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.

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