How to: 10 steps to becoming a successful freelance editor

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March 19, 2021
5 minute read

Content is king, but all writers—even the best of them—need an editor. As the demand for content has grown, so too has the need for good editors. While a lot of writers do some editing on the side, there is something to be said for someone who is a really great editor. When a really great editor works on something you wrote, you can’t tell. Doesn’t seem like anything is different, but everything is better.

Breaking into editing as a freelance editor, like breaking into writing, isn’t hard, but it isn’t without challenges either. The question then is: how do you get started? So, here’s how to get up and running as an editor in 10 steps.

Read, read, and read

Like writers, editors need to be first and foremost readers. If you aren’t enthralled by the written word. If great writing doesn’t thrill you, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Reading helps you experience different styles—good and bad—different tones, different media. Yes, you’re seeing a final product when you read a book or magazine—books often have 3–5 editors working on them before publishing—but great writing helps you improve the pieces you’re working on.

One thing about reading a lot, is you start to see all the bad writing that’s out there. Not just the misuse of your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; or it’s and its—but places where a sentence could have been tighter. Where something is confusing. When you read a paragraph and you know something is off.

You will start to notice, and edit in your head, everything you read online. Part of practicing could be copying sections of blog posts and articles you find online and see if you can make it better with a few edits.

We're not suggesting you send these edits to the publications or authors—writers don’t appreciate receiving out-of-the-blue edits of their work from strangers—but look at the before and after. It’s good practice for how to look at a piece, improve it with your edits, and not change the style or tone.

Decide what type of editor do you want to be and find your niche

This seems like an odd thing to think about. Isn’t there just one kind of editor? What is a freelance editor? The person who finds all the typos in your work and fixes things?

Nope!

There are many types of editing, and therefore many types of editors. There are general editors who cover a lot of needs, specialist editors with specific roles to play in a piece of content, and technical editors who make sure a piece is correct. There are also fact checking and book editor roles. There are editors who work with a piece early on and make sure it flows and makes sense. You could also be a copy editor, double-checking spelling, grammar, and typos.

Recommendation: Start with general copy editing. Push a little into style, tone, and flow editing, but if you focus on copy editing to start, you’ll have a good sense if editing is right for you, and what other type of editing you'd be a strong candidate for.

Practice and level up your editing skills

Like writing, you need practice to be a good editor. Lots of practice. If you’re not already the person people ask to check over their work (you probably are, since why would you be interested in editing otherwise?), you need find ways to practice.

If you’re a write, go back and edit some of your older pieces. You might be horrified at what you find, but that’s good. Edit, polish, improve, and update (if it’s web content). Done.

You can “cheat” and use tools like Grammarly, Hemingway to help you learn how to edit. These tools help people improve their writing on their own. A lot of people don’t have someone who can read and edit documents for them. These tools are the next best thing.

For you as the budding editor, they are hints. They show you what to look for. They can’t replace a sense of style or voice or tone, but they will point out:

  • passive voice
  • typos (maybe)
  • spelling errors
  • awkward sentences
  • adverbs

Think of these tools like editing training wheels. They help you home in on what you need to know for any piece of writing—blog post, presentation, letter, white paper, or almost anything else. As you get better at knowing what to look for, you can rely on these tools less and less.

Offer editing help to writers you know

Remember how I mentioned most writers don’t have someone to read over their work? Reach out to writers you know and offer to be their editor. Don’t do it for free, but do offer a reduced “I’m just learning rate” .

When you’re reading someone’s work remember:

  • The work is in their voice, not yours. There’s a difference between “I would say it like this…” and “This sounds better with this change…”. It’s a fine line between the two, but what matters is intent. If your change is how you’d say it, but it clashes with the authors style; that’s poor editing. If the change strengthens the piece, but preserves the style and tone; that’s good editing. Remember, the best compliment an editor can get is “It looks great, did you change anything?”.
  • You’re learning how to edit. If you’re editing something by a professional writer with years under their belt, tread carefully. You want to make suggestions and changes, and don’t be afraid to do so, but breaking out the red pen and cutting and slashing a piece isn’t going to do you any favors. It’s another fine line to walk, but that’s why great editors are hard to find.

