Nine pieces of advice if you’re new to freelancing

07 Dec 2021

When I run courses with Publishing Scotland there are usually one or two people in each group who are starting out as freelancers. I know what that’s like: in 2014, when Margaret Aherne was the Publishing Scotland trainer, I was one of those people.

In courses that focus on the nuts and bolts of copyediting there’s little time to talk about the best way to start making your mark in the editing world. Anyone is welcome to grab me for a chat after a session, but usually, because time is limited for both of us, I can only give a couple of tips. So, for those new freelancers who have attended my courses, and anyone else striking out on their own, here’s some more detailed advice – and a few tips to avoid the newbie mistakes I made.

1.   Start by setting up a simple website

Did you know that most prospective clients and contacts will spend time checking you out online before they decide to make contact? It helps to have something they can find and read, even if it’s just a couple of pages about you and the services you offer.

If you’re approaching a potential client yourself, directing them to a website is much easier than trying to write in an email all the reasons they should work with you, and it’s more likely to make them feel you’re a trustworthy outfit.

Don’t do what I did. Get someone else to proofread your new website.
When I started my website, complete with a blog or two, someone left a public comment that I’d written Masterchef in two different ways. (Why I was writing about Masterchef is a whole other subject, which I’ll cover under ‘Write content that helps you and others’.)

2.   Do what you’ve been taught

Hopefully you’ll have received some training. If you haven’t, check out courses from the CIEP, the PTC or Publishing Scotland.

Then, do the things you’ve been taught. That’s easier said than done, but it’s a good start to go back over your course notes, follow up the recommended resources and actively plan how you can apply what you’ve learned to your work.

Don’t do what I did. Build good habits from the beginning.
In the early days, everything I had learned on my Publishing Scotland courses tended to fly out of the window when I was given a project to do. I got all excited and dived in to do everything at once, forgetting about going through the document in passes. For the first couple of projects my style sheet was hastily scribbled words on a piece of paper. I soon learned that it was a massive waste of time to have to go back and reverse decisions I’d hastily made and not adequately recorded. Get your processes right from the beginning. It will save you duplicating work and will create good habits for the future.

3.   Realise that your training is just the beginning

Editors are always, always learning. If they’re not, that’s a red flag. This is because processes change, software changes and language changes. Up-to-date editors will be more efficient and better team members, and will make their editorial decisions in full possession of the facts and the context.

Read blog articles by respected editors. Buy essential editing books and thoroughly familiarise yourself with their contents. Check out editing resources recommended or created by professional organisations like the CIEP, AFEPI Ireland, ACES and Editors Canada. Go on mailing lists for e-newsletters that will be useful to you.

Don’t do what I did. Look beyond formal learning.
It took me a while to realise there was a whole world of learning out there, and that taking courses was only part of the picture. Investigating social media in earnest changed that. I discovered all the ideas, links and tips that other editors were sharing with each other, and I felt much more clued-up from then on.

4.   Volunteer

Work on something wordy. A local charity’s magazine, for example. I do communications for my local church and over the years I’ve got work from four different (paying) clients that way. Before I trained I worked on a partly voluntary basis for Edinburgh for Under Fives, a handbook for parents and carers in Edinburgh. A contact from its editorial committee provided me with my first academic editing job. Seven years later, someone on the current editorial committee asked me to talk to her writing group. You never know where these things might lead.

Don’t do what I did. Know where to stop.
Make sure you log the time spent on voluntary work so you can tell if you’re eating into time when you could be earning money or working on your business. I tended to let my voluntary work dribble on rather than giving it a couple of concentrated hours. Treat it as you would a normal job, with proper boundaries. This will help develop your discipline and stamina for when the paid work comes in.

