What freelance editor hasn't wished they could go back, do some things over, and get their business started off the right way, or at least, in a better way? I know I have. Freelancing in any capacity usually involves a lot of trial and error, particularly because freelancers all run their businesses a little differently based on personal preferences, experience, and areas of focus.
That said, there are some challenges every freelance editor will encounter, and it's those challenges Elizabeth d'Anjou so generously covered for us at ACES 2017.
If you're just starting your freelance editing career, take note so you can avoid these pitfalls and look back on the beginning of your career with fewer shoulda woulda couldas. If you've already been around for a while, you'll still find some gems here that will help you run your business more smoothly and efficiently, and it's never too late for that.
Elizabeth started off by telling us a bit about herself. She's been a freelance editor for about 25 years now, but she's always been a word nerd. She majored in Latin in college, she loves to read, and she did not want to become a freelance editor. Like many of us, she fell into it purely by accident before discovering it was actually the right path for her.
Partly because of this, she did not approach her business strategically, and made a lot of mistakes along the way. For a long time, she felt she was a better editor than freelancer, until she learned a lot of important lessons.
Elizabeth presented her list in reverse order, à la David Letterman.
Elizabeth is now also an editing teacher, and she says this is the number one thing she notices about young editors. Most of them are overconfident, and they tend to over edit. As editors, we're used to knowing more about language and writing than most people, it's easy to assume you know more than anyone, and that, of course, you're correct.
This requires an attitude adjustment. Elizabeth says if there's any doubt in your mind, go look it up. This is one of the joys of being an editor:
As an editor, you don't have to know everything. You just have to know where to find it.
Elizabeth says her biggest regret is not taking courses because she thought she already knew enough. She says take all the opportunities you can to learn. And never hesitate to look things up: things change.
Elizabeth says it was transformational for her to realize this. Something that's good to read is not the same thing as a good editing project.
When she first started out, she took whatever jobs came along in order to pay the bills. (Sound familiar?) At first, she thought she wanted to edit the kinds of books she likes to read. However, after several years of editing economics papers and government projects, she realized this wasn't true.
Today, everything that's written can use an editor. Step back. You may not even know what you like to edit yet. Elizabeth says she finally realized she actually enjoyed editing for her nonfiction clients, and at that moment, came to love her career.
When she started, Elizabeth feared being caught out, that people would find out she was working alone, so she put a lot of effort into keeping up appearances. She always tried to make it sound as though she were always on top of things, until that backfired in a big way.
Elizabeth used to get manuscripts on paper, delivered in big envelopes. She was always busier than she could handle, so when the next envelope would come, she wouldn't open it right way, thinking she had to get caught up first.
One particular envelope sat for a week, untouched. The client called and asked, "How's it going?"
"Good! I'll meet the deadline," she said.
"Is it in good shape?"
"Oh yes, not too difficult at all."
Then the client asked, "What did you figure out about the train incident?"
Turns out, right in the middle of chapter one was a story about a train, which the author didn't know if he should keep. In fact, he'd left Elizabeth a note in the manuscript, asking for feedback. She was busted. So her advice is, "Always open the envelope!"
Think ahead, and don't get too bogged down. Maybe you can't manage it all or take it all on, but you can be one person on a team, or you can refer work to colleagues. It's one thing to present yourself in the best light, but another to misrepresent what you can do or have done. It's not worth it.
In the beginning of her career, Elizabeth thought every piece of communication had to be formal, and that she couldn't indicate she had a life. She didn't feel she could say she was taking time off, whether it was for vacation, or for important events and appointments.
The farther along you get in your career, the more you'll realize that you're a person, and so is your client. If you're honest about what's going on in your life, the better off your relationship with your client will be.
Ask how you can make it easier for your client. Ask what they prefer. Build a rapport with your client. Talk to them like people, and show personality in your communication. You should sound like you.
