Ask Aunt Elizabeth: To freelance or not to freelance?

By Elizabeth d’Anjou

Looking for advice on editing the editing life? Whether you’re a beginner looking for tips on starting out or an old hand looking for another perspective, veteran editor Aunt Elizabeth is ready to address your queries. Submit them to [email protected]—you may find the answers you are looking for in next month’s column.

(1) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’m thinking of becoming a freelance editor. I’ve worked in-house for many years as an editor at several different magazines, and I’m currently an in-house editor at a major publishing house. I love being an editor, but I yearn to be my own boss. What kind of person do you think it takes to be a freelancer, and can you kindly list a few of the pros and cons of running your own freelance editing business?

Contemplating in Cabbagetown

Dear Contemplating,

I wouldn’t trade my freelance life for any job on earth, but self-employment isn’t for everyone. How can you tell if it’s for you? Well, that yearning to be your own boss is a big indicator that you might be well suited to freelancing; not taking orders from anyone is the biggest appeal for me. (As God is my witness, I will never again have to redo work—or, worse, ask an author to—because of my manager’s poor decisions!)

But keep in mind you’ll be not only your own boss but your own marketing department, admin assistant, tech support, accounting staff, and janitor—therefore, enjoying variety in your work and being willing to learn new skills are also important characteristics in a freelancer. (You can outsource some tasks, of course, and it can be a good idea to do so, but everything you hire someone to do adds another layer of complication; you want to be an editor, not a full-time manager.) To be successful, you’ll also need to be your own executive committee, stepping back from your day-to-day work on occasion to think about you business’s goals and how to meet them; doing this can take some readjustment for a detail-oriented editor.

Some other things I love about freelancing are the flexible hours and the ability to work in my pyjamas (fact: I do not own a pair of nylons) with my dog at my feet.

The cons include uneven income (a good nest egg or a partner with a day job is a big plus) and a less flexible schedule in the medium term (scheduling a vacation in advance is risky, for example, because you may have no idea what kind of work will be heading your way by the time it rolls around). If you live alone, you can start to feel a bit isolated—even in the days of social media, having actual contact with another human from time to time is a good thing—and you should probably limit yourself to ONE cat only or you risk a slippery slope. Living in Cabbagetown gives you a great advantage, though; hit those cafés and meet friends for lunch at Rashnaa—wearing whatever you want!

(2) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

As a freelance editor yourself, what are your thoughts on subcontracting your work? I’ve heard both horror and success stories from fellow freelance editors.

Many thanks,
Worried in Wiarton

Dear WiW,

  1. Get permission from the client before subcontracting. You don’t want to be sneaking about; the truth always comes out eventually.
  2. Subcontract only to people whose work you have very good reason to trust (either because you’ve worked with them or because they’ve been very highly recommended by people whose judgement you really trust).
  3. Budget time (more than you probably think) to train and oversee your subcontractor(s), and make sure the financial arrangement covers this time. A good rule of thumb is to pay your subcontractors no more than about two-thirds of the rate you are getting from the client.

(3) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’ve been freelancing for about three years now. And one of my regular clients has been with me from the beginning.

I love the editing work I get from this client, but I feel it’s time to increase my rate. Any suggestions on how to let this client know that I need a “raise” without running the risk of losing said client?

Thanks for your thoughts,
Money-Mad Maya

Dear MMM,

Alas, there is always some risk of losing a client if you raise your rates. But then, there’s always some risk of losing a client anyway, even if you change absolutely nothing! The key to freelancing with confidence is to make sure that both your editing skills and your business skills are good enough that you know you can win new clients.

I suggest simply letting the client know with an email that you’ll be raising your rates by X amount as of Y date (April 1 or May 1 is often a good choice, as it’s tax season and the start of some companies’ fiscal years), perhaps with a few lines of explanation (inflation; reflecting greater training and experience; certification or other credentials; etc.). Somewhat to my surprise, in 20 years of freelancing, I’ve only once lost a client by doing this—and I’ve twice had clients respond by offering to raise the rate they paid me by even more!

If you have reason to think this client is particularly price sensitive (if you have no idea, maybe you can find out a bit more about the organization), you could mention how much you like working with this client, and that if this rate is beyond their budget, you’d be happy to discuss it and see what you can work out. Think in advance about what compromise you’re willing to make if the client takes you up on this offer. It may be worth it to you to forgo some or even all of your raise for other benefits (for example, the client pays quickly; the work follows a predictable schedule and/or fits into an otherwise lean period; etc.).

And remember that the client probably wants to keep you, too. Maybe together you can find a way you can work faster on that material (such as leaving the bibliography for the client to do in-house), or maybe the client can send you only the projects on which the budget allows for a premium rate.

If you can’t work out something you feel OK about, you should be ready to part ways on good terms. You might even offer to recommend a younger colleague who might work for less; it always pays to be as useful to a client as possible. Who knows, maybe the person who hires you will work somewhere else with a much bigger budget some day…

Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years’ experience. A past chair of Editors Toronto, she has worked freelance, in-house, and in-between; teaches both grammar and copy editing online courses for Ryerson; and is a sought-after presenter on all subjects editorial. She is also a rather competent tomato gardener and tweets as @ElizdAnjou.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.

One thought on “Ask Aunt Elizabeth: To freelance or not to freelance?

  1. Like you, I wouldn’t trade being my own boss for twice my present earnings. Something comes up – I can attend to it without asking permission from somebody else. Priceless freedom – which in turn breeds happiness – which is, after all, the most important thing in life.


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