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How to succeed as a freelance copyeditor without having the faintest idea what you’re doing

How to succeed as a freelance copyeditor without having the faintest idea what you’re doing

July 6, 2021 By Richard Shealy Resources

Established copyeditors always have a solid background in the appropriate college coursework capped by certification in the field, right? Okay, you can stop laughing now. In all seriousness, there are as many legitimate paths to a good grounding in the fundamentals.

Take my case, please. (Sorry, I can’t avoid a clear opportunity for a rimshot.) I’m coming up on three hundred works copyedited since I began in 2013, and I’ve ticked precisely none of the expected boxes on the How to Get There checklist. Before we begin, however, let me admit that it took me until the age of forty-five before I found this life’s calling, so if someone’s just starting out, they’ll probably want to follow the expected path for expediency’s sake alone.

Anyway, while I’ve been a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, I started college as a physics major. After one crisis of faith in my junior year (not that I was at all bad at physics, mind; there were simply experiences that made me reevaluate my direction at the time), I ended up graduating one year later with a major in French and minors in physics, philosophy, and performing arts. Plot twist!

I went to graduate school knowing I wanted to do something with French, but given that most language study programs were—and continue to be, though that’s been changing steadily—focused on literary study, and that I was largely uninterested in most canonical literature (with some glorious fantasy-esque exceptions—Voltaire and Rabelais, anyone), I ended up going from one graduate school to another, looking for what I really wanted to do. I found myself in a Louisiana university that was the only US school at the time to offer a doctorate in “Francophone studies,” which was essentially “everything about worldwide French-speaking cultures beyond just ‘literature from France.’”

That was when I discovered the joys of linguistics. The closest I had come to even awareness of linguistics was diagramming sentences in high school English (which at least wasn’t boring, even if it was blindingly obvious to me, an apparently lifelong language geek), so my “discovery” of not only language itself as a subject of intense study but also of ethnolinguistics (the relation of language to culture in all of its aspects) was one of the biggest eye-openers in my life to that point. During this time, I was also teaching first- and second-year French at the college, which did amazing things to my own knowledge of both French and English. To do that job well with students who aren’t all that interested in their own language, you really have to dig deep to root out what makes both languages tick and figure out how best to present that to easily bored people, all of which makes you think about language on a truly fundamental level.

After [CENSORED] years in graduate school, I taught French at a high school for a few years while working on my dissertation, upon which it was again crisis-of-faith o’clock. A few months later, I found a job translating international airline menus. Don’t laugh this time; not only was it serious business (first- and business-class travelers have high standards for both what they’re eating and how their options in that regard are first presented to them) but it was indeed full-time work. And we were good at what we did: an American company was the go-to for all of Air France’s onboard material, and the aforementioned commentary about discerning travelers goes double for a culture that celebrates fine cuisine, so there’s that. The core issue here is that on a daily basis, we had to extract both meaning and tone from the original and render them seamlessly into the target language while keeping in mind precisely what the target audience’s core reading competencies and unspoken expectations had to be. My kind of work!

Some years into that, I somehow backdoored (I’m still not quite sure how it actually happened) into being a beta reader for a best-selling urban fantasy author. Nice downtime activity, right? Get to read books by a favorite author months before they’re available to the public, and not only get asked your opinion on all parts of it but have that opinion listened to? Sign me up! It also introduced me to SF/F fandom (despite having been a reader of the genres for decades, I was never really aware that there was any kind of organized fandom, much less an entire slate of yearly conventions for them) and started my attendance of conventions, or “cons” for short, where I met and got to know a lot of authors, editors, publishers, publicists and everyone else involved in genre-fiction publishing.

