An American Editor

December 25, 2020

On the Basics: Overcoming or preventing income anxiety

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:50 pm
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

The topic of “income anxiety” for freelancers — that scary feeling that you aren’t going to earn enough to cover your bills — came up in one of my online communities recently, and I thought our subscribers might benefit from an expanded version of my response.

I’ve been lucky to only have had income anxiety a very few times over many years of freelancing, in part because I have a few strategies to head it off or cope if it arose and in part because of luck — a new project showing up just as I was starting to feel worried.

• If you plan to start freelancing full-time, look for some assignments to start building your business and client base while still in your current job (as long as that doesn’t put your job in jeopardy). Put aside enough savings to cover three months’ or more worth of expenses before you launch your freelance business, because it takes time to build your business until it can generate enough income to pay the bills. Try to maintain those savings (and add to them) as you go along.

• If you’re already in business, or once you launch, put a percentage of every payment into a savings account — either the backup one from your startup days or a separate one that you might use for paying estimated taxes and other business items. That’s often called “Pay yourself first”; if you don’t see the money, you won’t spend it.

• Be proactive — when you get a new client and it goes well, ask for a testimonial and say you’d like to work together again. If it’s a writing project, suggest new topics you’d like to cover. If you offer more than one type of freelance service, let them know you can do those other things for them. Don’t wait for them to remember that you exist or realize that you can provide more than one editorial service.

• This might be the time to look into new services you can offer to generate more income and reduce that anxiety. Just remember that most editorial services require some training, often in using new software or technology.

• Market your business/Promote yourself all the time — don’t get so immersed in either a big, lengthy project or your day-to-day stuff that you forget to promote your business. No matter how big and profitable it might be, that project will end and then you’ll have to wait for payment. You want something lined up for as soon as that current project ends so you have more of an income flow than a stop-and-start scenario, and marketing/promotions is the way to make that happen. Use LinkedIn, Facebook groups, Twitter, professional memberships and your website to let the world know what you do, what kinds of projects you’re looking for, and any successes or achievements relevant to your business.

• And speaking of professional associations, don’t just join: As I urge all the time, be visible so you build a network of colleagues who might refer or subcontract with you. Provide advice, resources and answers to colleagues’ questions through discussion lists, forums, blog posts, etc., to establish yourself as knowledgeable and valuable. And look for ways those associations could provide income as well as resources and camaraderie; some will pay members to present webinars or workshops, write publications, blog, serve on boards or committees, etc.

• Stay in touch with clients (without being intrusive or pushy), so you’re top of mind when they need someone. If you see something relevant to a client’s profession or industry, send them a quick alert with a link. Do something at the end of the year or beginning of a new year to let them know you appreciate their business. Some of our colleagues have found that just announcing they’ll be unavailable due to an upcoming vacation results in clients scrambling to send new work before the “out of office” time kicks in!

• If necessary, look for ways to build some backup income, even if it isn’t editing/editorial work. There’s no shame in having a part-time non-editing/-editorial job if you need it to stay financially safe. Your clients don’t have to know that you’re doing something outside our profession to pay the bills.

• If working at a fast-food restaurant or big-box store isn’t for you, look for other ways to generate income: making and selling crafts, or even better in terms of staying within the editorial field — self-publishing. You don’t have to write a full-length novel to create something that brings in a stream of income; you can sell a short story or how-to booklet.

• Review and tighten up your spending. Look for ways to save money and make frugality a byword. Most of us can find something to do without to save a few bucks a week or month, or ways to reduce spending, even on essentials.

• Raise your rates! One reason for income anxiety is that freelancers tend to under-value our editorial work. Many of us aren’t charging what we’re worth or could command. You can keep some of your current clients at their current rates but charge new ones more, especially at the beginning of a new year.

• Drop unprofitable clients (again, for freelancers). Most of us have at least one client who takes up more of our time and energy than they give back in income. It’s scary to think about dropping a paying client, but letting go of the ones who are a drain on time and energy frees you up to seek — and find — ones that are more worthwhile.

• Update your résumé and test the waters if you work in-house (or want to). These are crazy times, but there are still editorial jobs out there. See if you can find one that pays more than your current one, or provides better benefits. Actually, even if you’re freelancing, the end of the year is a good time for that update, as well as for refreshing your website.

• Ask for help. Don’t whine or beg, of course, but find ways to let colleagues know that you’re looking for new projects or a new job, and ask for suggestions, referrals and subcontracting. If you’re eligible for public benefits, sign up for them — don’t let pride get in the way of survival.

Here’s hoping that the new year will be better for all of us in every way. In the meantime, let us know how you manage income and expenses to avoid income anxiety.

