listed) are advertising in writing groups that they’ll work for less than half a cent per word. Even at the bottom of the totem pole, I’d be charging literally 10x what they do at 4 cents! I don’t want to cheapen the work it took to get my certificate, and I was told by other editors in editing groups to absolutely NOT work for free, even to get established… but I think I need to rethink my strategy. It doesn’t seem like anyone wants to hire inexperienced copyeditors, much less pay for one.


    Comment by April K — January 17, 2018 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  3. Great blog post, Ruth! As for what newbie goofs I made when starting out, I think my biggest one was relying on one client for the first couple of years. It was one of the well-known mega-publishers, so in theory the work should have been never-ending. Except that I was working for one group in one division of this company, and the groups all have their own lists of freelancers. At one point, the work slowed to a trickle, then dried up. I finally found out what happened: The company had bought up another smaller publisher (which it did, and does, all the time), and as a result, the group that I worked with had to hire the former employees of the bought-out company as freelancers, at least for a while. (This practice isn’t legal any more, but was common at the time. But other internal things can happen at a client company that we have nothing to do with, but that affect our relationship with them.) So I got busy and found other clients. This company did send me work again, but not the same volume. I was also able to ultimately replace them with better-paying clients.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 17, 2018 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  4. Rules galore here for interacting in a forum, which are often important to productive communications, but if a newbie asks for help, it’s not a ‘gaffe’, it’s natural. Like anyone curious or new to a thing. But, what Ruth points out are important if a newbie wishes to be taken seriously.

    I’d like to see forums take the plight of newbies seriously and put together a page or link to a space where newbie tips, links to archived posts on newbie topics, and links to helpful blogs are given. There is so much diversity in editing that any newbie is likely to seek guidance on how their experience or expertise would fit in the industry.

    My tips to a newbie editor — a freelance, independent editor — is to have a plan. A business plan. A research plan. A learning plan. An execution plan. The decision to ‘become’ an editor is only one millionth of the decisions that will need to be considered and made throughout a projected career as an editor.

    In support with Ruth, I offer a few of my own ‘gaffes’…

    Gaffe #1: being uneducated about editing or functioning as an editor.

    If you suddenly decide you want to be a baker: What do you know about baking? Why does this appeal to you? What is your end game? Your own shop – a franchise? Conversely, if you want to be an editor: What do you know about editing? Why does this appeal to you? Do you already feel confident about your language skills and knowledge? What do you envision yourself editing?

    By learning about editing — acquiring basic knowledge about the types of editing, the demands of each, the extra knowledge or specialized knowledge you need to perform as an editor, you can begin to see your pathway into the business.

    Gaffe #2: not respecting the role, function, and hard work of an editor.

    “Anyone” cannot perform the work of an editor. Just because you love to read doesn’t automatically qualify you as capable or able to do the work of an editor. The reason some forums heave a sigh when a newbie asks: what do I do? or how can I get started? is because every experienced editor in that forum has spent time learning about the rules of the ‘trade’, and continues to pursue learning about the trade. Many had no forums to lean on when they started, no Facebook groups, no LinkedIn… This isn’t about walking 10 miles to school in the snow — it’s about the desire to have a career, and what you’ll do to get what you desire

    Ruth has defined several considerations when and if a newbie approaches editing groups for help — and all are must-do’s. Asking how to ‘get started’ is a small question with an enormous answer. It’s as large an answer as asking your physician how to ‘get started’ as a doctor. When asking this, would you have already completed medical school? Would you be considering going to medical school? Or would you ask because you liked medical ‘stuff’, medical TV shows, and felt a kinship with medicine overall?

    Your doctor’s short answer would most likely be: go to school (for 8-10 years), get your PhD, pass the boards, take more courses and boards if you specialize — and then, keep taking classes and reading to learn new procedures and techniques. No big deal, eh?

    Well, pursuing a career as a professional editor is like being a doctor, or an authorized Microsoft Network Tech, or an attorney, or a music teacher, or a ballerina. Performing as an editor is not something you decide to do today, and starting doing it tomorrow —

    Gaffe #3: asking other people what kind of editor you should be. Always ask this of yourself. If you don’t know, then maybe you aren’t serious about being an editor. One thing to know about freelance editors: we love what we do! Editors have a passion for helping others express themselves clearly and correctly. We love words! We love precision in language, whether it means helping the author craft the perfect phrasing for their novel, or ensuring that the author scientist has framed a potent and concise argument for their journal article.

    So — think about it. Re-read Ruth’s thoughtful tips. Recognize that moving from the newbie position takes guts and perseverance — and before you know it, you’ll be offering solid tips to another newbie.

    Thanks for this post, Ruth. I always look forward to your sage advice and guidance. Happy to see you heading the ship here!

    Maria D’Marco

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — January 17, 2018 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  5. Thank you, Ruth. I receive so many enquiries every week from prospective freelancers and I am in the process of consolidating my responses into a PDF to send to future applicants. The journey to successful/profitable freelancing is long and torturous; the sooner people realise this, the better.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by fullproofreading — January 18, 2018 @ 4:40 am | Reply

    • Me too, Sally, about receiving work inquiries.

      To newer editors: If you’re going to cold-email publishers and other copy editors, do your homework and send a coherent email that tells them almost everything they need to know right off the bat. There are lots of good articles on the internet about contacting a potential employer cold. “Hi, need another editor?” is not a professional query, and it’s unlikely that the established editor has time to tease the necessary information out of you! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Susan Uttendorfsky — January 20, 2018 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  6. Comments much appreciated!

    I take newbie requests for help very seriously and keep a list of resources handy that I can send/post whenever they pop up. Now I can add this post as much for the thoughtful comments as for anything I’ve said.

    Liked by 4 people

    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — January 18, 2018 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

  7. A special thank you to fellow AAE contributor AElfwine Mischler for catching a double negative when this first went out!

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — January 18, 2018 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

  8. Thank you so much for this extremely useful post!


    Comment by danaloev — January 27, 2018 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  9. As always, Ruth, your advice is thoughtful, wise, and well expressed. Thanks!


    Comment by Jane Lincoln Taylor — February 14, 2018 @ 11:18 am | Reply

  10. Good lord. Capitalism really is the crisis. I’m privileged enough to never worry about money but asking people to desist from requesting payment for rent, food etc is kind of ridiculous. If it’s standard procedure in an industry, it’s the industry that has the problem.


    Comment by HumnahFarooqui — August 28, 2018 @ 4:08 am | Reply

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