Copywriting/Editing Jobs
September 16, 2020 4:11 PM   Subscribe

I would love some advice about beginning a career in technical writing, copy writing, editing, or some combination thereof. I am a complete novice and am looking to enter the field. My background is in education and libraries.

As noted above, I may wan to embark on a new career path. I know this will be difficult with Covid, but I am trying to expand my options outside the library field. Since I was a young person, I was already skilled at grammar/spelling/punctuation, etc. I also really enjoy writing and am usually skilled at it, (especially nonfiction). I have absolutely no educational or experiential training in this field at all. I just have an aptitude, and I like it. Are there entry-level jobs out there? I keep seeing jobs where the applicant needs like...5 years of experience. I am also interested in online courses if you experts think those would be helpful. Basically, I would love a job where I can WFH on something related to the aforementioned skills/topics. Thank you!
posted by bookworm4125 to Work & Money (11 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You can start at Upwork or Fiverr or some other freelancing clearinghouse. You'll probably find bad jobs with low pay and an overall unpleasant experience. As you get some reviews/reputation on the site the jobs and pay will get slightly better, but the real payoff is that you can then apply to an actual job and say "I've been freelancing for X years and have worked with [list of clients]. Attached is a portfolio of my professional writing."

Create a LinkedIn profile and connect to clients as you get them. Maybe put up a simple professional website when you can -- use Squarespace or something. A lot of people need copywriting help but are too busy to do a formal job search, so you want to gradually build a large network of people who think of you when they need something done. Most people would rather work with somebody reliable than somebody charming, so don't worry about making friends; just do high-quality work on time and make sure they know how to get in touch with you. Building your network and reputation is a long-term project.

For technical writing I think you do typically need a documented technical background.

Up to you whether you freelance forever or try to transition to a salaried position somewhere after you have some experience.
posted by brianconn at 6:46 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

I started freelancing as an editor at the university I was affiliated with — lots of grad students and professors have articles they want to publish but aren't confident in their writing skills, or maybe aren't fluent English speakers and want a grammar brush-up. I also edited submissions for a journal that was published by my department. Doing that meant I picked up some experience editing more technical content, and eventually I turned that into a full-time job as a tech editor at a software company.

I think that sort of freelance-to-contract-to-hire situation is pretty typical. It's a way to get your first experience editing, and it can also be a way to start shifting to a new industry or topic area as an established editor.

Definitely connect with other freelance editors if you decide to go the freelance route. They may be able to help you find work ("Help! One of my favorite clients needs something, but I'm too busy this week! Can you take something for them?") and they can definitely help you figure out how to navigate situations.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:10 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

You will need to be familiar with style guides in general and Chicago Manual and AP styles as well. You don't have to memorize but just understand how to use them.

If you seek work in a specialized or highly technical field you may have to learn other styles as well like APA.

There are temp companies, usually ones specializing in "creatives" (graphics, websites, copywriting/editing) that may pay better.

Just so you know, most of the money and opportunity will be in marketing/business/tech writing. If you want to make enough to eat, you will probably end up there.

Another issue is that you will find more work if have related skills; graphics, layout, websites.
posted by emjaybee at 9:18 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Don't sweat the experience. My company advertises for senior level positions but if someone with fewer qualifications comes in and we like them, we just bring them in at a junior level. The job description is for the perfect unicorn candidate who is an amalgamation of everyone on the team, but individually we all fall short. So don't be afraid to submit a resume if you're not very qualified. If you can do some of the things, apply for the position.

When we have hired people who have no experience in technical writing, they got in because they had good writing samples and transferable skills from prior work. In your case, you could probably use your education background to demonstrate that you have some experience in audience analysis.

This is also a case where a cover letter really helps, so we can understand that even though the position is not where you've been career-wise, it's where you want to go.

You'll find a ton more resources about technical writing at Write the Docs or their Slack channel.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions about technical writing.
posted by stefanie at 9:46 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

I'm a medical copy editor (no medical background - that's just the field I ended up in). Before that I was a math copy editor - with no math background.
The entry level jobs for editing usually have titles like "editorial assistant." You can absolutely apply for those jobs without much experience. My first job in publishing was "technical library assistant." It's very, very difficult to get a job as a copy editor without professional copyediting experience (which doesn't mean you shouldn't try - just be warned that there's tons of competition). Copyediting your roommate's papers doesn't count. Every place I've worked for has given applicants copyediting tests, and even people who claim lots of professional copyediting experience often don't pass them. (I was told was that one reason I was hired for one job was because I was the only person who noticed that a period was in bold type.) I've never worked any place where people do more complex editing than copy editing, so I can't advise on that. I've always figured that the sexy editing jobs go to people who went to Ivy League schools and have contacts, but I really have no idea.
One thing to bear in mind is that it is extremely tedious work when you do it day after day. Also, I took an 800-level grammar class in grad school and really enjoy the details of how grammar works, but that doesn't figure into my job at all. Because we have to work with such a large volume of material, we really don't have time to do anything but make sure that nothing is glaringly wrong. If you get a job as an editorial assistant, you may start out by making sure long lists of references are styled correctly.
So that is my limited experience. Feel free to MeMail if you have questions.
posted by FencingGal at 6:06 AM on September 17 [4 favorites]

Oh excellent, not only can I help you but I already have an answer written out from a little while ago that I sent to someone else who had the same question.

