4 Things I Wish I’d Known When Starting My Freelance Editing Career

by Maya Berger

Woman (head not visible) in black dress holding a white mug inscribed with "Like a Boss."
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Going freelance is no small undertaking, and it’s impossible to know everything about running your own editing business from day one. Self-employed editorial professional Maya Berger offers tips for those just starting out.

1. Your clients are not your bosses

As a new freelancer, you may feel pressure to say yes to every client request, no matter how unrealistic the deadline or how little they understand an editor’s remit. After all, you don’t want to seem unhelpful or incompetent. This was how I felt in my early freelancing days, and even today I still hate the idea of letting a client down.

To an extent, of course, that’s what makes us good editors—we are conscientious and we care about meeting our clients’ editorial needs. But I eventually realized that I was letting the clients dictate all the terms of my work, and that had to change. When I accepted rates that didn’t meet my expenses and turnaround times that left me rushed and exhausted, I was jeopardizing the future of my business and I wasn’t treating myself like a professional.

When I started basing my quotes on my average editing speeds and industry-standard rates, and when I enforced boundaries around my working hours, not only did the quality of my editing work improve but also my clients had greater respect for my expertise and my time.

2. Low rates benefit no one

Essay editing services, freelance work bidding platforms, independent authors, and traditional publishers alike can all be guilty of setting laughably low editing and proofreading rates. When you’re starting out as a freelancer, you may be desperate for experience and tempted to work for peanuts. I certainly was, and I certainly did.

In my first year of freelancing, I signed up with an academic proofreading service that gave me lots of short texts to proof but paid only around $9.95 per hour. I thought that if I increased my proofreading speed I could increase my effective hourly rate, but it remained under minimum wage.

Taking on more work for this client only made things worse. I was gaining proofreading experience, but I didn’t have time to be thorough, so the value was limited. And because I was struggling to make ends meet, I sunk all my time into this proofreading service, giving myself no time for professional development or marketing. I only broke the cycle once I stopped working for that client altogether. Quitting was scary because having some work felt safer than having no work, but in truth there was no safety in clinging to work that didn’t pay my bills. So I quit and focused my energy elsewhere. I got new, better-paying clients—and sooner than I’d expected.

On a larger scale, accepting low rates harms the wider editing community and even the client, as well as the person doing the work. If editors undercut each other, it becomes harder for all of us to earn the rates we deserve, and the client often ends up with the rushed output of someone without the time or motivation to do their best work. As a result, the client sees less value in our work and feels justified in keeping their editorial budget low.

3. Your love of lists is a superpower

Lists are a regular feature of an editorial professional’s working day, and many of us love nothing more than crossing an item off a checklist. Lists help us manage our daily workloads, and it was a revelation when I learned that they could also give me big-picture insights into how my business was doing.

Just as project checklists allow you to manage your editorial workflow, the following lists (yes, I’ve created a list of lists) help you manage other aspects of your business:

  • Lists of clients and lists of projects—organized by genre/discipline, project length, publication type, location, or any other metric you like—can help you spot trends and make decisions about how to market yourself and who to target in the future.
  • Lists of my rates (estimated and actual) for each project—organized by project remit, publication type, project length, etc.
  • Lists of marketing strategies, such as cold-calling, directory entries, word of mouth, and paid advertisements.
  • Lists of expenses—not only to help you claim expenses when filing your taxes but also to make sure that your income is sufficient to meet your expenses.

I recently created an Excel system called The Editor’s Affairs (TEA), where editors can record and analyze all their income, expenses, and project management details. My aim is to help editors expand their love of lists into a love of business data. By harnessing that love, you’ll keep your business as a whole—as well as each of your projects—on the right track.

4. It’s never too early to contribute to the editing community

When I started freelancing back in 2016, I was riddled with imposter syndrome and convinced that I’d need to be in the business for at least a decade before I had any input worth offering. I had underestimated my fellow editors’ interest in hearing diverse perspectives as well as the value of my own unique skillset. Each individual who joins this profession brings their background and life experiences with them, and we’re all capable of helping others from day one.

I had worked for a higher-education news publisher for 10 years before going freelance, but I managed a team of editors for most of that time and the editing work there was database-driven, so I worried that my experience wouldn’t be transferable to freelance editing. Over time, though, I learned that managing a team made me want to keep empowering other editors. And my work with databases gave me the skills to create TEA and help editors feel more professional and in control of their businesses.

The editing community’s diversity and openness are among its greatest strengths. Giving back to it is easier than you might think, and it can be incredibly rewarding.

I hope these tips help you feel more confident as you begin your freelance editing journeys. Before long, you’ll be sharing your own insights with fellow editors, whether on online forums or through professional associations like Editors Canada or the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

 

Maya Berger is a Toronto-based editor and proofreader specializing in speculative fiction, erotica, and academic nonfiction in the humanities and social sciences. She is the creator of The Editor’s Affairs (TEA), a system of Excel tools allowing self-employed editorial professionals to manage their income, expenses, and project data.

This article was copy edited by Leslie Lapides.

2 thoughts on “4 Things I Wish I’d Known When Starting My Freelance Editing Career

  1. Thank you for this empowering post! I am very new to the freelance business, and I can already tell the first point of your post is the one I’m going to need to remain the strictest about. I just have to learn how to stand up for myself, is all!

    Much easier said than done.

    Like

    1. Definitely easier said than done.

      I still have to periodically remind myself that it’s my choice whether to accept what an author/publisher offers. But we and our businesses deserve that choice.

      All the best with your new freelance career, Cassandra!

      Liked by 1 person

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