May 9, 2016

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Generalist–Specialist Dichotomy and the Editorial Freelancer

by Louise Harnby

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? This question often arises in editorial freelancing circles. Actually, answering it isn’t straightforward because it depends on how one defines those terms.

One of my colleagues considers herself a specialist. She’s an editor who works solely with independent fiction authors, particularly in the field of speculative fiction. She doesn’t proofread. She doesn’t work for publishers, businesses, students, charities, project management companies, marketing communications agencies, or schools.

I’m a proofreader who works with publishers, independent authors, businesses, project management companies, and students. My focus is on the social sciences, commercial nonfiction, and fiction.

My colleague could be forgiven for thinking I’m a generalist because when you compare her range of clients (and the type of material she works on) with my range of clients (and the type(s) of material I work on), we’re worlds apart.

However, I still think I’m a specialist because I don’t provide developmental editing or copy-editing services, and I don’t work on, for example, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) material. When I promote myself to potential clients, I present myself as a specialist.

It’s not about me

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether my colleague, you, or I think I’m a specialist or a generalist. All that matters is that potential clients who are searching for someone to solve their editorial problems can find me and recognize my ability to help them.

The question I therefore need to ask myself is: “What does the client want to know?”

Imagine the following scenario. Gandalf is looking for someone to proofread an article he’s submitting to the Journal of Ethical Wizardry. His paper compares ten different countries’ legal instruments for controlling spell-making and spell-casting. It’s already been peer-reviewed by some other eminent wizards. Now he needs to get it checked to ensure that the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency are in order. The references also need checking to ensure that they comply with The Sorcerer’s Bluebook, which is the definitive international style guide for magico-legal citation. He searches an online directory for proofreaders and takes a look at the first three profiles in the list. Who will he pick?

  • The proofreader who tells him she “proofreads anything”?
  • The proofreader who tells him she has a politics degree and specializes in working with academics, publishers, project management agencies, and students working in the social sciences, with a particular focus on economics, politics, philosophy, international relations, development studies, and magic?
  • The proofreader and editor whose website tells him she is a former practicing lawyer who now specializes in working with academics, publishers, project management agencies, and students working in the social sciences, with a particular focus on economics, politics, philosophy, international relations, law and criminology, development studies, and magic?

Let’s assume that all three of the above proofreaders are experienced, well qualified, and members of national industry-recognized editorial associations.

If I were Gandalf, my first choice would be the third person in the above list because she has specialist legal experience (though I would also bookmark the entry for the second person as a fallback). It doesn’t matter that she offers two different types of editorial service, or that she works on many different subjects, or that her client base is wide ranging. Sure, some might consider her a generalist. However, even if you do consider her to be a generalist, the fact is this – she’s more likely to spot a citation that isn’t formatted in the style recommended by The Sorcerer’s Bluebook, and Gandalf knows this.

Clearly communicating what you do

When we market ourselves as generalists, we run the risk of saying nothing. When we market ourselves as specialists – even if those specialisms are many and cover a wide range of subjects/genres – we can say a lot.

Saying you do “everything” or “anything” is problematic for several reasons:

  • It’s not believable: Specializing is about being believable. If you don’t inspire trust in a potential client at the first point of contact, you’re unlikely to be hired by anyone with even a grain of an idea in their head about what their chosen proofreader or editor might look like. Think about it – who really can proofread anything? I’m comfortable tackling a lot of subjects, but veterinary medicine isn’t one of them. Nor is electrical engineering. Nor is cardiopulmonary medicine. And if you’re an editor who does feel comfortable working in any of those fields, how do you feel about tackling the third draft of a self-publisher’s YA fiction thriller that needs a substantive edit? I suspect that editorial professionals who can truly proofread or edit absolutely anything are few and far between.
  • SEO fail: Specializing is about being discoverable. If you don’t take the time to tell your potential clients what you specialize in, whether it’s one subject or twenty, your website will be less about SEO (search engine optimization) and more about SEI (search engine invisibility). When the search engines crawl over your website looking for keywords by which to rank you, they won’t find much and they’ll move on. Does that matter? After all, you proofread anything. That’s fine if your clients are searching for someone who does “anything.” In reality, many clients are more specific. Looking at my Google Analytics data, I can see that keyword searches include “academic editing,” “fiction proofreader,” “dissertation proofreading services,” “proofreading thesis Norwich,” “student proofreading,” “novel proofreading,” “PhD proofreading UK,” “medical proofreader England,” “academic copy editor,” “medical proofreading,” “scientific paper editing,” “CV proofreading,” “legal proofreading,” “self-publisher proof-reading,” “proof read my thriller,” and “proofread journal paper politics.” Given that I do provide services that match many of those keyword searches, I want Google to know that and rank me accordingly.
  • Customer disengagement: Specializing is about being interesting. Saying you do “anything” is far less interesting than saying you do “X, Y, and Z.” When we tell a client about our specialist areas, we are demonstrating competence, experience, and knowledge. Imagine I send a letter to a scientific publisher. I’m one of five proofreaders who, that week, have contacted the book production manager with a request to be added to the publisher’s bank of proofreaders. In their cover letters, two of my colleagues have explained that they are specialists in academic proofreading; the other two have stated that they specialize in working with scientific academic material. In my cover letter, I tell the production manager that I’m a generalist and will proofread anything. Who makes the deepest impression on the production manager? I suspect that I’m bottom of the pile in terms of client engagement. I’ve not presented myself in a way that shows I’m interested in what the press publishes. Nor have I presented myself in a way that shows I’m interesting.