When you get something to edit don’t forget to:

  • Ask if there is a deadline.
  • Ask what kind of editing the piece needs. There’s a big difference between editing a solid first draft and doing a final polish on a nearly finished work.
  • Figure out the format. Word? Google Docs? Know what you’re getting and what the author expects back.
  • Make a copy of the original before you make any changes.
  • Turn on track changes. Give the author the chance to review what you’re suggesting they change.

What about helping friends for free?

To quote the Joker in Dark Knight “If you’re good at something, don’t do it for free.” Helping friends is a good way to practice and hone your skills, but it also takes time. When you’re starting out, and your friends offer to introduce you to other potential clients, you can do a little pro bono work. As you build your editing client base and editing services, protect your time. You can’t help everyone for free and still make a living.

It’s tough to tell your freelance writer friend you can’t edit his twenty-five page ebook for free, but you can offer the “friends and family” rate. A good friend will understand you need to pay the bills and eat too.

Build editing experience on freelance-gig work sites

You might be competing with people who are charging very little, but you will get experience with a wide range of styles, clients, content types, and needs. Depth and breadth, as well as an editing process, are essential parts of a professional editor’s tool kit. There is a big difference between editing a PowerPoint presentation and a technical white paper. Press releases have a specific form and style compared to a blog post.

Freelance sites like Upwork, Fiverr, Guru, and Freelancer, give you a chance to build a portfolio and client roster to market yourself down the road. You will almost certainly earn more money on your own without these sites, but freelancing sites and editing job boards are good ways to get your foot in the door.

Look for entry-level positions and internships

Looking for a job as an editor seems to go against the path for becoming a freelance editor, but there is nothing like experience working with other editors to learn the craft. When you freelance as an editor, you might have some groups like on Slack or LinkedIn to chat with other freelancers, but they can’t critique your work. Networking with your peers is essential to success for any type of freelancing, but networking can’t replace on the job mentorship.

You might think you’re a great editor, but until you work with a great editor and have a chance to learn from them hands on, you have no idea what you don’t know.

While you’re working and getting experience you can start building your freelance editor work as a side hustle. As long as you don’t compete with your day job (or steal clients), you shouldn’t get into trouble. Working full time and doing a freelance editing side hustle does bring up something you need to watch for: overcommitting and burn out.

Ramp up slowly

When you’re starting out as an editor and trying to get as much business as you can, it’s easy to take on more work than you can handle. Editing takes time. As you’re learning the ropes, it’s going to take longer to do a good job than it will a few months down the road.

If you think you can do a good job editing a 3,000 word blog post in less than an hour, think again. You’ll need to read the post a few times. You’ll need to check all the links and make sure they are correct and relevant. Then you start reading for content. Then finding typos. Then you start doing your edits.

Because you’re starting out, the first few editing jobs are going to be tough. If you don’t factor in the pressure of doing a good job for someone into how long it will take you to edit a piece, you will wind up taking on more editing work than you can handle.

Once you’ve overcommitted, you’re going to start missing deadlines (and sleep). Missing deadlines might mean losing a client or having to give them a refund/discount to keep them happy. When you’re just starting out freelancing as an editor, the last thing you want is not meeting expectations and missing deadlines.

Give yourself time to do a good job. If you say you can do something in three days and it only takes two, great your client will love getting work back sooner. As you get a sense for how long things take, you’ll know how tight you can squeeze for rush jobs.

Don’t forget to charge extra for rush jobs! Speaking of charging for your work, let’s talk rates.

Set your editing rates

Setting your editor rates is going to come with time and practice. Professional associations, networking groups, and freelancing websites will all help you set your rates. Writers often charge by the word, the hour, the post, or by project. As an editor, set rates for hourly and project work. Hourly editor rates allow free you from “this shouldn’t cost a lot, it’s just a short blog post…” discussions. Short—but poorly written—blog posts can take just as long to edit as a 3,000 word in-depth article.

