11 Things I’ve Learned About Freelance Editing in 11 Years

Updated, July 9, 2019

Although I left academia in 2014 to work full-time as a freelance editor, I started freelancing in 2008 to make ends meet between semesters. At the time, it was supposed to be a short-term arrangement to make some money while I was working my way toward a full-time professorship. If only I knew then what my last 5 years as a professor had in store for me….

I’ve learned a lot in 10 years—sometimes through mistakes or things I didn’t think through fully, and sometimes through smarter, more experienced people. Now that I’m more established in my post-academic career, I’ve done some informational interviews in the past few months with people who have either left academia or are strongly considering it. Here’s a distilled version of what I’ve discussed lately either on Twitter, on Skype while my son napped, or over a bit too much diner coffee:

  1. Remember that you’re always learning. When in doubt, look it up or ask a more experienced colleague. Better yet, do both. 
    • I’ve lost count of how many tweets, direct messages, or short emails I’ve sent to mentors like Karen Conlin or Mededitor about this or that language question. I also regularly trade messages with editors at similar experience levels over pricing, estimates, language questions, business expenses, and other little things that pop up when doing a project. At some level, we’re still figuring it out, so we keep helping each other. I wouldn’t be as successful or knowledgeable without my network.
    • I’ve also used more experienced editors to learn about typical rates, request informational interviews or insider advice, or study their websites when refining mine. The adage that the more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know has held true for me as a freelancer.
  2. Keep using—and expanding—your network.
    • Always. Be. Connecting. Twitter has been invaluable for me in creating a solid, diverse network. One of the most refreshing things about no longer being an academic is that I’m not siloed into a narrow discipline. I’ve worked with people from different fields, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. My colleague/wingwoman Abby Bajuniemi has written about how we need to keep nurturing our networks as if they’re plants; it’s great advice that I remind myself of often. Add people to your network whenever you can, and remember to circle back occasionally with people to check in.
    • Referrals are a key part of your ever-growing network. Some freelancers pay referral fees (usually 5-10%) for projects sent to them. Even without referral fees, your network is a great way for you to get work…as long as people know what you can do.
    • Another nice asset of a strong network is knowing your colleagues’ strengths and project preferences. For instance, I know some editors who love handling document formatting and references. If someone asks me to handle this kind of work for their project, I typically send them to people I know and trust. The same goes when colleagues who usually do developmental or coaching work need my copy editing or proofreading skills.
    • In the spirit of always connecting and practicing attraction marketing (more on that soon), I added a new page to my blog in late 2017: How We Edit. I’ve featured a variety of editors talking about their approaches and work habits. This has led to some new connections, as well as new blog content from editors who wanted to do their own. I also did a Q&A for my colleague Grace Aldridge Foster‘s blog for her Bold Type writing consultancy. Always. Be. Connecting.
  3. Ghosting is going to happen—learn to accept it. Move on to the next client or connection.
    • Sometimes potential clients find it easier not to reply to your estimate and scope of work. Don’t obsess over someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to work with you. Yes, it can be annoying for someone you’ve spent some time and labor on to just *snap* disappear. Chances are, they either found someone else or don’t want to pay you what you’re worth.
    • This has happened to me twice lately. Two academic writers reached out to me about either developmental or copy editing. After some emails, I sent them a scope of work and estimate. They were slow in replying, which is unusual for someone who really wants to work with you. I followed up and asked each what they wanted to do: one had found someone else, and the other changed her mind about needing an editor. It’s part of the game, and I’ve become more confident in reaching out to people who haven’t replied—even if it means getting bad news. It never hurts to send a follow-up email: better to know and clear your work schedule than to wonder and be in limbo.
  4. Be comfortable and confident talking about money. 
    • My colleague Cathy Hannabach says the same thing in the book I coedited with Kelly BakerSucceeding Outside the Academy. Learn to tell potential clients what your fees are. Have them easily accessible on your website. Don’t haggle over costs if someone wants to pay less than your minimum fee. It can be hard to do this—especially early on when you’re eager to get new clients—but be ready to tell them your fee clearly and unapologetically.
    • Like many other editors, I have a minimum fee for my labor because I know about the time, energy, and scheduling it takes to do the work while also being a full-time parent. I’ve had a few potential projects end at the email stage because the client didn’t want to pay what I charge. The confidence to walk away from such a situation takes time to develop. Once you get there, though, you’ll see that it can be refreshing to say no to someone who doesn’t want to pay you what you’re worth—almost as if they did you a favor.
  5. Ask for a sample early in the process, and look at it closely. This will help you prepare an accurate cost and time estimate.
    • I had to learn this one the hard way. One of the first projects I had after becoming an editor full time was a religious history manuscript that the writer had worked on for years. I’d worked out a fee and timeline with her agent before really looking at the manuscript. Had I done my due diligence on it, I would have noticed that the manuscript was longer than I thought because the font was 10 points, not 12 like I’d assumed. Changing the point size added about 40 pages to the manuscript, and everything took longer than I’d expected—and had already charged for. Because I was still new to the editing game, I didn’t have the confidence to go back to the agent with a revised project and timeline. I just did the extra work and chalked it up to a rookie mistake that I’d have to learn from.
    • tl;dr version: Don’t just ask for a sample and assume; look at the sample and know.
  6. Relatedly, be prepared to offer a sample edit if the client has a longer project.
    • The flip side of asking for a writing sample from a potential client is being ready to give a demo of your work and editing style if you’re negotiating a longer project. This is a key part of ensuring good communication between editor and writer. I’ve only done this three times—all for book-length works. I’m glad I did, because it was a good test of our working relationship: they saw how I made edits and left comments, and I saw enough of their writing to know what to expect. I’d suggest charging something for this work to protect yourself, but it depends on the client and arrangement.
