7 things freelance editors wish they knew starting out freelancing

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April 12, 2021
5 minute read

They say hindsight is twenty-twenty. We all look back at our younger selves and think, “if I had only known then…” and wish you could go back in time and tell your newly-minited-freelance-editor self a few things. These seven things freelance editors wish they could go back and do differently apply just as much to any freelancer as they do editors.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelance writer, designer, consultant, or editor, these are the “I wish I had known then” pieces of advice for freelancers just starting out.

Don’t undercharge

We’ve written a lot about how to set your rates on this blog. It is the hardest thing freelancers grapple with. You are literally setting out how much you are worth to the world. And the number one mistake all freelancers make just starting out:

Under charging for their work.

When you’re starting out you can’t command the same rates as someone with years of experience under their belt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t charge what you’re worth. Figuring out what to charge is going to take work. You’ll need to research rates, network with other freelance editors, find listings on editing job boards, and join professional groups to get a feel for “the going rate”.

Even then, it’s hard to go out there and say “I charge this much per hour or this much per project”. You’re going to feel pangs of self-doubt. You’re going to be afraid you’ll lose the business because you’re new and charging that rate.

It’s okay.

You’re not going to win every job. Your rate might be too high for some clients. And that’s okay. You set your rate based on your experience and what you need to earn as a freelancer. Don’t shy away from that; make your rate crystal clear in your client contracts.

Don’t think you’re not worth a decent rate, because people will sense that. Potential clients will try to talk you into taking a lower rate if they sense you don’t believe it yourself. And then you might accept a lower rate for your work.

Accepting a lower rate:

  • Devalues your work
  • Devalues your expertise
  • Makes you work much harder to make the money you need to live.

Remember that last point.

When we talk about not working all the time and giving yourself a break, a huge part of that is setting a rate you can work and live with. And by “live” we mean keep a roof over your head and food on the table without working 20 hours a day seven days a week.

Confidently set out your rates. Know when and how much you’ll discount. The right clients will see your value and appreciate you’re a professional. Professionals are paid professional rates. If someone’s nephew just out of school can do it for cheaper—let them.

Those aren’t the kinds of clients you want anyway. People who are always looking for the cheapest way to get things done, aren’t the right clients. They can go to “price to the bottom” freelancer sites. And they’ll get what they pay for.

Clients who know it costs less to pay a professional to do a professional job are the people you want as clients. And those people will look at a fair rate for professional work as an investment in their success.

Don’t sell yourself short. It’s just not worth it.

You need to market yourself

This isn’t Field of Dreams, clients aren’t going to magically appear out of the cornfield waving checks in the air. You need to have a professional presence on LinkedIn. You need to have a website—even if it’s just one page. You need to let friends and connections know you’re doing freelance editing and then still keep hustling and reaching out to people.

You’ll need to establish—yes this sound hokey—a personal brand. You need to find a few clients who you can use to build a referral and portfolio list. And you can’t stop.

Marketing isn’t a one and done effort. The people who are the most successful as freelancers spend a good amount of their day working for themselves marketing their services.

LinkedIn is the best social network for professionals right now. People from all over the world are connecting and sharing their experiences. Build your network on LinkedIn by liking and commenting on people’s posts. Not correcting their grammar—no one likes that person—but commenting with something to add. Something from your experience. Something that helps or supports someone else.

Marketing yourself and building your professional network go hand in hand. As you connect with people on LinkedIn, and even business-focused groups on Facebook, you’re marketing your expertise while building connections with other professionals.

Maybe after a few years as a freelance editor with a regular and established client base you won’t need to market so much, but you still do. No matter what you need to build and maintain a professional presence. Existing clients need somewhere to refer people to. New clients need a way to find and contact you. While freelance editing associations and groups are going to help you, there are a lot of things you need to do on your own.

LinkedIn is a part of it. Networking with peers is a part of it. Your website, being a guest on webinars or podcasts is a part of it. Together all these things help you firmly establish yourself as a freelance editing professional.

Who, by the way, can charge the rates they do because they can show the world how great they are.

Fire bad clients fast

You are going to have bad clients in your freelance editing career. All freelancers—writers, graphic designers, developers—have a bad client from time to time. And you’ll know the signs:

  • Slow to pay or giving hundreds of reasons why they can’t pay you right now.
  • Not answering emails or messages when you have questions.
  • Disappearing when the work is done and the invoice is due.
  • Missing meetings to review and discuss the work/project.
  • Being rude, disrespectful, harassing, or racist.
  • Asking you to lie or do something unethical.
  • Discounting, dismissing, or ignoring your professional advice.
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines.
  • Crossing professional boundaries.
  • Not respecting your work-life balance.