Use a project rate for something big like a technical white paper, book, or longer pieces of content. Editing longer pieces of content on an hourly rate will quickly get out of hand. You’ll be either:

  • watching the clock to keep within a time budget-
  • giving your client a bill that will make their hair stand on end.

That’s not a good way to edit something. You need to devote time to dig in and do it right. When you set a project rate you take on a shared risk with the client. You estimate how long editing will take, multiply that by your usual hourly rate, and apply a discount (10-15% is typical). There is a risk you guessed too low and the work takes longer than expected or it might take less than expected and you wind up a little ahead.

When setting up rates as an editor, think about:

  • your hourly rate
  • flexible rates for friends, family, or causes
  • sliding scales
  • project rates
  • rush rates

Setting your rates isn’t a one time thing. As you get busier and more experienced as an editor, you can increase your rates. That’s the perk of being good at what you do and becoming busy enough to turn down work.

Networking, social media, and freelance editing associations

Nothing beats talking shop with other editors. Debate AP style, space or no space after an em dash, proper semicolon use, the Oxford Comma. Finding other editors to learn from, get advice from, and learn about opportunities from is essential to becoming a successful freelance editor. Having a network of peers is how you build a career.

For freelance editors, two professional groups are worth looking into:

Both offer a range of benefits to editor members, including editing courses and other resources. These aren’t free associations, they have dues you pay to get access to these benefits. Some people might say because the internet lets you connect with people for free, you don’t need paid associations any more.

However paid associations can offer discounts and benefits—ACES benefits and EFA benefits—no free Slack group can ever offer. If you’re considering being a freelance editor, consider joining an association as a step towards becoming a true professional.

Paid associations aside, don’t forget LinkedIn, newsletters, and other groups for networking. Having a broad and deep network of colleagues and contacts only enhances your ability to be successful.

Setting up a website is up to you

A lot of successful freelancers forego a website and get clients by word of mouth. This might work if you’ve come from a full-time editor job and are moving to freelancing with client and industry contacts.

For every other editor, a basic website is a must. Buy a domain and start simple. Solutions like Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress.com are all great ways to build a professional website for very little investment. To start with you only need a few things for a starter website—and you can put them all on one page:

  • Who you are and your background
  • Services you offer
  • How to reach you

Whether you put your rates on your website is up to you, but many freelancers prefer to keep their rates to themselves until they’ve been contacted by a potential client. For the short term don’t worry about a blog or SEO or being fancy with a lot of content. Your goal is to have a professional looking page you can send people to and put in emails.

Remember, people aren’t hiring your website, they’re hiring you. Focus on getting clients, building a professional network, and having a portfolio. Everything else can wait.

Bonus: Set up time tracking, admin tools, and accounting

Setting up a lot of administration and accounting can wait until you have your first client, but you do need one thing ready right off the bat—a simple time tracking system.

Paper and pen works, but tools like Toggl makes tracking your time painless and even automatic! Toggl can be set up to automatically start tracking time when you’re using certain apps or working on certain files. Toggl has free and paid offerings and is worth getting familiar with right after you land your first client as an editor.

Some people recommend getting your back end administration stuff worked out first. Making sure you can send invoices, get paid, and account for expenses is essential to running a business. However until you have paying clients you don’t need to have all that set right away.

The good thing you can use Wave to set up all your invoicing and accounting quickly and easily. You only need a few minutes to go from thinking “I need to send an invoice” to sending an invoice and accepting online payments. Wave is that fast and that easy. Thousands of freelancers trust Wave to help them get paid faster and track all their expenses.

You can use Wave to send unlimited invoices for free, and you can accept online payments with nominal transaction fees and no hidden costs.

Getting clients and launching a freelance editing business is hard enough. Let Wave make getting paid the easy part.

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