Fast-forward a bit: the owners of the company that was employing me decided to retire. Which was good for them, to be sure, but not so much for us: the office atmosphere under the new management quickly degraded and continued to become more toxic as time went by. As a result, I began a low-key search for new employment. Teaching was out (see above re: “again crisis-of-faith o’clock”), and in the post-bubble business world, companies simply weren’t hiring new translators; in fact, many weren’t even using their current translators but were farming translation out to amateur in-house employees or even using machine translation. At this point, a friend quipped something like “You already futz with one author’s words; don’t publishing houses pay people to do that?”

Friends, it was a bolt-of-lightning moment for me. I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life … and had what I thought was absolutely zero marketable background for it. No English degree. No profession-specific certification that I was aware of in the US (other countries already had far more civilized approaches to that with national standards for editing certifications). But I wanted to do it. Oh, you sweet summer child, earlier me.

Remember how I said I had started attending cons and getting to know people in the field, and how I was already beta-reading for a fantasy author? I had contacts, friends, and I used them. It sounds horribly mercenary (and, frankly, it is mercenary), but given how eager people were to help, especially considering how utterly uninformed I was at that point, it’s less about how mercenary it is and more about how much people genuinely like to help.

One put me in contact with their publisher’s freelancer wrangler, who sent me their in-house copyediting test. I was a freaking linguist, so easy pickings, right? I failed the test.

I. FAILED. THE. TEST.

I won’t lie: this was a monstrous blow to what self-confidence I possessed. I questioned whether I should be working in any capacity with language. Nevertheless, I picked myself up and badgered the aforementioned wrangler into telling me what I had gotten wrong (not the exact points, mind, but the general issues), upon which I found out that I was missing The Chicago Manual of Style. Friends, I studied that more assiduously than I had ever studied anything in academia (and found out that I was less wrong than I was not following the protocol that’s really more of a guideline and often changes from one edition to the next; HMPH). I badgered that person into re-administering the test … and I nailed it.

Time for parades and celebrations and a cushy sinecure in word-futzing, right? (I can hear you laughing all the way back here in the past.) Nope. That got me precisely one (count it: ONE) project. Every single contract for every single project for a freelancer is predicated on doing acceptable work on the previous one. Every. Single. One. I had heard multiple authors say a thing about their careers, and a slightly modified version definitely applies to freelancers of any field: you’re only as good as your last project.

I got a few more projects from that publisher (which dried up later, but that’s a whole ’nother story). I even got a project from an indie author who was willing to take a flyer on an unknown. I started working with a tiny publishing house that paid in peanuts and bottle caps. I basically took anything that I could find. And I cultivated direct relationships with the authors I’d been copyediting. (This is on the final exam, students, so pay attention.) In all of this, I poured myself into figuring out as much as possible. Voice, word choice, flow, all of that: everything that makes fiction into a story.

And then I lost the day job. In what was really meant to be a wail into the void, I posted on social media, “Welp, just lost my job. Anyone need a copyeditor?” One of the publishing-house authors I’d copyedited quote-tweeted it minutes later with “HIRE THIS GUY” and later added, “He really pays attention to authorial voice.” I was floored, to be frank, but it underlined something truly essential: the “rules” are there, yes, but the core is always communication, and any job that involves criticizing and improving communication REQUIRES being able to see what the communicator intends and what the recipient brings to the table. And it paid off—while there was no instant happily-ever-after flood of offers, that one QT began a steady upswing.

Within two years, I reached full-time levels of work. I do not want to sound like I’m bragging, so I’ll end this ABC Afternoon Special with a few platitudes that have proven to be inarguably, profoundly true despite their apparent triteness.

For anyone just starting out, if you’re working with language and doing a good job, chances are that you have the material to do this. Interest in (and especially love for) language in particular, communication in general, and most importantly, people informs that work to an incalculable extent. Persistence can pay off beyond even hoped-for levels. Most of all, working with people, treating them and their work as valuable, and doing everything in your power to understand both of them is not only a good idea on a social level, it’s a fantastic way to find out how a winding, wandering path can bring unexpected help from many corners and get you to your destination via a road much less traveled.

Header photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash. 

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