5.   When you get work, don’t sell yourself short

Have a plan for how much you need to earn to survive and thrive, and try your best to stick to your hourly rate. If you’re a trained editor, you should be able to command the CIEP’s minimum rates. And it’s a cliché, but know when to say ‘no’ to a job that doesn’t tick the boxes in terms of your interests, your skills or the fee that’s offered.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t get stuck on a work treadmill.
For my first four years of editing, I went from book project to book project with a particular packager. The projects always overlapped and I got too tired to raise my head above the work. No time to work on my business; no time to attend conferences and other events; no time to have a day off now and then. Because the pay wasn’t great, and I was paid by the project, I got stuck. My productivity went down because I was tired, so I was, in effect, paid less and less per hour. It took a leap into working directly with better-paying clients on shorter projects to break that cycle.

6.   Write content that helps you and others

Writing will help you think things through as you learn them, and what you’ve learned might be useful for others. So, articulate language rules, or editing practices, for yourself and others. You could turn it into a blog. Or if you feel confident about a particular editing-related subject, you might consider giving a presentation about it to an interested group.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t focus on other people’s mistakes.
When you write your content, remember that criticising other people’s English is bad form, in the editorial world and generally. I made the rookie error of thinking that it would be smart to write a blog about how someone was using English incorrectly on Masterchef (a word I had mistakenly styled in two different ways – see ‘Start by setting up a simple website’, above). I also wrote about a chain store’s spelling of ‘stationery’ and criticised some copy on the back of a cereal package. Cheap shots, bad form. I know better now.

7.   Be present on social media

There is a strong editors’ presence on social media, and ‘Oh, I know you from Twitter!’ is a common refrain at editorial conferences.

Some editors use Facebook, and there are editors’ Facebook groups such as Editors’ Association of Earth. I keep Facebook for my life outside work and use LinkedIn and Twitter for business. Even if you don’t want to post anything at first, support the editorial community by following other editors (the chances are they’ll follow you back) and liking content you’ve found useful.

Social media isn’t just for fun; it’s for connecting, learning and sharing with colleagues. You’ll start to feel as if you’re part of one massive virtual office.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t let social media take over.
On social media it’s far too easy to spend time and energy chasing a few likes or following obscure threads to the detriment of more rewarding activity. Limit your social media to set times of the day – something I should have done. (I seem to have self-regulated now. About time.)

8.   Join professional bodies and then make the most of your membership

I joined the CIEP (then the SfEP) in 2014. This gave me contact with other, real-life editors through our local Edinburgh group, which led to clients as my colleagues generously shared the work opportunities they came across. This was great. But when I got on the members’ online forums and discovered the wider community I found many more opportunities. Blogging and writing a language column for the SfEP/CIEP helped me articulate key issues in editing (see ‘Write content that helps you and others’, above) and eventually I became a member of the CIEP’s information team.

The latest professional body I’ve joined is ProCopywriters. This is to glean tips and learning points for the delegates in my Editing for Better Communications course, as well as to help my own writing. A lot of editors, particularly those who work with people who self-publish, are members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Keep looking for what might help you at different stages of your career.

Don’t do what I did. Take advantage of all the membership benefits you can.
I wasn’t clever at this at first, and so I missed out on the CIEP’s forum chat, useful fact sheets and guides and conference attendance, not to mention a great bunch of editor friends and colleagues. As soon as you gain membership of a professional body, dive in and make sure you’re doing everything you can. It’s what you pay your membership fee for, after all.

9.   Keep in touch with your tutor

If your tutor’s happy for you to stay in touch with them, you should. Ask them questions. If they don’t know the answer, they’re likely to know where to find it. I’m always happy to answer emails or have Zoom chats, but now I’m starting regular events, DocEditor Drop-Ins, for my delegates, so they’ll have the opportunity to bring along issues and ask questions. I’m hoping this will help them, but I know it will help me understand the resources I should be producing and the learning points I should be adding to my courses.

Do what I did.
I kept in touch with Margaret Aherne after my Publishing Scotland courses. I sent her the odd question about language, bought her proofreading book, recommended her courses to colleagues, and generally felt she was a live contact, not just someone in my past. So she thought of me when an opportunity came up. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be offering all my delegates the chance to teach my courses one day, but knowing someone who’s a bit further on in their career and has an interest in your progress can be useful.
View all other resources