Finding Work as a Freelance Copy Editor
September 15, 2023 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I started working as a freelance copy editor in February of 2022 and have enjoyed great success — until last month. Freelancers of AskMe, I'd love your tips or advice for how I might improve and diversify my client/job leads, my income stream, and my marketability.

Some background: During the pandemic, I was forced to quit my job of twelve years. After an extended period of unemployment, I decided to put my copy editing skills to use and created a profile on a popular and well-established freelancer website. For the sake of semi-anonymity, I'll be coy and say that the freelancer website starts with the letter "U." So, no need to recommend that particular site to me since I'm already using it.

The type of editing work I do: I provide proofreading, copy editing, line editing, and developmental editing services. Most of the work is business/non-fiction, but I've worked on fiction and creative non-fic, too. I started out by taking as many editing jobs — and as many types of editing jobs — as possible. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity, as well as determine if I enjoy and have more talent for some editing jobs versus others. In general, here's what I've edited (items in bold = I do this type of editing often):
SEO articles for a content strategy firm, romance novels (developmental as well as copy editing), trade magazines, a one-off specialty magazine for a major arts organization, program booklets for a major speaker forum, a memoir, a novel (literary fiction), a fantasy novel, a book-length guide to interviewing for a job in the UX industry, a book-length guide to getting a job in film production, website content, blog posts, knowledge bases, patient education materials for a public health non-profit.

Supplemental skills [this is something I want to work on]: I do a lot of fact checking and research, especially for content strategy/SEO; I've also done some light eBook formatting (Kindle) and brochure/PDF layouts and designs in both Canva and Adobe InDesign.

As far as what I actually enjoy, I've found that I prefer working with businesses, non-profits, and industry professionals. That's because the written content, and the clients, tend to be much more dispassionate (and straightforward) than fiction authors. I'm a competent fiction editor but it doesn't pay as well, and I prefer to avoid the increased risk for conflict that can result from creative differences.

What I currently do to find work: Between March and the beginning of August this year, I had anywhere from 35-50 hours of work every week. As a result, I think I got a little comfortable and fell out of the habit of searching for work. Several of my client's projects either concluded or went on an indefinite pause in August. Some of this I could have anticipated. I'm usually good about asking "What's next?" but I think I started to take the work for granted, and need to find a better strategy for gauging how much work my clients may, or may not, have for me in the future.

August and September have been hit or miss. It went dead for a while, then several clients dumped work on me for about a week, and then it went dead again. I have maybe 5-10 hours of guaranteed work each week but I'm scraping by. This is extra stressful because I'd already planned a trip the first week of October and, as we all know, freelancers don't get paid vacation. I do have some guaranteed projects in October but I need something to keep me afloat for the next three weeks.

I've been applying for jobs on the freelancer site I use, where I'm a top-rated freelancer with a perfect rating, but 1) most of the current jobs available are low quality, 2) the few jobs that are high quality are now more competitive than ever, and I'm not seeing the same success rate that I used to enjoy. I used to secure about 1 out of every 10 jobs I applied for (trust me when I tell you that a 10% success rate is good on this website), so I'm really worried.

I know I'm technically a "baby freelancer" (not even two years in the role!) and I'm still learning the ropes. This experience has definitely been a lesson.

My spouse even pointed out that this time last year, the same thing happened: mid-summer was busy, and then work disappeared in August and September. So, I recognize that some of this may be seasonal, but that doesn't change the fact that I could use a new strategy.

A little more about how I run my operation: I always connect with clients on LinkedIn; I message my established clients to let them know when I have an opening in my schedule and I'm available to take on any extra work they may have; I follow up on any past leads that were left unresolved (one of my former clients referred me to a friend, and I've got a consultation with them for later today).

What I'm thinking about doing so far: Finding other freelancer websites where I can create a profile (which ones are worth it?); building up new skills that make me more attractive to potential clients. I have some ideas for the skills I could work on (getting better with Adobe InDesign and InCopy; learning how to code eBooks from scratch; learning how to edit resumes; learning how to write grant applications; learning more about the strategy side of content strategy; etc.) but would love any ideas for other skills that pair well with copy editing.

