Jen Blood here on a gorgeous May day, taking a break from the daily grind to write this. As a freelance editor, I get asked fairly frequently how I got started, and how I recommend others get their footing if they think editing is the career for them. Usually when I get that question, I grimace internally, consider the fifteen years I was virtually penniless while I learned what it actually meant to be a freelance editor, and file the email away somewhere to answer later. And then, inevitably, I forget about it.
Today, after getting another email from a would-be editor trying to figure out how to get her foot in the door, I decided I would actually try to provide a real answer.
First, though, a little about what I do.
In addition to being a writer myself, I work as a freelance copy and content editor for traditional and independently published authors, and also offer beta reading services and some marketing and publishing consultation for self-published authors. I’m paid by individual writers rather than companies, and I offer my services through my own business (Adian Editing). My focus is on plot-driven fiction because that’s what I’m most well-versed in and most passionate about, but I’ll occasionally do nonfiction if it’s a topic that grabs me or an author I’ve worked with in the past on other projects. My specialties include mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, fantasy, YA (young adult), and occasionally romance, erotica, or science fiction. Last week, I did a content edit on a spy thriller, a copy edit on a supernatural mystery, and beta read a contemporary romance. This week, I’m content editing an action/romance and copy editing a horror/zombie apocalypse thriller. Next week, I’ll be copy editing a YA dystopian thriller, beta reading an erotic short story, and content editing a YA fantasy.
So, those are my days. I work anywhere from 9 a.m. until midnight to 9 a.m. till noon, depending on deadlines and what’s on my roster. At this point, I don’t generally need to worry about drumming up business — I’ve been doing this long enough and word of mouth is happily good enough, that I can pick and choose my clients and am typically booked for at least the next six to eight weeks. I could book farther out, but for my own sanity try to keep it limited to the next two months. I have a stellar client list of hardworking authors I love and respect, and we generally have a great back-and-forth when it comes to the writing craft, the growth and development of their characters, and what their next steps are in order to achieve their writing and publishing goals. I don’t have an assistant (though I should probably get one at this point), but I do occasionally hire subcontractors to do proofreading for me once the actual editing is done, just to have another pair of eyes on a project.
I still ultimately aspire to work full-time as a novelist, but this is a pretty great way to pay the bills in the meantime. I’ve been able to hone my own craft on the job, and I love the fact that I can choose work that I’m genuinely excited about by writers who are serious about both the craft and the business of being authors.
So, that’s me. Now let’s get to you. How do you become an editor — working from home, making your own hours, helping authors get better at a craft you both love?
As I mentioned before, it took me fifteen years to get here. It was long and circuitous and not terribly profitable during that time, but I’ll be the first to admit that my methods were hardly the most efficient. Here’s what I recommend instead.
If you’re truly just getting started, and have no college degree (or no college degree related to the field in which you hope to work), consider taking a certificate course online through a reputable college or organization. I took one in 2014 that was actually quite helpful, though for the life of me I can’t remember what the website was. I will say up front, however, that having undergraduate and graduate degrees in Creative Writing has made a big difference in the amount I’m able to charge and the way clients receive my feedback — not to mention the fact that so many of the skills I use on the job were honed in school.
Volunteer or get an internship. You don’t have to be nineteen to work for free — regardless of your station in life, if you have no practical experience as an editor, check in with your local newspaper or contact a professional editor to find out if they have any openings for interns hoping to learn the business.
Cultivate your communication and customer service skills. Freelance editing, particularly the kind where you’re working directly with the author, is not just about understanding what makes a novel work. It’s about being able to communicate that clearly to your client in a way that conveys what needs to be changed without making them quit writing and go jump off a cliff. Writers are sensitive sorts, so this isn’t as easy as you might think. I use a lot of humor, am liberal with my praise for anything that even remotely works in a manuscript, and then I pull no punches. Because, ultimately, you’re getting paid to be a critic, not a mom.
If you already have a college degree in an English or writing-related field and you have hands-on, demonstrable experience as an editor, here’s what I recommend.
As an undergrad, I printed brochures offering my services as an editor. And a copywriter. And a graphic designer. And an office cleaner. And your BFF who’ll pick up coffee and write nice cards to you when you’re feeling blue. Okay, the last one wasn’t on there, but it was definitely implied. I went to a copywriter with an advertising firm in Portland and gave him the brochure. His response? “I don’t know what you do.” I pointed at the brochure. “I do anything — whatever you need.”
