An American Editor

July 13, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be a Freelancer

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The idea of being a freelance editor, writer, proofreader, or other editorial worker — for that matter, a freelance anything — is alluring. The prospect of escaping from routine or a difficult boss, setting your own hours, making more money, saying no to work you don’t want to do — it all seems so exciting and worthwhile.

And it is. But freelancing isn’t easy. Being a freelancer means being in business. You might not have an outside office, employees, or a warehouse full of inventory, but you will be in business. Editorial work may be creative, but that doesn’t mean you can approach freelancing nonchalantly, as if there were no business aspects to success.

First steps

For many, if not most, of us, the hardest part of freelancing seems to be finding a steady stream of work that pays well. Before you can meet that challenge, you have to know what to do, for whom, and at how much.

Figure out what you do well, and what you want to do. Put some time into identifying your market — publications, publishers large or small, big corporations, small businesses, independent authors, government agencies, domestic and international not-for-profit organizations, etc., all use freelance writers, editors, desktop publishers, proofreaders, website designers and managers, indexers, graphic artists, and more. Think about your competition, and how you might make yourself stand out from them. Use resources discussed in An American Editor and elsewhere to figure out how much you need to earn to cover your expenses. Then get ready to find the clients that respect your skills and pay accordingly.

Charging for your work

Setting rates for your freelance work can be daunting. Some clients will have rates in place and all you have to do is decide whether to accept those rates. Others may ask what you would charge, or expect you to bid on their work. Various publications and professional organizations provide guidelines on ranges for different types of editorial work, and colleagues are often willing to share what they charge. (Search An American Editor for columns about “effective hourly rate” and “what to charge” to understand and set the rates you need to cover your bills and expenses.)

Keep in mind that everyone is different; my skills, years of experience, types of client, types of work I accept, and chutzpah level are different from yours, so what I charge might be irrelevant to what you can charge (in either direction).

Part of freelancing successfully and getting paid what you think you’re worth has to do with how you set up your business. If you’re a specialist, you probably can charge higher fees; if you’re a generalist, you should get more assignments. The bottom line might look the same.

Thinking about this aspect of freelancing before you actively look for clients will make it easier to know which projects are worth accepting and which ones to turn down.

Finding work

Finding worthwhile clients and projects means marketing and promoting yourself and your skills. As creative people, and as the introverts that many writers, editors, and proofreaders supposedly are, that is a nerve-racking prospect, but it is absolutely essential to freelance success.

The first step is to let everyone you know — family, friends, and especially everyone you’ve ever worked with — about your freelance business and that you are looking for projects. Get business cards and carry them with you at all times; you never know when the lead to a project might crop up, even in social situations. Then go after clients beyond your current network of contacts.

The “bible” for freelance writers is Writer’s Market. I’m also a big believer in trolling local newsstands to find and read magazines that interest me so I can pitch story ideas; they all have websites, and most of those sites provide editorial calendars and writers’ guidelines. Editors and proofreaders often rely on Literary Market Place. We all can use membership (and visibility) in professional associations or discussion groups for access to job-listing services, directory listings, and referrals as colleagues get to know us.

About the boss

One of the fun things about freelancing is being the boss. One of the hard things about freelancing is being the boss.

As the owner of your freelance business, you are responsible for meeting deadlines; paying quarterly estimated taxes; billing and collecting; filing and record-keeping; marketing and promoting; managing time; and all the other little details that are not the editorial activities that you want to spend all your time doing.

You also now have to psych out not one “boss” or “supervisor,” but several. You will have more than one client to answer to and understand — if you’re lucky, dozens. Some will interpret a deadline to mean receiving your work first thing in the morning of the due date; others will consider 5 p.m. as meeting that deadline. Some will want to discuss every detail of a project by phone or e-mail, adding substantial amounts of time to the work. Different clients may expect you to follow different style guides; some may not even know what a style manual is. Some of your responsibility as a freelancer will be to educate clients — tactfully, of course — on expectations.

(For more details on all of these topics, search the An American Editor archives for “setting office hours,” “managing time,” “expectations,” etc.)