I'm a technical writer with a real and growing career in this field. I started with no portfolio and no way to prove I had any writing chops. I had a degree in engineering, a few unsuccessful jobs (i.e. didn't stay longer than 8 months at any of them) in tech, and several years as a stay at home parent in place of a real resume.

So the first thing I did was work on building a portfolio. This meant taking WHATEVER kind of writing jobs I could get from a website called I do not recommend this unless you are as clueless as I was at the start of this process. There were times when clients straight up stiffed me, and even when I got paid, it was a pittance. But the good thing was that I occasionally landed a task that allowed me to show off my skills well, and I put them into my resume. Like one time, I wrote a business plan for someone. Another time, I wrote several chapter-length guides teaching older people to use social media. There was once when I wrote profiles of the whole team at a German startup for their website. Random shit like that. It adds up. Took me about 8-9 months (to be fair, this was done in my spare time while I was parenting a baby and a toddler full time) to get five really good samples that I could use as a professional portfolio.

A better way to build your portfolio would be to volunteer locally and online. Get in touch with your library, your local food bank, a women's shelter, Planned Parenthood, Wikimedia foundation ( highly recommend this one!) -- whatever you believe in. You can work for free or for cheap here without selling your soul and have some great sounding names to put into your resume. (Protip: In your resume or portfolio, nobody has to know you didn't get paid for this work!)

When you feel you have enough of a portfolio and 2-3 people willing to serve as your references, you can write a resume and start sending it out. At this stage of the game, when you are job-hunting, I have two pieces of advice:

1. LEARN AND USE THE JARGON. Research the heck out of corporate technical writing lingo, and make it sound like you have that shit down. Use terms like "elicitation" and "process definition" and "facilitating cross-functional collaboration among teams throughout the organization" and "liaising between stakeholders, technical teams, and end users." If you want to work remotely, especially, emphasize your ability to communicate well and work effectively with remote teams - and possibly teams from different cultures. The job you'll do as a tech writer will likely involve working with every level/team/branch of whatever organization you work with. This depends, of course, from role to role, but in my experience, the jobs that pay the most are the ones where you are acting as go-between, translating scientific or tech speak into business- or end-user-friendly documentation (or vice versa). You need to find as many jargon-filled ways as you can to talk about your ability to communicate with all kinds of people and help them understand one another.

2. ASK FOR A BOATLOAD OF MONEY. Much more than you can imagine asking for comfortably.

(I'm going to talk very openly about the money I make and how much I asked for here, so here's some context for what the COL is where I live: upstate NY; my federal, state, and local taxes are about 32% of my income; my mortgage is $1400 a month for a 1200 sq ft house with 3 bedrooms and 1 bath.)

I spent about one year calling recruiters and saying, almost verbatim, "I want $25 an hour, but I'll settle for $20+ since I'm new." I got maybe 0.5 opportunities throughout that whole year. By a stroke of luck, some random recruiter called me and said up front that the job they're recruiting for pays $38 an hour. My jaw dropped. I didn't get that job, but from that day on, I started telling everyone I'm asking $35 an hour. My offers and callbacks shot WAY up immediately. Two months later I landed my first real job - a contract position with no benefits - and it paid $32 an hour. I did contract work for 2 years, and then found a permanent full time position that at $70k per year plus benefits (health insurance! 401 k! paid sick leave and paid time off!) writing federal and commercial proposals for grants and contracts. It's now three years later and I continue to specialize in proposals, aiming to move into management soon, angling to speak at industry events starting next year (Corona permitting), working on certifications... I'm making a real goddamn career out of this five years after I started my very first full time job in this field.

I used to think I'd be over the moon if I made $50k a year without benefits - I thought, as a beginner, that I needed to "pay my dues" by asking for very little money in exchange for getting my foot in the door. But I found out that in this industry, no employer will take you seriously unless you ask for professional rates.
posted by MiraK at 6:29 AM on September 17 [12 favorites]

There's tons of free/libre or open source projects whose technical people need help describing what they're doing. I'd hire someone with a volunteer background to do paid technical writing -- our chief task is herding the cats who write the software and there's $$$ for someone who can talk to the cats to work out what they're doing.

