An American Editor

May 24, 2021

On the Basics: What do experienced, successful freelancers “owe” to the newcomers?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Someone recently posted an opinion in a journalism group that successful freelancers should give up their businesses for the sake of new freelancers. It made me think about what, if anything, successful and experienced people owe to those who are new to a profession in general or type of business in particular.

As most of you know, I’m a huge believer in being helpful to colleagues — at all levels of their careers or businesses, whether established or just starting out, working in-house or freelance, and any other aspect of their business lives. Not just out of gratitude to colleagues who have been helpful to me, but that “rising tide lifts all boats” theory, you know.

I’ve felt a responsibility to give something back in return for the advice, camaraderie and support that I’ve received from colleagues, especially fellow freelancers. I started freelancing on my own, almost serendipitously, and finding a supportive community of colleagues (primarily through the late, lamented Washington Independent Writers; sob) was a real gift. The people who were helpful to me then didn’t need my help, but I realized I could pass on what I had learned from them and from my own experiences to those who came into freelancing — or writing/editing/proofreading, etc. — after I did.

I do believe in helping “newbies” get a firm start on their writing, editing, proofreading, etc., careers. What makes no sense is expecting any of us to shut down for some undefined benefit to newcomers, or to colleagues who have been in business for a while but are not doing well yet. I don’t even know how that would work. I might hand off a project or client to a colleague who has more of the necessary skill and experience for that work than I do, and I’ve certainly referred colleagues for projects that aren’t what I prefer to do, whether because something pays less than I expect, involves a topic I’m not interested in or requires more effort (developmental vs. copyediting, for instance) than I feel like doing these days.

It does appear that the person making this claim hasn’t had a professional-level job in communications or published any freelance work, which could explain why they want successful freelancers to save them from doing the hard work of finding an in-house job or enough freelance work to be successful. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that.

Newcomers might appreciate mentors to help them learn the ropes of the editorial niche they want to work in, and the ins-and-outs of successful freelancing — and many of us do provide that kind of support. Some of us have been mentors, either formally or informally. Most of us share advice and  insights through our blogs, books, classes or webinars, memberships in professional associations, or visibility in various online groups (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Some of us train new hires, or students and early-career colleagues, at our full-time jobs. 

Freelancing has never been easy to do, as most of us here can attest. It takes more than being able to write well; edit/proofread accurately (and respectfully); create effective, readable publications; design beautiful images and documents, etc. It takes a business approach and a lot of persistence to find clients or assignments, manage finances and taxes, balance varying deadlines, and handle everything else that leads to success.

Whether someone wants a traditional publishing career or a successful freelance business, it takes time. It takes training. It takes a little humility when starting out. Those of us who are successful have put a lot of time, effort and expense into building up our careers or businesses. Most of us love what we do and thrive on doing it well. We plan to keep going as long as our physical and mental capacities make it possible. Few, if any, of us are interested in new careers or premature retirement.

Being supportive doesn’t require closing our doors to support some vague “help the newbies” vision.

How to help

Once successful, it does make sense to give back, pay it forward or however we want to think about encouraging newcomers who might need a little backup as they get started. Some of us may no longer need advice about the basics of being in business, but we can — and I think we should — pass on the benefit of our experience to others.

We were all new to our work and — for those who aren’t working in-house — to freelancing, and we all learned from others. Passing on our knowledge is a mitzvah (a good deed) or investment in good karma. But that’s very different from closing down a business for some vague idea of helping less-established or less-successful colleagues.

Which brings me to how we who are established and successful can help newcomers to editorial work, especially people who are new to freelancing. We can:

Teach — through classes, webinars, conference presentations. Advise — through blogs, publishing, discussion lists, social media outlets, presentations. Share — by suggesting books, degree or certificate training programs, webinars, organizations, tools, other resources, answers to questions. Mentor — if you have the time and energy.

Helping a colleague is rewarding in many ways. Not only is giving back an investment in the future of our profession and our own successful businesses, it is good for the soul — and it feels great. It might seem selfish, but doing good feels good, whether through advising colleagues or supporting a charitable cause.

Colleagues’ perspectives

When the time comes for me to hang up my shingle and retire from my writing/editing/proofreading/publishing business, it won’t be newcomers who will hear from me about taking on some of my clients or projects, and I won’t do it by simply closing down in the hope that someone unknown and less-established will magically benefit from my disappearance from the scene. I’ll let my clients know my plans so they can start looking for a replacement, and I’ll contact colleagues I know to see if they would like to be referred to those clients. The colleagues I contact will be experienced in the appropriate editorial niches. From the freelancing perspective, my preference will be to offer such opportunities to established, professional freelancers with successful businesses. That’s what my clients are used to and whom they would prefer to work with.