Wrong answer. If you’re doing everything, you’re not doing anything all that well. Figure out what you love and what you’re good at (hopefully, these are not mutually exclusive), and focus on that. If you love nonfiction, trust me — there are writers out there desperate for a good editor. Memoir, children’s books, science fiction, Christian fiction, mysteries penned by cats… Right now, you can’t swing one of those mystery-writing cats — dead or alive — without hitting an author or would-be author. They all need a good editor.
(2) Charge the Going Rate…and then some.
I started out offering my editing at rock-bottom prices because there were so many other editors out there offering their services at rock-bottom prices. The thing is, a lot of those editors had no experience and were terrible at their jobs — in fact, a fair number of the work I get now is re-editing the books they edited poorly the first time around. I did some market research, honestly evaluated how much time it took me to edit a manuscript from beginning to end, and considered how much I wanted to earn, and then I increased my prices. A lot. People pay for quality; if they see rock-bottom prices, they assume you can’t charge more because you’re not worth more. Charge what you’re worth, and stand by that.
(3) Know Where to Go for Work.
I got a lucky break just when my business was starting to really take off, when Joanna Penn — author of the award-winning blog and podcast The Creative Penn — was looking for a new editor and asked if I would do a sample edit. I already knew Joanna from a couple of interviews I’d done with her for my own blog and a guest post I’d written for hers, so the request didn’t come out of the blue. Still, I jumped at the chance, and it paid off. If you know authors who have a good following, ask them if they need an editor. If you’re reading a book by an author you think could be edited better, write to them. Nicely.
Dear Jane Doe, I love your writing style and your mysteries invariably keep me up all night. I noticed on the last couple of books you’ve written, however, that there were some editing errors that detracted a bit from your narrative. I hope you don’t find it too forward of me, but if you would like a complimentary edit of your first chapter to get an idea of my expertise, I’d love the opportunity to work with you.
Be polite, but confident. Don’t talk about how you’re just getting started and are hoping to get a break in this cruel world — sometimes that works, but too often it comes off as groveling.
(4) Be professional.
Have a website. Make sure the writing is clear and concise, and there are no misspellings or grammatical errors. Have a contract. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but it should cover the bases and clearly define things like price, deadlines, and what you’re promising the client. I also have a standard questionnaire I send out to prospective clients, which gives me an opportunity to learn a little more about who they are and what they’re hoping to achieve with their writing. Be courteous when responding to email inquiries, even if the person is writing from the Seventh Circle of Hell and wants you to edit a memoir about his tormented inner child – for free.
I know a lot of these seem like no-brainers, but it never hurts to mention them. And finally…
(5) Hone Your Craft.
Editing is hard work. It takes concentration, long hours, and an inherent understanding of how quality writing works. Read — a lot. Study great novels. Study terrible novels. Check out websites like Grammar Girl and Grammarly to get the skinny on the latest editorial debates. Network with writers and other editors. Take classes when they’re available. Teach classes when you have the opportunity. Become an expert.
So… That’s my advice for folks out there who’ve been dreaming of making a change and living a life devoted to the written word. I hope this is helpful. Best of luck!
Jen Blood is author of the bestselling Erin Solomon Mysteries, and owner of Adian Editing, providing expert editing of plot-driven fiction for independent and traditionally published authors around the world. For your free Editing A to Z Cheat Sheet, visit http://adianediting.com/.
Most excellent advice. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks, John — My pleasure!
Jen, great post, and I am somewhat interested in editing and have more than my share of experience. I read many books for review and sometimes I serve as a BETA reader. Sad to say, but the grammatical errors are abundant ( in finished printed books) and there are major flaws in standard written English: verb tenses pronoun antecedents, diction, mechanics and syntactical errors. I come across repetitious phrases, and I get exasperated and itchy just to correct and contact the author. I do not, however, use Chicago Manual ( but MLA or APA). I am a retired college prof of English and writing arts; I also do my own share of writing, but most of my time is spent grading academic tests online.
By the way, thank you Maine Writers for the lovely jar of Homemade Wild Blueberry Jam which just found its way to my mail box~
Thanks, Skye, glad you found the post informative. You’re right, grammatical errors are indeed abundant, and I wonder at times if the author is aware and unable to do something or simply doesn’t know. As for style guides, I started out a devotee of Chicago Manual, but now tend to be a little more lax when it comes to things like hyphens (Chicago is nuts for their hyphens!) and a few smaller grammar or punctuation issues.
Hope you enjoy the blueberry jam!