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.

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.

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