Protecting yourself

Rewarding as it can be, freelancing also has its risks. The one that seems to come up in discussions the most often is not getting paid. You can head that off, for the most part, by having something in the way of an agreement or contract. It doesn’t have to be overly formal or lawyerly, but make sure you confirm all details of an assignment or project by e-mail or in a Word document. Include language about how and when you’ll be paid. (Check the An American Editor archives for “Getting Paid: Things for a Freelancer to Think About.”)

If the client has a contract for you to sign, read it carefully to make sure you aren’t accepting liability for anything beyond your control, such as changes after you’ve submitted your work that could create inaccuracies. You can often negotiate to cross out clauses that don’t apply to you or that you find unacceptable. Some boilerplate contracts that make sense for large vendors but not individual freelancers ask for huge levels of insurance coverage, for instance, and usually can be removed if you point that out to the client.

Do some basic research on copyright so you understand, and don’t unnecessarily give away, your rights to your work. With writing, the work belongs to you once you’ve created it until you’re paid for whatever rights you’ve agreed to sell. For editing work, include language in agreements and invoices about retaining the copyright to your version of the document until you’ve been paid. (See the An American Editor essay “The Editor’s Interest: Copyright or Not.”)

For writing assignments, payment will usually be by the word and after the assignment is done. Try to get payment on acceptance rather than on publication — it could take several months between when you hand in that article and the magazine comes out, and all kinds of things could happen in between to delay or even cancel publication.

Editing and proofreading usually are paid by the hour; sometimes by the word or page, or as flat (project) fees. When working with nonpublisher companies and individuals, you often can get a deposit or advance before starting the work; with many clients, you can arrange for interim payments on lengthy projects. That kind of arrangement is especially useful with individual authors, who could be gobsmacked by the total fee but able to pay several smaller amounts over time. Consider making it your business policy, whenever possible, to withhold the finished work until paid in full.

Include language in agreements about late fees, and something to that effect in your invoice template; you generally can’t, or at least shouldn’t, charge late fees if you haven’t said that you will do so. And don’t jump the gun — you can say “payable on receipt” on your invoice, but the standard timeframe for payment in the business world is 30 days after invoice date. Unless your contract specifies otherwise, that’s when you’ll be paid. A few days past the 30-day limit might not mean someone isn’t going to pay. Give it a week, perhaps two, before treating a missing payment as late. (For additional discussion about invoicing on An American Editor, see “The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices.”)

The possibility of late payment or nonpayment brings up another important aspect of protecting yourself: Try to have a savings cushion that covers at least a few months of expenses before you venture into full-time freelancing, so you’re covered in case it takes a while to find projects, or you encounter slow or no-show payments. Knowing you can pay your bills affects your attitude. If you’re desperate for money, you’re more likely to accept low fees and draconian conditions. Try not to do that to yourself.

Self-protection is also a factor in marketing and promotions. When you’re immersed in a substantial, demanding, long-term project, it’s easy to forget to market yourself. Don’t get so buried in current work that you stop looking for the next project. Otherwise, you’ll have no work or income while you wait for that check to come in. The smart thing to do is to set aside a few hours every week to devote to marketing.

Working for free

If you don’t have experience or training in the skills you want to sell, it might make sense to do some free or low-paying work to build up a portfolio of work. If that’s the case, do so on your own terms — write or edit for a nonprofit organization you support for long enough to establish yourself, and then use that work and those contacts as your springboard to paying projects.

Beware of websites where you bid for projects; those clients are usually more interested in how little you’ll accept than the quality of your work. You don’t want to wear yourself out by doing $1,000 worth of work for $5 or $10, even $100. That time could be better spent on looking for clients who respect skill and quality, and pay accordingly.


There’s a lot more to freelancing, of course, than these tips. For more, check the An American Editor archives and consider getting my self-published booklet, “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer”; my booklet for the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business”; and Rich Adin’s book with Jack Lyon and me, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper; and attending the “Be a Better Freelancer”® conferences offered by Communication Central.

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.


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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