Freelance editing—how to break in?
June 2, 2013 3:39 PM   Subscribe

Freelance editing—does it exist? How can I break in? What are my prospects?

I have worked in various capacities in the word trades: English major, master's degree in English, some professional experience working at magazines in NYC, many freelance writing clips, some experience teaching writing and composition, and—to crown it off—last year I became the author of a well-received nonfiction book published my a major national press.

Alas, well-received does not equal bestselling, and I am trying to strategize ways to make some money that would be independent enough/part-time enough to allow me time to develop another book-length writing project at my own pace. I have enjoyed teaching before; I like feeling helpful, and I have enjoyed helping friends with their own manuscripts (and have been told my input is useful). I am not trained as a copy editor (nor am I necessarily interested in just copy editing), but I am good at spelling and grammar.

I imagine that there are people out there who are working on novels, books of their own, dissertations, etc., who would benefit from an editor—anything from help polishing an idea, to 'heavy lifting' with the text, to something more gentle and line edit-y. I would feel comfortable working on almost any kind of manuscript: fiction, nonfiction, even something fairly technical.

Does this kind of work exist? How does one find it? How can I promote my services? What sorts of fees do people charge? Project or hourly? FWIW, I now live in the SF Bay Area, but I suppose with the wonders of technology, one could do this work for people living anywhere. Though I like the idea of occasional face to face meets.

Of course, if you have any other ideas for someone in my situation, I'm all ears. High verbal GRE scores. Tutoring?

I've also considered trying to look for teaching jobs at private high schools, but (a) a full-time teaching job seems like it would demand all my energy, and (b) I am intimidated by reports I hear that most people landing those jobs now have PhDs.
posted by toomuchkatherine to Work & Money (9 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
My recollection is that Elance offers this. You have to pass a test to qualify for editing work.
posted by Michele in California at 3:50 PM on June 2, 2013

Freelance editing does exist -- I did it for a Burmese dissident magazine years ago, and later helped edit a textbook. I agree that Elance might be a start, or one of the many writing newsletters (, e.g.). I'm not sure it would support a living in SF.

Tutoring, especially test prep, can be surprisingly lucrative ($60/hr not unheard of).

English departments in private high schools do tend to have low turnaround and require higher degrees, and the job will demand more time than you can imagine.
posted by seemoreglass at 4:05 PM on June 2, 2013

I have a bachelor's degree in writing and music and currently hold several part-time jobs, two of which are proofreading positions.

One is for a public university, and is an indefinite placement through a temp agency that specializes in creative work. It's a steady gig, three days a week, pays hourly, and I get health insurance and a 401k from it, which is great. I applied to the temp agency a couple years back when I was unemployed, interviewed with them, and took a proofreading test. There was a long period where nothing came out of the temp agency, then they sent me on one proofreading assignment before this one, and I didn't like the work or the environment there, but it was short-term and it paid well, and I'm very happy with the current gig.

My other proofreading position is for a web site that I learned about through my participation on reddit. I was familiar with the guys who started the site and saw that it was becoming a very popular resource, but the quality of the writing was lacking. So I contacted the founders, pointed out several problems in the text on one of their more popular pages, told them about my qualifications, and offered my services. They just send me a little bit of work here and there and I bill them hourly, but it's a nice extra bit of income, and it may grow in the future.

I have another gig that's not exactly proofreading but which I landed in a similar way to the above; a guy I went to college with and had intermittently kept in touch with founded a tech startup and made a smartphone app that became quite popular. I reached out to him and offered a few ways I thought I could help out with his business. I started mostly doing user support for him, answering emails and writing/updating user manuals, but my role has expanded into marketing/PR and some web stuff. I bill hourly for that as well.

It was kind of shaky for awhile before I patched all of this together and got health insurance figured out but it's a pretty good setup for me right now, plus I work from home 2 days/week and I still have spare time to make music. I hope that seems relevant to you and you find some of it helpful.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:18 PM on June 2, 2013

An enormous amount of proofreading and editing is done on a freelance basis (I'm a full-time staff editor, but I've freelanced off and on for 15+ years). I would start by looking at the Editorial Freelancers Association, particularly their education programming, their rate chart, and their publications. There may also be copy editing and/or proofreading classes at local colleges/universities in the Bay area -- check the continuing education listings to start. This will get you trained more specifically in the different levels/types of editing, and will be a good place to start in terms of making some initial contacts and getting a feel for the freelance market.
posted by scody at 4:32 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am a freelance editor and proofreader, and have been for about three years now. I did it full-time for a year and now it's a side gig to my day job.

When I was just starting out, I created a website (in my profile) and emailed it to pretty much EVERYONE I've ever met. Friends, family, acquaintances, classmates, colleagues, professors, former employers. The majority of my work comes not from them but from people they know who are in need of editorial assistance. Some have become regular clients, some are just one-offs.

I also listed my business with the EFA member directory and an editor's network in my city, and have had people reach out to me as a result of that.

Hourly vs. project depends on the project, though I always have a minimum amount in mind when I get an assignment that I need to make to have it be worth my time. When I first started, I set my rates according to the EFA's rate chart but have gradually tweaked and raised them over time according to my expertise.