In addition to gathering ideas for skills I could develop, I'd also like any ideas for how I can make myself more marketable, how to source more client leads, and how to better track/anticipate the ebbs and flows of my work so that I can get ahead of any dry spells.
posted by nightrecordings to Work & Money (7 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Didn't see textbooks on your list. A little ironic of me to suggest -- I worked on textbooks and, an overwhelming majority of the time, the supplementary copy that goes with them (e.g., various quizzes and similar) as a second job for more than 15 years, but it dried up. First the textbooks started getting outsourced, then the supplementary material. I was lucky to eke out a last few years because a previous editor who'd sent me lots of work had an in with the company to which the material was outsourced, and hooked me up there. But then that started drying up too, offshored to India -- not just the copy, but the third-party vendor even broke up its onshore editorial department.

A long way of saying I don't know how strong a prospect it would be, though I think if I had been willing to jump through some initial hoops and work for far less money than I was willing to, I could still be working. But this was all for just one publisher. If you haven't made inquiries in the industry, it would be another potential avenue, to find all the publishers and cold-call, see where the trail leads.
posted by troywestfield at 9:00 AM on September 15, 2023

Academic writing in general is another area to consider. There are several freelance journal article editing websites out there. I have worked before for AJE--they require a graduate degree in the area you work in, if you happen to have one. Honestly, their work has all but dried up in the last couple years in my field (biology and environmental science). There are other sites, but I can't really recommend any of the others I tried.

If you have a local university, you may also be able to find work more directly--a lot of grad students hire editors and formatters for their theses and dissertations.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:25 AM on September 15, 2023

I dabble in the content world of bloggers and others who basically run websites for profit, and just about everyone recommends problogger's job boards for finding writers end editors. From what I've heard, it's preferable than that "U" site. A lot of these opportunities will involve SEO, so your experience there will absolutely help.
posted by cgg at 9:32 AM on September 15, 2023 [2 favorites]

I'm following this thread as a baby freelancer myself... In terms of advice, I'm reading The Consulting Bible by Alan Weiss and it's got great advice on how to structure your business, which might then help you think about the most effective ways to grow your business.
posted by dotparker at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2023

I'm a freelance editor of about 11 years or so, and the #1 thing I did for my career was to get very specific in my specialization. Instead of trying to be widely available for everybody who needs their words smithed, I picked a lane and went full force in it.

So: I'm an editor --> I edit fiction --> I edit book-length fiction --> I edit romance.

By doing that, I was able to picture my dream client, and then research ways to find her. Where does she hang out online? What ads is she likely to see, if any? Where does she communicate with other publishing professionals, as opposed to communicating with readers? Where might I meet her personally in a professional context?

A corollary I discovered is that my dream client has a lot of author friends. Thus, one dream client brings me more dream clients...making it even more important to find that dream client.

So look, most of this might not apply to you, but perhaps you can do something similar for your dream client(s).
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:58 AM on September 15, 2023 [7 favorites]

I work for an academic book publisher, and we don't use freelancer sites--almost all of our copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers originally contacted us directly, and the rest were recommended to us by someone. Any freelancer who looks reasonably qualified gets added to our in-house database, which the production editors use whenever a project comes up. We may be increasingly becoming an anomaly in the business, but I know there are some others out there, so it might be worth emailing publishers that you think would be be a good fit for you. (I recommend focusing on for smaller/independent/not-for-profit presses, as large publishers will almost certainly have outsourced the work. If you can't find a hiring contact email, look for a managing editor. And feel free to MeMail me.)
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 5:45 PM on September 16, 2023 [2 favorites]

Here are links to a couple of resources I have found helpful. While they are dedicated to helping freelance writers, I think the approaches suggested would work for copy editors too, at least to me, a former copy editor (but not former freelance copy editor, so maybe I am wrong).

I find The Content Marketing Writer helpful for advice on bringing in new clients. It is written by Jennifer Goforth Gregory but it was guest author Cat DiStasio, a B2B HR and technology writer, who provided Updated advice on how to find potential freelance writing clients this week.

In addition, a former New York Times editor publishes a weekly newsletter called Freelancing with Tim. He also offers workshops, one-on-one coaching, etc. Again, these are targeted to freelance writers, but some of the info may be helpful to you. In October, he is offering a 90-minute online workshop called How to use social media to find freelance work for 15 USD, which seems incredibly affordable to me if any part of it is useful.

Finally, I belong to, a private membership website with primarily content writers but also some journalists, authors, and editors. I am not sure what the annual fee is these days but I think you can get a small discount if you get a referral from me. I cannot promise you will find it worth the money, but it is a warm and supportive place in my experience. Send a MeMail if you would like the discount info.

Finding clients is rarely easy. Best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:27 AM on September 26, 2023 [2 favorites]

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