Early on, Elizabeth says her attitude was that she was coming in to rescue poor, dumb authors who had all these mistakes and needed her to fix them. It's absolutely the worst attitude to have.
Try writing something, and having someone else edit it (you cannot edit your own writing and be objective)—it's humbling.
Realize your job is not to rescue the author, it's to help the author create the best piece of writing possible. Elizabeth says the best metaphor for editing is the midwife. The manuscript is the author's (organization's/group's/company's) baby. It's their purpose. Your job is to make it as good as it can be.
The author put a lot of work into their writing. Remember that. Cheer them on, help with the labor pains. At the end, they keep the baby, and you go on to the next one. Elizabeth says she's not a mechanic fixing something that's broken. She's a midwife bringing something wonderful into the world.
"I'll finish this, and then there'll be more time." How many times have you said that to yourself? When Elizabeth started out, she had poor time management skills, and was very focused on what she was doing "now."
Time management is a skill, just like editing, just like presenting. Some of us are better at it than others. If you're bad at it, you can learn to be good at it. It's also an essential skill. If you want to be a freelance editor, time management is just as important as grammar.
Most young editors are too busy. They have a fear of saying no, and they get caught up in the excitement of getting a job. In reality, about five hours a day is about as much editing as anyone can do. It's hard work that wears out your brain. If you stay up all night, you may be awake for those ten hours, but you'll still only do five hours of editing.
Elizabeth has been editing for 25 years, and says she still makes mistakes. Accepting this is a difficult lesson for editors because we're in the business of getting it right. That's what we're about. There's a sense that everyone else may get it wrong, but we shouldn't.
The bigger problem Elizabeth encountered was that although she knew how to get things right, she didn't know what to do when she got things wrong. She says you'll be astonished at how forgiving clients and authors are if you treat mistakes with the right attitude:
Follow this, and most clients will forgive and accept, and want to make it right too. Work together to get it done.
Almost all jobs come from some form of networking, whether it's reading a blog, using social media, or meeting people. Even 9 to 5 jobs can come from networking.
Elizabeth says you don't have to be an extrovert to be good at networking. She learned early on that networking is not something to do on the side because it's fun. It's necessary because it's where the work comes from.
People like to hire people they have a connection to, especially for a service. If you need a hairdresser or plumber, you want a recommendation. Same thing with editing. Like a haircut, you can't check it out first. (Note: Yes, you can do a sample edit, but that still won't provide either you or the client with knowledge of what the full working experience will be like, or what the end result will be.)
Networking is absolutely the key to getting freelance work. In the beginning, Elizabeth was reluctant to pay to go to conferences. Sometimes freelancers think it's something they can do when they're more successful. But it's actually how you become successful in the first place.
Talk to people, tell them what you do, let them know you're a freelance editor. But you don't have to say "If you know anyone/need an editor …" You don't have to be pushy. If they need an editor, they'll call you.
The takeaways pretty much cover this lesson. If you've been paying yourself every penny that comes in, you may need to undergo an attitude adjustment. Remember: The money coming in is not all yours.
Shift your thinking. You're a person who runs an editing business. You may be editing for just five hours a day, but you're working eight hours because editing is not the only work you're doing.
You're not just the editor, you're also the manager, IT person, long-term planner, janitor, accounts receivable, sales, business development, everything. For every two hours of editing, you're doing one hour of other work. If you don't account for this, you will not be successful.
You may finish editing a project, and find there's nothing coming in because you haven't been marketing, networking, and getting more business.
It's all about having the right attitude.
And there you have them! I'm betting a lot of you editors out there can identify with at least one item on this list. Take Elizabeth's advice, reassess and make those attitude adjustments, and you'll be setting yourself up for even greater success.
Michelle Lowery is a freelance editor for self-published fiction authors, a copywriter specializing in optimized website content, and the author of Self-Editing for Indie Authors: 21 Quick and Easy Tips for Better Writing, Positive Reviews and More Sales.