Those are just a few of the warning signs. Sometimes even your best clients will trigger a couple of these occasionally, but overall your good freelance clients treat you like a professional. When someone starts setting off alarm bells, pay attention. You might even get a bad feeling when you first meet the client (even virtually).

Do. Not. Ignore. Your. Gut. Feeling.

When your gut tells you someone isn’t working out as a client, wrap up the project and end the relationship. There will be other clients. There is no reason to put up with bad clients. If someone doesn’t feel like the right fit from the outset, decline the work.

Yes, you can decline work and say no to a new client. Professionals do it all the time and don’t be afraid to walk away from something that doesn’t feel right.

All freelancers have tried to stick it out with a bad client because they thought it would get better. It’s worse when a bad client brings in a lot of revenue for you. And it’s scary to let that go, but really, it’s not worth it. The reality is it never gets better with a bad client.

Fire bad clients fast—or don’t take them in the first place—you’ll be much happier in the long run.

You can’t work all the time

When you only have a few editing clients and trying to build a freelance business, it’s going to be tempting to work as much and as long as you can. You’ll over commit to work and start burning the candle at both ends and the middle.

Stop.

You need time to rest and relax. You need time to recharge. You can’t do great work when you’re exhausted. This is another reason to set, and stand firm on, livable rates. Too many freelancers start out undercharging and then realize they have to work way more than they thought to make ends meet.

If your rate is too low you’re stuck on a hamster wheel trying to work and work to live, but not actually living. If you’re working too much you’re not investing in yourself—rest, self-care, and marketing—and eventually you’re going to hit a wall.

You won’t be able to work and you won’t be able to get more clients.

Everyone will tell you, set your own hours—work all night if you want—but balance work with life. It’s essential to successful freelancing.

Build a professional network

Whether it’s professional associations or social networks:

You need to connect with other freelancers. And not just other freelance editors, but writers, graphic designers, and developers too. Your extended professional network is the lifeblood of referrals and new clients.

A writer you know might need a good editor for a book project. A graphic designer needs copy help. A website developer needs a QA person for a large website. And on the other side of the coin, one of your clients might ask “Do you know any good (writer, designer, developers) for a project?”

You want to have people to refer clients to and your network refer you as well.

Beyond the pure business and marketing side of networking, there is the community of support we all need. Freelancing is full of ups and downs. For a lot of people just starting out, you go between feast and famine. You have too much work, then not enough.

It’s hard. And having a network of peers to help you through it, is what is going to get you through the hard times and have people to celebrate the good times with.

We also need to keep learning new things and a good network is going to keep your mind sharp. Doesn’t matter the field, even editing, things change. New tools and techniques are emerging that are changing how copy is developed. As an editor you need to be on top of those developments to help clients who might have a piece written by A.I.—don’t laugh that day is coming soon—but need an editor to bring the piece together.

A vibrant community will feed you with ideas, news, trends, and tips. Your network is the extra something that pushes you through the hard times and gives you the tools to be successful. Spend time cultivating a professional network of editing peers and other freelancers.

It will certainly be time well spent.

Get the admin stuff sorted early

It’s really exciting when you get your first client. Someone is going to pay me to do this!

Woo hoo!

And then they want an invoice.

And then they ask if they can pay with a credit card.

Then comes spring time (aka tax season), you need to figure out receipts and revenue and expenses.

Do yourself a favor and start using a solution like Wave to generate invoices, accept payments, and keep track of expenses. You can certainly make an invoice in Word or Google Docs. And you can certainly accept a check.

But isn’t it better to have invoices sent out that have online payments built in? Isn’t it better to have automatic reminders emailed when an invoice is past due?

Of course it is. Take a little time when you get your first client to set up real invoicing and accounting. It should only take a few minutes to get you from “yeah I have a client” to “here’s your invoice, you can pay online if you like”.

Once you’ve got that started you can build up your admin since with project management, time tracking, and how to share files.

But seriously, get the admin stuff worked out first.

You got this

Last piece of advice: You got this. You can do it. There are people in your corner who are rooting for you and want you to succeed.

It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be frustrating. It’s going to be scary.

It’s also going to be exciting and freeing and empowering.

Ask yourself, why do you want to be a freelancer editor (or writer or designer or developer)? Have you finally had enough of a 9–5 job and other people telling you how to do things? Are you looking for the freedom to work when you want on the projects you want? Do you want to have more time with your family and see freelancing as a path to flexible hours?

Imagine what your ideal life as a freelancer looks like. Imagine working on projects with different clients and learning about new businesses. Imagine meeting interesting people who are also on the same journey. Imagine waking up and loving the fact you can settle into work from the kitchen table sipping from your favorite mug.

And most of all—you got this. You can do it. It will work out.

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