Volunteer work means remote working, as is done via email lists and instant chat, and it will train you in doing emotional labour for people whose place on the autistic spectrum or place on the patriarchal privilege mean they just don't do it.
posted by k3ninho at 2:28 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Since you mentioned grammar, it's worth knowing that as an editor, your job is not to come in with The One True Set of Universal Grammar Rules, but to learn from your employer what rules they want you to enforce.

When I interviewed for my current job, my now-boss asked what my position was on the Oxford comma. I said "My position is whatever you're paying me for it to be." She later said that was when she decided she wanted to hire me.

The point isn't to be cynical or to sell out your ideals. The point is that an editor's job is about helping people live up to their intentions — and you can't do that if you decide in advance that their intentions are wrong.

If your new team has set the intention to use the Oxford comma, you should tell them when they haven't used it. If they've set the intention not to use it, you should tell them when they have. Eventually, when you've worked somewhere for a while or built up a professional reputation, someone might ask you "What intention should we set?" But in the meantime, you're there to help them be consistent in the decision they've already made.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:37 PM on September 17 [2 favorites]

(And when people talk about style guides like Chicago or AP, they're talking about prepackaged sets of intentions. Instead of making a bunch of little decisions about commas and hyphens and what have you, you can make one big decision to follow Chicago.

Well, still, flexibility is required. As an editor, I've ended up specializing in Chicago, because I kept getting jobs that followed it. But that doesn't mean I think it's right about everything. And often, someone will say "We follow Chicago except we have a different bibliography style and we don't do that one thing with semicolons in lists" or whatever — so there are still plenty of opportunities for setting what I've learned aside and following my client's lead.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:42 PM on September 17

Notwithstanding advice upthread about asking for what you deserve, paywise, I'd offer one man's observation that you might could find work in the lower pay ranges despite (or maybe due to) a lack of professional experience. I worked almost exclusively for a textbook publisher for years and years, and then a lot of the work dried up. I later found out that it had been outsourced; they paid this corporation less than they were paying me, and in turn the corporation paid people much less than the publisher had been paying me. If you find these sort of clearinghouses, you might be able to get some jobs that experienced copyeditors are turning down due to pay. The one I'm talking about is called sPI Global.

On the other hand ... after I found this out, and got a foot in at sPI, and worked for them for a little less than two years, they ended up just cleaning house, getting rid of their entire U.S.-based editorial department. I believe it's all run out of India now. Though the projects available since then have just about dried up, this might be an opportunity for you; I remember early on with them, I was offered a job out of India that I started and then withdrew from because they weren't paying remotely enough for the work they wanted. On the other hand, this comment alone should raise enough red flags about the industry to give you fair warning. If you have websites you've been reading for years, you might have started noticing more errors in their copy. The number of content producers who give enough of a crap about clean copy to pay a living wage for it is dropping significantly, from what I've observed. Worth knowing going in.

One other thing I found was that contacts were everything. I had three or four people giving me all of my work. The project editors leaving the publisher were balanced out by new-to-me project editors reaching out to me for the first time. I'd like to tell you that the PEs who left would then give me work from their new employers, but I'm not sure any of them stayed in publishing -- another indicator of which way the industry is headed. But I wish you luck.
posted by troywestfield at 11:42 AM on September 19

Yeah, editing is definitely shrinking in a lot of industries. The ones where it isn't seem to be ones where there's an unusual need for precision, often because of regulations or a bidding process. Basically, if you want to be indispensable, you need to be in a line of work where a lack of clarity could actually cost someone a lot.

Textbook editing is shrinking, like troywestfield says. I think what keeps it around at all is the sheer number of students who read that stuff and will complain loudly if a problem is wrong. If a bunch of Springfield students got mad at their teachers about math errors in your last math textbook edition, the Springfield school district isn't going to adopt your next one. I know well-paid editors of pharmaceutical ads, which need to be painstakingly fact-checked to prevent lawsuits, and Federal contract proposals, which are hypercompetitive and have millions riding on them. Instructions for big machines get edited. I edit software manuals, and honestly that's unusual. We only hire documentation editors because people use our software to do precise and expensive things like make airplanes. When I look at companies making more ordinary software with lower stakes, I see them hiring writers for their manuals, but no editors.

Another place you see editors' work really being valued is for material that's going to be translated. Translators can work faster and cheaper on a document that uses very consistent wording, so editors get hired to make documents very consistent if they're going to be translated into a lot of languages. Again, it's an area where inconsistency isn't just going to make a reader roll their eyes, it's going to lose the company money.

I do also know a bunch of people who edit fiction, and at least one who edits for a newspaper. But they earn less and are more worried about the future than people in higher-stakes areas.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:47 PM on September 19

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