    • Earlier this year, editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer did one of his #CopyeditingProTip threads. One of his followers (John Pivovarnick) asked Benjamin if he still did freelance editing. He doesn’t…but I ever-so-subtly noted that do and that I’d be happy to discuss his novel project. After some standard back-and-forth, John and I agreed on a price for me to edit the first 20 pages of his novel to test the waters. It went well, and he hired me to edit the full manuscript—which was an engaging and twisty read if you’re into that sort of thing. The sample edit helped John see what he’d be paying for, and it helped me see what kind of a writer and client he’d be.
  7. Get a deposit before starting a project. 
    • Every freelancer I know doesn’t do any work without first getting a deposit. I usually request deposits of 10–25% of the estimated project cost (however the math works out neatly). Getting a deposit keeps both sides honest and engaged, and it protects you in case the client disappears. It also helps me determine whether the client is worth my time; I’d be very hesitant to work with someone who didn’t want to pay a deposit. Except for very special cases, deposits should be nonrefundable.
    • Last year, a client contacted me about editing a book proposal packet and, down the road, the manuscript. Everything went smoothly at first. The client’s university was footing the bill, so we got the paperwork in early. Surprisingly, they paid me promptly. The client and I Skyped, I edited the first draft of the proposal…and that was it. I followed up about revising our timeline, and still haven’t heard back from the client. Even if I hadn’t been paid in full at the beginning, getting at least a deposit would’ve covered the labor I’d done. I’ve heard of this happening to others; protect yourself with a deposit.
  8. Establish late fees and sunset clauses for your work, and let clients know about them before you start.
    • Thanks to some great advice from Rachel Neff and others, I’ve added language to my website and scopes of work about late fees and how a project will end early. If I hadn’t been paid in full for the ghosted project, I would’ve gone back to the client with an ultimatum: submit the rest of the work for me to edit by a certain date, or we end the project. Of course, extenuating circumstances could be causing delays, so you might have to be flexible.
    • Scheduling regular payments for long-term projects is a smart way to keep your clients engaged—and to keep you paid. If you have a developmental and/or multi-draft project that you think could take months, set up a fair payment schedule. You should also schedule regular email or Skype check-ins for these kinds of projects to keep the client engaged.
  9. Don’t hesitate to pause work on a project and tell your client that the cost has gone up because they’ve given you work beyond the original scope. 
    • This is a key reason that agreeing to a specific scope of work from the beginning—i.e., exactly what you will and won’t do—is crucial. If, for example, someone contracts you only for copy editing an article, don’t also do their works cited and formatting if they ask you to later. Or, at least, don’t do the extra work without getting extra money from them. This happens a lot across the freelancing board; some graphic designer friends have told me horror stories. I call these types Columbo Clients because there’s always…just one more thing. This is why it’s been so important for me to have my scopes of work in writing. It makes the arrangement more official and gives me a point of reference if the client wants additional work.
    • Earlier this year, I was doing a project for a local nonprofit’s biennial poetry festival. We’d agreed on a project cost and timeline for me to edit the festival’s program. Things went smoothly at first, but then there was more to do on a longer timeline. They weren’t being sneaky or manipulative. There were a lot of moving parts, writers, and fluid deadlines, and things simply took longer than expected. There was also more editing than expected. I emailed the client and explained how the higher workload required some more money. They checked their available funding and offered me more for the extra work. Had I been doing this project earlier in my career, I likely would’ve been too nervous to bring it up and just done the extra work. Scope creep is real. Sometimes it’s a good reason to stop working with a client, but sometimes it’s a good opportunity to boost your confidence—and pay.
  10. Understand that giving away some free labor is part of the process.
  • I’m not the first to say this, of course, but the hustle of freelancing is its own job. Reaching out to leads, trading emails, arranging Skypes with potential clients, sharing scopes of work and project estimates, expanding your digital presence—all of it is work, and typically none of it is paid.
  • Assuming that you have your own website, practice what’s called “Attraction Marketing” (also called “Inbound Marketing”) through blog posts and other content, such as these Editing and Writing Tips I’ve done. This not only helps you show off your expertise but also generates site traffic and boosts your signal. I’d be more inclined to hire, say, a graphic designer if their website shows off their work, knowledge of the field, and personality.

11. Freelancing can be tough.  

  • There are ups, downs, twists, turns, and unexpected dead ends in freelancing. Recently, I set up a medium-term developmental edit for a client (~5-6 months) to revise a scholarly book into a trade one. Things were all set up and agreed to, the client paid their first two monthly installments…and then things stalled. We agreed to a kill fee and arrangement, and suddenly my editorial calendar had an opening. It not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.
  • The lesson here is to budget your time and—more importantly—finances in case things unexpectedly change. I always hear advice about freelancers having multiple income streams and project sources. Whenever possible, have a financial safety net in your bank account, PayPal, or elsewhere. Do your best to have options if a dead end appears—say, another client whose project you can now get to faster, or a trusted colleague who can refer or subcontract work to you. It never hurts to let some of your fellow freelancers know if a project falls through; they might have referrals or projects for you.

I’ve expanded my network tenfold since leaving my job as a professor to work as an editor. If, like I did 5 years ago, you’re leaving academia and exploring the freelance landscape, remember that you’re not alone. Twitter especially is full of great, supportive people ready to help you. I continue to meet diverse, engaging people and, as we all should for the right person, pay it forward to help new freelancers get acclimated to the landscape. Remember: you’re always learning, and you’ll always be connecting.


Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.

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