Becoming an academic editor: one year later

By Nicole M. Roccas


Nearly a year ago, I decided to strike out on my own and become a freelance academic editor.

It wasn’t a hasty decision—I was about to finish my PhD in history and had been considering career options for several years. During that time, I took on small, short-term copy editing jobs I found through friends or online job sites. Editing, I found, came naturally and complemented my tendency to be fastidious with written language.

Nonetheless, when I finally launched my own editing business, I encountered a steep learning curve. As I reflect on the past year, here’s what I’ve learned—and continue to learn.

       1. Editing is the “Easy” Part

At first, I expected the most difficult aspects of editing would involve obscure grammatical scenarios, not to mention finally buckling down to figure out Canadian spelling rules (though I’m originally from the US and most of my clients are outside Canada, it would still be a nice skill to have). But I soon realized this is what reference materials are for—as long as I am meticulous and vigilant, I can spot and look up any questionable grammar or spelling situation.

The harder things, for me, had little to do with editing and more to do with running my own business.

     2. Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Freelancing in any industry comes with the constant temptation to undersell your services in order to attract or maintain more clients. When I first started out, I discussed my fees with clients in unnecessarily apologetic tones and generally tried to avoid charging people at all. Not surprisingly, a number of them either never paid me or paid only a small portion of what I’d been expecting. I figured this came with the territory of starting out—once I was more well established, people would take me seriously.

Thankfully, I snapped out of that pattern pretty quickly once several fellow editors pointed out I was doing the same work for only a fraction of what they were charging. In an indirect way, I was devaluing not only my own work but theirs as well.

I’ve slowly gained a better sense of what my services are worth and how to communicate more clearly with potential clients about their projects and what I can offer them. I’ve never again had an issue with reimbursement, but more importantly, my relationships with clients are more satisfying for both parties—there is a mutual understanding of what the expectations are.

       3. It’s Feast or Famine

Freelance editing (really, any kind of freelancing) means being willing to ride out the peaks and troughs. Even seasoned self-employed editors face the occasional dearth of new business, but this can be especially daunting when first starting out—the “famines” are more frequent and longer lasting, since you have a smaller base of previous clients returning to you or recommending you to others.

This is something I’m still learning how to manage. Maintaining a part-time job alongside editing has mitigated the financial precariousness of freelancing. Although it makes it harder to focus on editing, it gives me more freedom to grow my business slowly. I also try to minimize overwork during feast times by spacing projects out more evenly when clients are not under tight deadlines. Likewise, I’m trying to be proactive in the slow periods by using the downtime to conceptualize new business strategies, research networking ideas, or launch new initiatives. A while ago, for example, I began to blog about writing, editing, and freelancing strategies, and I’m just finishing writing an e-book along the same lines.

       4. Be Yourself

I’ll be honest: “networking” and “advertising” still freak me out. I can teach a classroom of students about medieval history, but as soon as I have to talk about my skills or my business, I lose all charisma and shrink into a silent lurker.

I’m learning, though, that personal relationships are the best way to advertise. This has been confirmed by a childhood friend of mine who now has her PhD in the psychology of marketing. When I recently spoke with her about struggles I encounter while growing a business, she encouraged me to nurture the part of myself that prioritizes relationships—to check in with people, be engaged and interested in their lives, and share my own life with them. I’m not an extrovert and may not always be a social butterfly in large, interpersonal situations. Still, I care about people and what they are going through—realizing that the investments I make in those around me is related to what I do as an editor has been rewarding and significant. My business is growing slowly, but it’s growth that is more integrative and meaningful to me than merely posting ads for strangers to see—although that, too, is at times necessary.

       5. Make Colleagues, not Competition

This is not so much something I “learned” (several friends were freelance editors before I followed in their footsteps) but something I am continually reminded of. I benefit too much from the feedback of fellow editors to view them as competition. We need one another to share ideas and struggles with and, particularly for us freelancers, to gain a sense of camaraderie that can be lacking when working from home. Editors Toronto has been an essential part of expanding my network of colleagues.

I’ve learned a lot in this first year of editing, and, undoubtedly, the learning will continue. Who knows what I’ll be looking back on next year at this time? Perhaps by then, I’ll have finally mastered Canadian spelling.

Nicole is a freelance academic editor and the communications chair at Editors Toronto. You can find her on her website, where she blogs about editing and freelancing, and on Twitter (@work_and_words).

This article was copy edited by Kerry Fast.


3 thoughts on “Becoming an academic editor: one year later

  1. Thank you for your post, Nicole. It was so encouraging given that I am looking to transition from teaching to pursue more freelancing. I particularly liked how you expressed your anxieties around advertising and marketing. That is me to a tee as well. So I look forward to reflecting more on your experience and how I can overcome similar challenges.


  2. Thanks! I wish you the best of luck on your journey! Feel free to contact me if you have more questions, I’m always happy to talk and learn a lot from others as well. You can contact me through my website, 🙂


  3. Nicole, thank you for walking us through details of your learning curve. It’s helpful to see how you came to understand where your market value should be. The struggle to appreciate that value feels so familiar to me at the beginning of my own freelance efforts. The perspective you share here illustrates the need to price services “fairly” in the larger sense of supporting a healthy market. It’s an object lesson that should help me and others overcome insecurities about the business end of freelance editing.


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