Being A Freelance Editor

The other day, Charity Bradford asked a question:

"I have been spending a lot of time critiquing people's MS or parts of it and a friend told me I should turn it into a job. 

What qualifications does one need and how would I go about doing it. I love doing it, so to get paid even a little for my time would be awesome."

This question actually comes up quite a bit and I get emails asking me how I became an editor and how other people can become one too.

It's actually hard to get into, to get people to take a chance on you. But if you do good work they start to tell their friends. And then they tell their friends.

If you're thinking about going freelance, take stock in your skills. Do you have enough training? Do you know your predicates and dangling modifiers? Do you know when it's okay to "break the rules"? Do you know Word inside and out? Can you also edit on paper if you need to? Do you know what it takes to make a good book? Will you be able to see the potential in someone else's work? And be able to tell them what they need to do to grow as a writer?

For me, I earned my BA in English (professional Writing) and my MA in Creative Writing with a focus on novel writing. I've been interning for a literary agent since 2009. Interning is my own time on my own dime. But I'll do it for free forever if The Agent wants to keep me around that long. I'm also constantly seeking out and taking new classes, like Suzanne Lazear's Steampunk class.

It's important to always keep learning as much as you can, even more so with everything in publishing reinventing itself every day. Seek out a internships or other experiences and workshops so that your future clients will feel comfortable that you know what you're doing. Never stop learning!

You'll also need to figure out a contract to protect yourself (especially if you're a fellow writer) and your client so they can trust you. You'll need to set up a business bank account, apply for a business license, set up a website, create business cards, etc. You'll need to research income taxes in your state/country and be prepared for that when the time comes, including saving enough to cover your taxes.

You will be required to keep up to date on your reading. Knowing what's out there in the genres that you edit is just as important to knowing what's out there in the genres that you write. This is why I have, on average, 25 books out from my local library at any given time. You'll need to keep abreast of any industry news including blogs and magazines and be active enough on Twitter to keep up with what happens there. More than half of your freelance editing "work" will be just keeping up with everybody else. And don't forget about those extra classes and training you'll want to do too.

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I recommend a good communication class every now and then. Some writers are more fragile than others and you'll need to find a balance in how you communicate. In editing, it's about what you say AND it's about how you say it. You want to be clear and get your point across, but you have to say it in a way that your client can hear it. Without sugarcoating. You have to be honest, even when it hurts. Because that will be your job. There will be times when you can *SQUEEE!* along with the author on a book well done, too, though.

Being a freelance editor also means setting your own hours. You won't have to punch a clock for someone else, but you'll also need to know when not to punch the snooze button eleventy billion times. You'll have to deal with it when your friends go out to lunch without you, when your kids drive you nuts, or when you just feel like taking a day off.  You'll have to find your own health insurance if you're not covered by someone else's plan. Do you even know how much health insurance is these days? It's atrocious.

If you think you can hack it, try working for your critique partners or a few friends (or hold a contest!) and do a few edits for free. After a while, ask for a small amount from those that are referred to you (if you do good work, they will come) and feel out where your skills lie. When you've built up experience and hopefully a good name, then you can reevaluate and charge more for specific services that you excel in. Or you might decide you need more training or that you need to find something else to do for a living.

Like becoming an agent, becoming an editor is not going to mean that you'll be surfing through your bank vault ala Scrooge McDuck in less than a week. I don't make much editing. I made less than half of the poverty level last year. A quarter of that went to taxes. I'm not rolling in money, but I'm comfortable. If I had a husband or kids, it'd be a different story, but for now I'm ok. I definitely don't make enough to live on, but it pays for the basics. It's enough for me to buy dog food food for Mollie and pay a couple of bills like internet and student loans, but I barely make ends meet some months.

As a fellow writer, I think it's important to keep my prices low enough so I'm accessible to those who don't have several thousands to spend. I really struggle sometimes knowing that I could charge more, but I know how hard it is as an unpaid writer and needing help but not being able to afford it. I've done edits for trade a couple of times, the author sending me homemade gifts that could use for presents in exchange for edits. I think being flexible like that is important.

It's not an easy living, as you never know when you're going to be slammed with work, or if there's going to be a dry spell like in the summer months or holidays when people go on vacations. It won't be easy going your first few months, and very few freelancers survive a year in business. It'll take hard work and long hours and you'll receive very little pay for the first year or more.

It's worth it for me though. I love what I do (even at 4am with no heat in the middle of winter/no air in the summer!) and seeing the happiness and joy of books well done and previous clients with agents and book deals makes everything worth it. You'll need that kind of passion to hack it.

Not everyone that I give quotes to actually goes through with edits, but it averages about 85%. I try to be fair and ask for the first ten pages so I can get a feel for their work and give quotes on what they actually need, instead of just charging a flat rate no matter the condition of the manuscripts. I find that giving personalized quotes makes people feel like they're getting value and that they're not just a number in a long line. I've done edits for people in my home state, in NYC, and as far away as Chile, England, and New Zealand!

If you do good work consistently, people are usually kind enough to refer you to their friends. I'm extremely grateful to all my previous clients that refer me so that the only "advertising" that I do is contests. I'm able to keep my bills paid and food in Mollie's dog bowl and I get to do what I love. It's a good life. :)
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