Good luck!
posted by anderjen at 5:47 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was a freelance development editor on a few books in the "Idiot's Guide" collection and a pair of books in that publishing house's military imprint. This kind of thing isn't exactly what you're asking about, but it's pretty good work that can—if you establish good relationships—fill as much time as you'd like.

The whole thing seemed pretty clubby to me: My name came up first because I knew someone who knew I'd been a paratrooper, so I got DE work for the military books starting with one on airborne soldiers. That same person knew I was into geocaching, so when they did an Idiot's Guide on that, I got that book, too. Then I got stuff I didn't know anything in particular about (Jesus, the Bible, good nutrition, mercenaries) and got to the point I was sent the upcoming titles and asked if anything looked interesting.

DE work is pretty fun. Most of the work I did was about making sure books met certain guidelines (x number of callouts per chapter, heads/subheads fall in a predictable and sensible manner, etc.) and you get to work with authors to help them bring things out they're missing. Some of the authors were very hands-off, some needed a lot of help. The most plum jobs are the second and third editions: Almost everything is in place but needs to be spot-checked. You can do light copyedits if you want. It sounds like you'd like to do that sort of "editorial guidance but not heavy in the weeds copyedit" work, and that's what DEs were all about for the books I worked on.

Other DEs I knew of made a living off that work, handling multiple titles at a time and even being able to pay their partners to act as assistants or researchers. I was doing it as side work (and had a few columns and other editorial things going on) so I never did more than one at a time. It paid $25/hour, and it was understood that 40 hours was about right for a normal manuscript without an author in the middle of a nervous breakdown or whatever.

The copy editors I knew of were freelancers, too. I think they got their start by taking a copyediting test with the publishing house then waiting for work (and, again, it helped to know somebody on the project).

If I had to start over tomorrow, I think I'd get together a list of the big publishing houses that drive so much of the mass-market, heavily branded stuff that floods Barnes & Noble and I'd start doing a lot of networking (esp. via LinkedIn, which has helped me get two jobs via discovered connections). The work I got as a DE first came from an editor needing a name because chapters were starting to come in and someone knowing to say "oh, this guy Mike would be good for that." So, I'd make it a point to see if there was anyone at all in my network with the right kind of "editor" in their title, and I'd politely introduce myself through mutual friends and see what I could learn.

Another thing to do is look for part-time opportunities for "associate" or "junior" editors on web properties (vs. managing editors, who are usually a bit more senior and expected to be full-timers). Two employers ago, I worked for a place that used "associate editor" to mean "wrangles high-volume, low-impact copy for sites that are a step above content farms." Where a managing editor or senior editor might handle assignments for professional writers getting high dollar amounts, the associate editors were doling out 300-word piece work to people writing about car insurance tips or the best way to pick a for-profit school. Yeah, there's copyediting, but at 300 words it's not a real strain: Mostly you're making sure they're hitting their keywords.
posted by mph at 6:25 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I make my living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader. I used to teach a practicum course at the Univ. of Washington's certificate program in editing where we talked a lot about career development. There's some good advice in here already, but if you want to discuss some of the details, I still lecture a lot about it and could probably fill you in some more. Memail me if you'd like probably more detail than anyone would rightly need!

One thing I'll say -- a lot of people think this is the job for them because they're good at writing or can spot restaurant menu typos. But there's a LOT of detail to the job, and there are a lot of people who hang up their shingle and really can't do the work as well as they should. So it's worth really understanding the field and thinking about if it's for you.
posted by emcat8 at 10:23 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

My recollection is that Elance offers this. You have to pass a test to qualify for editing work.

I have been on Elance for a few years (almost completed 350 jobs) and other sites.

Yes, Elance and other sites are full of these jobs, but many offer fairly pathetic pay rates. Still though, there are gold nuggets there if you are persistent. However, the trend as of late to actually make a living - or even get a job that pays anything - is to develop your own clients outside of the work sites. Maybe use the job sites as a "training ground" not for the work you do, but to get used to the way clients deal with contractors online. It is a very different vibe than dealing with other freelancing that you may be used to.

Tests on Elance (and other sites) are almost always free to take and not always a requirement to bid on jobs. However, if you want to be a part of a specific user's group on those sites, test taking and a particular minimum score is required. However, almost always, these tests are downright stupid. I know of one Elancer who recently went on a test taking binge to qualify as a linguist. He is now certified in a dozen languages on Elance even though he only speaks English and his usual job is that of an illustrator. With a little patience, you can game any of the tests, and many people do.

Here is a recent article from The Economist Online labour exchanges: The workforce in the cloud.
It discusses on a mostly cursory level the online freelancing world. Somewhat accurate, but a fairly thin article.

If you do go to Elance, steer clear of their forum area, The Water Cooler. In the pantheon of dysfunctional message boards, this one holds a seat next to Zeus.

If you have other questions about Elance, MeMail me as it may not be appropriate for this particular question.

Bottom line the type of work you seek exists, but it requires a bit of work to make it work for you. I know that is vague, but there is a lot more to the freelancing world than just having a desire to do it.
posted by lampshade at 11:02 AM on June 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the answers. I just realized it was good of you all to indulge a question about professional editing written with a typo in the first (run-on) sentence!
posted by toomuchkatherine at 7:03 PM on June 3, 2013

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