First Steps to a Freelance Editing Career: Mentors by the (Almost) Dozen

By S. Robin Larin

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

Launching a career as a freelance editor can be exciting, energizing, and just a little bit terrifying. So, what if you could have an experienced mentor—or 11—answer all of your questions about starting your business, developing skills, and attracting clients?

Enter the “Ask an Experienced Editor” initiative by the Editors Canada student relations committee. We sent experienced editors the most common questions asked by new and student editors and then posted their replies in the student affiliate Facebook group from May to September 2020. We also encouraged our group members to engage with the questions, the answers, and one another, offering two random prizes for a free Editors Canada webinar.

The result? An amazing discussion series of relevant questions, helpful answers, and thoughtful interaction, all geared toward those just beginning their editing careers. We divided the series into six sections: starting out, attracting clients, marketing and networking, setting rates, continuing professional development, and general advice.

Here’s a taste of some of the posts, selected from each of the sections:

1. What should the first steps of a freelancer be?

The consensus was to get ready for the real editing world. “Join an editing association and do some volunteer work for it!” answered Julia Cochrane. “Once people get to know you and your skills as a volunteer, they might think of you when they need to hire, subcontract, or refer.” Beverly Ensom encouraged newbies to get qualified: “Even the friendliest Editors Canada member can’t recommend you if you have no gauge for your editing talents. Take credit courses and webinars (and ace them).” Marie-Christine Payette advised, “Pick a name for your business…get a logo…create a website…get your name out there.” Our experienced editors all concurred: starting up as a freelance editor means going professional.

2. Is it best to start out as a generalist or as a niche freelancer?

This question evoked pros and cons for both approaches. Janice Dyer recommended niche: “If you have an area in which you already have experience, it may make sense to start out by focusing on that area. You will already have contacts.” Julia Cochrane agreed: “My specialty of mathematics was a huge help to me at the beginning.” Melva McLean noted, however, that “it takes some people time to figure out what their specialty is. Try to find the subjects that interest you the most but also try different genres. Work toward the day you are editing what you love.” The varied replies demonstrate that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to kicking off an editing career.

3. How do you stand out from the crowd when you lack professional editing experience?

Many emerging editors worry they will be overshadowed by the more experienced when seeking freelance work. But other ways to catch a prospective client’s eye do exist. Erin Brenner recommended emphasizing one’s “unique selling proposition”: “Take stock of your skills, knowledge, and work style. What would be valuable to clients aside from your editing that would be worth paying for?” Mika Lafond agreed about highlighting one’s expertise: “Everyone has an area of knowledge they feel confident with.” And don’t forget the personal touch. As Marion Soublière added, “Emphasize your enthusiasm and willingness to go the extra mile. Attitude counts for a lot.”

4. How do you decide which career development opportunities to pursue?

The plethora of available conferences and courses can be overwhelming for new editors. Berna Ozunal advised considering one’s budget as much as one’s areas of interest. “Don’t underestimate the value of reading,” she said. “Reading extensively and widely is the best education for any editor.” Regarding editing conferences and seminars, Berna advised to “plan ahead, look at speaker and session offerings, and decide what will be valuable to you.” And it’s not just editing-focused events that can be useful. As Melva McLean observed, “You can also learn a lot at writing conferences…plus you meet writers!”

5. How valuable is your social media presence?

Especially now, in pandemic times, a social media presence is “imperative,” said Marion Soublière. “You can make connections while demonstrating your mastery of clear, effective language.” For self-professed introverts like Erin Brenner and Gael Spivak, virtual networking is less draining than in-person networking, “and it makes it easier to do in-person networking if I already know some people in the group from online contact,” added Gael. Erin noted that “online I can network with many more people from all over the world, increasing my chances of connecting with someone I can help.” Intimidating as social media may be for some beginning editors, it opens the door to many opportunities they might otherwise miss.

6. What is the most important piece of advice you have for an emerging editor?

“Don’t limit yourself if an opportunity comes up to take on a project outside your usual area,” Heather Buzila answered. “Treat your business like a professional business,” Janice Dyer responded, citing the importance of keeping careful records, meeting deadlines, and listing the URLs of your website or LinkedIn profile in your email signature. Gael Spivak recommended, “Listen to the more experienced editors who want to help new editors.” Marie-Christine Payette also suggested, “Whenever you have a chance, talk about your job, your business, your services. You never know who could be a potential client.” Mika Lafond’s response summed up our editors’ advice well: “You can’t be afraid to fail. If you really want to make a career of it, you need to approach it as a constant learning experience and work toward mastery of your own unique style.” Starting a freelance editing career may be challenging, but it also offers exciting opportunities for professional and personal growth.

These are just a few of the wide-ranging questions and answers drawn from the “Ask an Experienced Editor” series. Want to read more? Join the student affiliate Facebook group (we’re open to all students and Editors Canada members) and check out the pinned file at the top of the page, where you’ll find all the questions and answers from our “Ask an Experienced Editor” series in one easy-to-read PDF. For editing students, joining the group could also be that first step toward building connections with colleagues.

We’re grateful to the experienced editors who gave of their time and expertise to make this series possible. And to all the emerging editors out there: welcome to the adventure!


S. Robin Larin is a member of the Editors Canada student relations committee, membership coordinator of Editors Hamilton-Halton, and featured volunteer coordinator writing monthly profiles of Editors Canada volunteers. She runs her own fiction-editing business, aided by four feline editorial assistants, at Robin Editorial.

This article was copy edited by Jennifer D. Foster.

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