8 ways to get better at freelance editing
Any kind of freelancing is tough. No matter your skill set or niche, it’s hard to get started. It’s especially hard if you’re just starting out in the editing business—either full time or as a side hustle—to get established.
Like any profession, there are lots of tips to improve your skills. Everyone needs to keep sharpening their saw—keep honing your skills to keep them sharp. Here are eight tips for improving your editing skills—freelance or otherwise.
Nothing beats practice. If you believe in the 10,000 hours rule for becoming an expert or some other maxim—practice doesn’t just make perfect, it refines. Practice gives you a chance to experiment and try new tips and tricks. You put in the time and reps to get better.
Great writers put in writing time everyday. Even if it’s just a little bit, just a few hundred or thousand words. Editing is different because someone has to write before you can edit, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get practice in. Here are a few ways to get more practice:
- Edit your own work. Go back to old emails and blog posts and see how they can be improved.
- Pick up short gigs. Fiverr and Upwork let you start getting some practice editing. Don’t spend a lot of time on this. You can easily fall into a trap of editing too many things for too little money.
- Help out friends. You might only get a free coffee out of it, but it will help both of you.
Get the reference books
From the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White to Stephen King’s On Writing and Writing Without Bullsh*t by Josh Bernoff, there are hundreds of books on writing and editing. When you’re trying to figure out if something is in passive voice (try the “by zombies” trick) or if it’s affect or effect, having reference books on hand is essential.
Yes, tools can help, but tools aren’t perfect. Tools force following the “rules” and there are some rules you can break in the right circumstances.
“I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it.” – Carl Sandburg (1878–1967)
“You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.” – Robert Frost (1874–1963)
These are just a few quotes about editing that can give you some inspiration and guidance down the road; remember to take them at face value!
First pass read
One of the biggest mistakes editors make is starting to edit right away. When you’re in editing mode and start to read something, the mental pencil comes out and you start fixing things.
Stop and take a step back.
Read through it first. Even a light skim is fine. The goal is getting a feel for the piece (tone, style, audience, goal) and how big a job you’re looking at. It’s going to be tempting to fix typos and rework sentences, but resist. First just read. Jot a few notes to yourself (or add a comment to the document) if you need to, but don’t edit…yet.
Now you’re almost ready to start digging in and editing. Before you start—don’t forget to save the original version and turn ‘track changes’ on before you start—decidewhat kind of editing this is. There is a big difference between doing a final typo and polish edit and the first edit fixing structure and flow.
The detail read stage is where you start making changes or suggestions. It’s time to dig in and get things done. This is where your first pass read comes in. You already know if this is going to be a big edit with a lot of changes or a little polish here and there.
Read backwards (kryptonite to typos)
Typos have a will to live unmatched in nature. A book or white paper can go through six different people editing it and still have typos in the final product. It’s amazing how persistent typos can be. One thing to help kill off typos is reading the work backwards. It’s strange and awkward, but that’s the point. You’re breaking your regular reading flow so you don’t gloss over something. Typos stick around because your brain autocorrects the mistake—most of the time. Reading backwards jolts your brain so it can’t do that as easily.
Read out loud
When you know something isn’t quite right and you can’t put your finger on it, read it out loud. When you read out loud—like reading backwards—you force your brain to see the words differently.
Awkward sentences stand out. Sentence fragments pop from the page. And hopefully typos stop hiding, too. Reading aloud is helpful for editing slide decks and presentations. Since those are going to be spoken (to some degree), when you read out loud you help the speaker hear where things are rough and can fix them.
Read, then read more
Like writers and writing, the best way to get better at editing is reading. Read everything and anything. Whatever you enjoy, dive in more. Reading gives you examples of great writing and helps you spot where that piece could have been better.
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