Six ways to be the freelance editor you want to be

Blog header photo showing a cosy wooden home office with a view of snowy woodlands

I’ve never been much of a trendsetter – I’m writing this in my trusty cardigan and slippers – but I was ahead of the curve for working from home. Recently, I’ve smiled wryly when friends have suddenly discovered they’re more productive when they don’t have to spend hours stuck in traffic or be distracted by a demanding boss. For nine years, my commute has been 30 seconds to my desk and my boss (my conscience) is only demanding when I’m distracted in the first place.

When I was made redundant from my in-house publishing role in 2011, self-employment was the obvious option. My daughter was about to start school and I wanted to define my own hours. I had plenty of contacts and liked the idea of having my hair done at 2pm on a Tuesday if I liked.

And here I still am, a grizzled veteran of the eternal battle for clear prose. Something must have worked. So here are six tips that make it work for me.

1. Establish a flexible routine

My workday template is to get up, go for a walk, get to my desk by nine, have a lunchtime walk and finish around five. Even when work dropped off for a while in March, I was at my desk doing admin and training. But it’s also flexible: if I have an appointment during the day, I work later; if I want to have a day off, I work at the weekend.

2. Remember you own a business

As a sole trader, I believe success is defined by how professionally you view yourself. I own a small business. That’s why I prefer the term ‘self-employed’ to ‘freelance’ and I like the term ‘consultant’ best of all.

Obviously, you need to meet contractual obligations but other essentials, in my opinion, are a business bank account, a customised domain name for website and emails, professional indemnity insurance and an admin system to track your invoices. Finance isn’t my strong point, which is why I regard engaging an accountant to do my tax return as a worthwhile investment. I’d rather pay her to get it right than pay a fine when I get it wrong.

A professional approach also makes problems less personal. If someone doesn’t like my work or if I make a mistake (surely not!), I acknowledge it, rectify it if necessary and move on. As an individual I might cringe but as a business I chalk it up to experience.

Incidentally, I always put on my make-up and ensure my watch strap matches my outfit. PJs might be the uniform of some home workers but I say: feel smart, be smart.

3. Be yourself

This does not contradict being a business – you can be professional without losing your personality. All that entrepreneurial guff about generating affinity by elevating your unique brand really means ‘you do you’.

Some editors claim never to reveal anything personal to clients but I don’t know how you can develop a relationship by keeping your distance. I’m not entirely defined by my job. I’ve been a town councillor, I am a school governor, I’ve sung complicated Bach chorales, I almost always complete escape rooms within an hour and sometimes I even win the weekly Zoom quiz. Even if it’s just empathising with childcare issues or complaining about the weather, a little affinity eases communication on both sides.

In any case, my personal knowledge often proves relevant (usually for fact checking but I’m sure my superpower of remembering random song lyrics will come in useful one day).

4. Market yourself to suit you

Talking of ‘you do you’, many editors struggle with the concept of selling themselves but there are so many options for raising your profile that it doesn’t have to feel like selling at all.

I’m lucky to have a lot of contacts who get in touch with potential work. Actually, it’s not lucky. It’s the reward of spending 20 years building my skills and reputation. But I still need to proactively tell people I exist. That might be a quick email to a new company, participating in an online discussion or ensuring my entry in the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) directory is relevant to potential clients. I used to be a Twitter addict but I went cold turkey when it started to make me anxious. Maybe I’ve missed leads as a result but I’m happy to pay that price for my mental wellbeing.

You don’t like cold-calling potential clients? Then don’t. You enjoy going to networking events? Then go. Get known in your specialist subject or via memorable social media posts or by offering free content to your target market. It’s empowering to realise that you’re an expert in something, and that makes marketing so much easier.

5. Build a strong network

The editorial community is amazingly supportive. Perhaps because we’re used to working alone, we find our strength in numbers. Follow any thread on The Editors’ Association of Earth Facebook group, for example, and you’ll find eloquent international specialists eager to share their knowledge, united by their passion for language.

Here’s another example. I first joined the CIEP (then the Society for Editors and Proofreaders) with a vague notion that a professional membership might get me more jobs. What I didn’t expect was for it to become central to my career, mainly because of the friendships it’s brought. Whether meeting with my local CIEP chapter, socialising at conferences or chatting with my accountability group, I rarely feel isolated even though I work by myself.

6. Treat everything as a learning experience

Being open to new skills and ideas is crucial to sustaining a career. I started out as a copyeditor and proofreader but my niche is now development editing textbooks. I’ve also organised photo shoots, checked facts, project managed series, edited in InDesign, taught myself to code in Python and provided consultancy services. If someone asks me to do something different, I’m usually up for the challenge. That’s how I got to do my favourite thing: writing textbooks on topics as diverse as media studies and plastering.

Opportunities are everywhere you look. Formal training plays its part too but it all keeps coming back to those key points: be yourself, be flexible, be open and be viable.

Julia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications (www.wordfire.co.uk) has more than 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. When she’s not hanging out with other editors (virtually or otherwise), she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

Responses

  1. Great article, @juliawordfire!

    It is so true that you are so much more than just your business. While I struggle with how much personal information I should share with clients, I don’t think it’s possible to hide my interests outside proofreading (and including my interest in sailing on LinkedIn even led to some proofreading work).

    I, however, could never call a ‘consultant’. I think my dislike for the term must come from the huge number of generic ‘consultants’ I’ve come across at networking meetings, and terror at being classed as ‘just another consultant’. Rightly or wrongly, I’m quite happy calling myself a freelance proofreader.

    1. Hello @rmnel  🙂 – I’ve always avoided the term ‘consultant’ too. However, when I am searching for someone to work on projects, I often use the word in my Google search, as it is likely to find me the specialist skill I am looking for. As an example, this morning I was looking for a marketing expert in marketing to Further Education colleges. The first thing I searched for was ‘Marketing Consultant FE’ – and it found results! Something to consider for Search…

  2. This is a lovely article, such a nice little window into the life of a freelancer, and good to know it’s not just me who gets ready for work every morning even though my desk is in my living room. I’m not sure about the need for the business account and insurance, I think that all depends on the business, but it’s a good tip to get an accountant if finances isn’t your strong suit. I certainly agree about being yourself and making connections with a personal touch. I sometimes get emails with emojis and smile at the sense I’ve just made a work friend, even though we’ve never met.

    1. You’re right @samantha_richter  – I used to avoid emojis as I thought they were unprofessional, but now I realise they are human and a great way to add that human touch! ?

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