Again, whether you work on one subject, with one type of client type, on one type of file, or you work on numerous subjects, with several different client types, in multiple media, present your narrow focus or your breadth of service in a way that marks you as a specialist.

Specialization and the new starter

I always recommend specialization before diversification to new starters. Especially at the beginning of your career, thinking like a specialist helps you to plan your client-building strategy in a targeted manner and focus your marketing efforts on the type of clients who are most likely to give you valuable first gigs that enable you to build your portfolio and gather testimonials.

For example, if you have a degree in electrical engineering, and you identify yourself as a specialist technical copyeditor, you’re more likely to be successful in securing your first paying job if you contact publishers with technical and engineering lists. Engineering students are more likely to be interested in asking you to check their Master’s dissertations and doctoral theses. Engineering businesses are more likely to ask you to edit their annual reports. Your specialist knowledge will count for a great deal, even though your editorial portfolio will be scant.

When I entered the field of editorial freelancing, I deliberately targeted social science presses because of my politics degree and previous career with an academic publisher, marketing social science journals. I was able to present myself as a specialist proofreader who understood the language of the social sciences. Those factors made me interesting to those presses and gave them confidence in my ability to work with the subject matter.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t expand your specialist areas, or that you have to decline work that comes your way if it falls outside them (as long as you are comfortable with what you are being asked to do). My current portfolio is far more diverse than it was back in 2006. Specializing, however, made it much easier to get my foot in the door and build my business.

Marketing that focuses on your business preferences

Some of us choose to specialize in very narrow terms. Some of us choose breadth. One isn’t “better” than the other. Rather, it’s a business decision. If you prefer to offer a range of services to a range of clients over a range of media, and you can do this in a way that makes your business profitable, then breadth is better for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer to focus on one or two services to one client type over one medium, and you can do this in a way that makes your business profitable, then a narrow focus is “better” for you.

Effective marketing will be key to whichever path you choose. If your preferred clients can’t find you, it matters little whether your client focus is narrow or broad – if you’re not discoverable, you’ll be unemployed either way.


When it comes to marketing communications, there’s no such thing as a generalist. Rather, there are two types of specialist – the specialist-specialist and the generalist-specialist. Either way, both are specialists and talk like specialists.

Even if you are, for all intents and purposes, quite the generalist – that is, you’ll edit and/or proofread a wide range of subjects for a wide range of clients – market yourself as a specialist.

You can present yourself as a specialist in a variety of ways:

  • Relevant training (e.g., as a proofreader), related career experience (e.g., you used to be a social worker), and educational qualifications in pertinent a subject (e.g., you have a degree in public policy and administration).
  • Industry-specific knowledge – you might be familiar with particular citation systems (e.g., OSCOLA for legal works), style guides (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style or New Hart’s Rules), markup language (e.g., the British Standards Institution’s BS:5261C).
  • Subject matter (e.g., sciences, social sciences, medicine, fiction).
  • Client base (e.g., students, businesses, publishers, independent authors, academics).
  • Editorial service (e.g., proofreading, copyediting, indexing, consultancy).
  • Clear statements of interest: for example, “…I specialize in providing proofreading solutions for clients working in the social sciences, humanities, fiction and commercial non-fiction…” (Louise Harnby | Proofreader, England); “…We are a group of highly skilled and experienced editors who specialize in editing nonfiction…” (Freelance Editorial Services, USA); “…I specialise in fiction editing, especially for independent/self-publishing writers…” (Averill Buchanan | Editor & Publishing Consultant, Ireland); “…I offer specialist legal editing services for publishers, law firms, businesses, academics, and students…” (Janet MacMillan | Wordsmith | Editor | Proofreader | Researcher, Canada).

Being a specialist is certainly about the choices you make as an editorial business owner in terms of the kind of work you choose to do. But it’s just as much about communicating with potential clients in a way that demonstrates enthusiasm, knowledge, skills and experience — even if you are a bit of a generalist!

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

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