Much like venturing to write something on the blank page can feel petrifying, endeavoring to find your first freelance editing clients can feel like you are staring down a snowstorm. Where should you start to look? What direction should you head? But fear not, dear editor, here are some tips to help you navigate those first few contracts:
1. Decide: what is your editing identity?
The tree of editing has many branches, and all of them bear fruit! To name a few boughs, there is acquisitions editing, developmental (or conceptual) editing, substantive (or content) editing, copy editing, line editing, mechanical editing, and proofreading. Each of these editing branches demands its own skills, its own keen eye, and its own magic touch. Some editors hate the broad strokes of substantive editing but love the nitty gritty of a copy-edit and getting their grammar on. Other editors love looking at the entire forest of substantive editing rather than the tiny pinecones punctuating a copy edit. One thing is for certain—getting clear on what editing service you are prepared to provide is an important step in delivering great service to your clients. If you don't know what you offer, how will clients know why they should hire you? You must get clear on what type of editing you can and want to do, and you need to define exactly what that looks like.
Click here for some guiding questions to help you define what editing you want to do and what clients you should work with:
What type of editing do you love doing? How many hours a day can you edit for? What type of editing would you rather avoid? What genre of projects do you want to work on?
Do you get bored easily when editing?
Do you want to work with facts or with ideas?
Are you interested in a short-term project or a continuous editing partnership?
What does communication between you and your client look like? (Zoom? Email-only? In-person meet-ups?) What exactly does your editing service entail? What deliverables can you guarantee your client? For example, will you write a full report for them along with the edited document?
Will fact-checking be a part of your service?
So, what type of editor are you? What branch of the editing tree do you want to sit on?
2. Don't work for free
Please don't sell yourself short—you are providing a valuable service, and your skills deserve to be recognized through fair payment for your time.
So many editors get their start by editing the class-work, resumes, and writing projects of friends and family. Then, it's natural to move into volunteering positions with magazines, school papers, or professional organizations to gain unpaid work experience. But after building that strong foundation, it's time to seek out paid editing contracts! It is well worth it to build your skills, portfolio, and confidence through volunteer positions because they can lead to a professional career. But to take that final step into the professional world, you can't be afraid to put a number to what you offer. Some editors charge by the page. Some charge by the word. Some charge an hourly rate by the cumulative hours worked on a project. Do some market research and see what other editors—who are close to your skill and experience level—are charging, and then set your rate.
Of course, there are caveats to my advice. You are in charge of your own career, and a fair exchange may look different to you than it does for me. There might be times where you may deem it rewarding to volunteer your time on a particular project. Or, you may even exchange your valuable service for something other than money!
3. Don't work without a contract
I mean it. Always, always have your clients sign a contract. I have had many potential clients who were extremely eager for me to begin working on their project—until I sent them the contract with the details we had discussed laid out and ready for a signature and for that final commitment. Then, suddenly, the keyboard click of endless emails turns to crickets! Please don't pursue business relationships with people who refuse to sign a contract with the details you negotiated together written down on the page. Also, it's okay to refuse work from clients who pressure you to get started without a contract. The truth is—these people likely never intended to pay you for your work.
Contracts are not ominous—they are an important part of the process! Editing is a valuable service, and a contract protects both parties. The contract makes everything clear—the exact scope of your service, the pay rate, the deadline, as well as what should happen in the case either party fails to meet the terms of the contract. You shouldn't have to badger someone to sign a contract. A contract signals a sound and fair transactional relationship. So don't start work until these details are ironed out and set in stone with a signature.
4. Take your writing sample from the middle of the client's project
It's good practice to request a sample of a client's writing so you can evaluate the project and get a good feel for how long the project will take you to edit based on the level of edit required. Many editors even go ahead and edit a sample section in order to nail-down exactly how long the project will take.
Here is an example of how an editor who charges an hourly rate might determine what quote for pricing and timeline to give a client based on a writing sample:
If a 5 page sample on a PhD thesis takes 60 minutes to copy edit, and the entire thesis is 100 pages long, then the editor might expect the project to take 20–25 hours of work. Since copy-editors might only work 5 hours a day because of how mentally exhaustive this type of work is, they may then be able to give a one week turn-around time. At a 30 dollar an hour rate (which is at the very low-end of the payment spectrum for copy editing) the final quote might look like this: Payment: $600–750 Deadline: 1 week turn-around from the date the project is received
A lot of information in your quote to a client rides on the writing sample, and oftentimes, the first section of a draft of writing is more polished than the middle or the end. If your sample is inaccurate, then your entire pay-rate in the contract will be inaccurate. To get a true evaluation of what the project looks like, ask for a sample from the middle of the project.
5. Don't make promises you can't keep
Integrity and honest are as integral to freelancing as your editing skills. It's important as a freelancer to be honest about your availability and how long a project will take you to complete; it is also vital to be honest about your ability level. Any lapses in integrity put your reputation at-risk and will certainly affect the satisfaction of your clients. If you've sold the service of a flawless proofread, but your experience is mostly in substantive editing, then make sure you haven't misrepresented your ability or how long the work will take you. If you are having to stop to research how to proofread all the time in order to complete the project, then you may risk falling behind on the deadline or turning in something sub-par. There is nothing wrong with taking on new types of projects—just don't lie to clients. Sometimes, life happens. So be sure to stipulate in your contract what happens if you, the editor, fail to meet the deadline. Also, be transparent about what would happen should the situation arise where you must pull out of the project entirely. And of course, sometimes clients may back out—so be sure you have outlined in the contract what payment will or will not be due in those situations.
Don't be afraid to ask your clients if you can use a sample of their project—even just a page—in your portfolio. Having a visual before and after of your editing is a great way to show prospective clients what you can do.
This is a note to the readers who've been waiting so long: I apologize! 2021 and 2022 have been difficult. But I'm happy to be back and ready to share again, and grateful that you are here reading. Thank you for your support!
Let me know in the comments if you would be interested in seeing the contract I've used before, or if you'd like to see an entire post on formatting contracts!