If you’re experienced and successful, how do you see your role with newcomers? If you’re new to the editorial field or to freelancing, what do you expect to receive from established, successful colleagues?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

7 Comments »

  1. I’m glad I didn’t see that original post because I think it’s preposterous that someone who has worked hard for years, gained lots of experience, and built a business should then give it up. It takes a great deal of entitlement to even suggest so. There are no “participation trophies” in the business world, and editing IS a business. Those of us who have been in the trenches give back through mentoring, advising, and sharing knowledge with new editors who show the willingness to put in the work/training and appreciate those who have come before them. Just like we did. Giving up a carefully built business so that someone who isn’t willing to put in the work and training has less competition? Not a chance. Unless, of course, he’s willing to replace my yearly income through some personal welfare system he has in his pocket. Personally, if I were a writer, I wouldn’t want someone who didn’t put in the time and training working on my manuscript–and when I finally take down my shingle, like you, I will hand over my clients to those editors who I believe will best serve them. The sooner this “journalist” learns that nothing comes from nothing, the better off he/she will be.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Karen Grove — May 24, 2021 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  2. I was so stunned that somebody actually thought “that successful freelancers should give up their businesses for the sake of new freelancers” that I almost couldn’t read the article. Glad I did, for you turned it into a useful and thoughtful article.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by documania2 — May 24, 2021 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  3. I can’t believe the sense of entitlement some people seem to feel.

    Ruth, I agree with every word you’ve written here.

    I’m less charitable than you, though. I quit the editing Facebook groups I belonged to because I couldn’t stand all the comments from people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing and seemed to think they could call themselves editors with absolutely no training or experience.

    I’ve happily mentored editors who were serious about their profession, but I don’t have time for wannabes who won’t do the hard work themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Anne Brennan — May 24, 2021 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

  4. I suppose we don’t ‘owe’ newbies anything, but your ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ theory rings true. The reason we chose the path we’re on – freelance editing, proofreading (and/or writing) – is because we are passionate about it. And when you care about something, you want to see it succeed. Like you, I’m grateful for the success I’ve had in this profession and the joy it brings me (most of the time). I’m grateful for those who set me straight at the beginning, when I was making stupid mistakes and charging way too little. It gives me pleasure to help others who are where I was 14 years ago. That’s why I’m a mentor with IPEd’s Mentoring Program. I do agree with Anne Brennan’s comment, though. It’s a long path to success that takes hard work, resilience and sometimes, a thick skin. So we can help, encourage and guide, but the rest is up to the mentee.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by fullproofreading — May 24, 2021 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

  5. I’m convinced that the most “controversial” opinions by pundits and journalists are desperate grabs for relevance. They’re “graded” by clicks, and people will remember their names. The idea that people who have worked hard should just walk away–to do what? starve?—is sheer clickbait, even if buried in the middle of the fourth paragraph are two or three reasonable sentences.

    I too left most editing groups on Facebook, because people with zero training and education show up, say, “I have a PhD and I’ve been editing classmates’ dissertations informally…” and that’s at best, and then ask a question that betrays their ignorance or express opinions that are mere peeves, ask for “overflow work,” and ask how fast they can make quick cash, and we were expected to say “Welcome to the profession!” No! No, I will not proceed as if a person with no education or training is an editor! People already don’t think we’re a profession! No one would do this to lawyers! “Hi, I watch law shows, have access to the state statutes, a copy of the US Constitution, and an internet browser…anyone have any overflow clients?” Lawyers have a word for that: misdemeanor. We’re an unregulated profession, sadly, and our certification exams require time in profession, which has it backwards (doctors and lawyers have to take exams *before* they are admitted to practice). It should be the other way around, and the professional standard should be that an editor should join an editing group after getting training and take a certification exam before the profession recognizes them.

    I’m willing to help newbies by giving them advice, pointing them to resources, sending them a current copy of my service agreement, and similar. No, they aren’t entitled to have any of my clients, I worked too hard. And I have the same right to benefit from my own labor as anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by karincather1 — May 24, 2021 @ 10:27 pm | Reply

  6. By the way, am I suggesting that editors should be regulated by states or provinces? Yes, I am. People who groom dogs are required to be licensed in my state. If we are collecting four or five figures from people to do a job, especially with other peoples’ intellectual property, we should have minimum standards. Grandfather people in? Maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by karincather1 — May 24, 2021 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  7. Our debt/obligation is the reader (or client). Then to the publication. You don’t serve the publication (or client) if you don’t first serve the reader.

    As for what can we do, well, first determine if the newbie writer really wants to write/freelance or if they are enamoured with the romantic notion of penning a great novel and/or jetting around the world. If they actually want to work, then I try to help them find ways to make their work, work. I also talk a lot about marketing. The difference between a good writer and a published writer is the ability to sell their ideas or work to an editor. I spend a lot of time with them on the selling part.

    As for stepping aside, no way. The wonderful thing about the arts and culture is that the older you get, the longer your career, the more you may have to say. Arts & culture are an opportunity to harness a life and career to even greater relevance.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Allan Lynch — May 25, 2021 @ 12:36 pm | Reply


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