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Starting a freelance editing business: My story and lessons learned

Starting a freelance editing business: My story and lessons learned

January 12, 2021 By Richelle Braswell Resources

Are you considering starting your own editing business but feel unsure? Perhaps you’ve heard publishing and editorial professionals recommend that you work in-house for a few years first. I’ve heard the same thing, but I’m here to tell you that doesn’t have to be the case. You may be more ready to start your freelance career than you think. Here’s my story about starting my freelance business and some insights I learned along the way involving research, business name, website, finances, contract, one-on-one business coaching, interrelated objectives, continuing education, final tips, helpful resources, and common terms.

My Story

I’m a perfectionist by nature, so I like fully comprehending how to do a new thing before I actually do it. I started my freelance journey thinking I needed to know everything, but I eventually learned I needed to know enough to get to the next step, and then I could learn some more. You can research all the relevant topics in the world for weeks, months, or even years, but research can only get you so far. At some point, you need to open the book, flip the pages, and start editing.

I could’ve started my freelance editing business in 2017. That spring, I attended ACES 2017, which happened to be in St. Petersburg, Florida, only two and a half hours from my college. Then, I graduated from Stetson University (as an English major, of course) in May and received a publishing certificate from the Denver Publishing Institute (DPI) in August. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already taking steps toward my calling. If you’re like me, then perhaps you can reflect on your own journey and see similar signs that indicate your calling as an editor.

I did all these things—attended an editorial conference, graduated as an English major, received a publishing certificate—and yet, I still didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t confident I could start my own business, so I began editing on the side. This time of indecision was challenging, but it taught me some important lessons:

If you think you’re not ready to start your business, learn from my editorial journey and consider reevaluating what’s holding you back. All obstacles have a workaround. Don’t let your feeling of unreadiness prevent you from pursuing your calling.

What I Learned

Do your research

Remember that ACES conference I mentioned? Turns out it played a crucial part in my calling when I decided to begin my editing business in May 2020. Someone there mentioned a Facebook page called Editors’ Association of Earth (EAE), so I joined the group and casually lurked with an occasional comment. The EAE eventually became my first go-to resource when I needed to learn basically everything about how to run an editing business. Members can peruse useful files in each group, though I particularly liked the ones in the business group. I pored through the files and conversation threads concerning topics like rates, how to get started, running a business, website services, and content, and recommended resources. Editors from all over the world ask questions, offer invaluable feedback, and share relatable moments. I encourage you to join their group or a similar one. From the EAE, I spread out to websites with useful information for editors.

Oh, the notes I took and information I learned! After a while, I became overwhelmed by all that I needed to do, but I knew I needed to act on something, anything, in order to move forward. Research had gotten me started, but I needed to take another step to keep working toward having my own freelance business.

Choose a business name and create a website

My next step? Business name and website. I read articles about choosing a business name, brainstormed ideas, and researched each possible option to see whether it was already taken. Of course, many of the names I considered and liked were already in use. So I had to dig deep.

I asked myself some tough questions: What values did I want for my business? What should my business represent? In the end, I decided on Richelle Braswell Comprehensive Editing. It’s rather long, but it incorporates my name and hints at my editing style. Plus, my name already appeared on the first page when I Googled myself—a benefit of my unique name, my activities in a small high school in Waco, and the articles I’d written for a local magazine, the Wacoan. While I like my chosen name, I sometimes wonder whether I should have picked a different one, so don’t fret too much when picking your business name. A name doesn’t have to be perfect for it to work well.

Next up was a website and more research. Should I choose Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, or another website builder? Many editors suggested having a different domain host than your website builder. I read articles comparing my top options for both until I decided what sites worked best for me: Squarespace and NameCheap. Here’s one tip that you may want to consider during this process: be sure the domain name you want is available before building your website. I didn’t do that, but I wasn’t too worried that www.richellebraswell.com would be taken. A month later, I finished building my website with help from my supportive boyfriend when I needed advice or feedback. I launched my website, officially starting my business!

Establish finances and write a contract

My first step in establishing finances? You guessed it: more research! I knew I needed some system to track my income and expenses, such as QuickBooks or Quicken. Then, I stumbled upon The Editor’s Affairs (TEA) by Maya Berger. A fellow editor, Berger created an Excel spreadsheet designed for editors to track their income and expenses. The income tab lets you track each project with columns for word count, words per hour, rate per hour, project and invoice deadlines, and other specific information editors track. Meanwhile, the expenses tab has a dropdown menu to track expense categories. TEA even has a summaries tab to track money spent and made in different months, the expense categories, and details for each client. I knew TEA would benefit me more than the other money tracking systems, so I purchased a customized version.

Next up for me was building a contract. Though a contract is not essential when you first start your business, I knew I’d prefer having one when I attracted clients. I pored through the EAE groups and files, reading and taking notes from contract-related threads. Freelance editors often learn from personal experience regarding client interactions, meaning some editors have an unfortunate experience that causes them to add a clause to their contracts. These editors understand the pain, frustration, and annoyance of those situations, so they readily share specific types of clauses they find valuable. I jotted down their advice in hope that I could avoid such situations. Once I gathered enough notes, I organized them and began writing the contract.

If you’re like me, you don’t know legalese and want someone or something to guide you. In my case, that something was free editorial contract templates available online. I mainly examined two templates: one from the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) and one from Editors Canada, but there are more template options out there. The latter template’s format appealed to me better, despite the Canadian laws I needed to remove. I printed out my organized notes and the contract template, then I added, removed, and rearranged information. When the contract was at a decent place, I sent it to my lawyer, so he could review it from his perspective, remove the Canadian laws, and add relevant state and county laws. And voila! I’d developed a contract that could change as I implemented it and figured out what worked and what didn’t.

Important tasks involving finances include more elements than the few mentioned here. I tackled them later in my timeline; however, they are worth noting here. You need to decide what type of business you will establish. I set up my business as a sole proprietorship with an assumed name record, though another common option is an LLC. This step was required before I could open my business bank account, which you also need. I recommend you hire an attorney to help you figure out what option is best for you and possibly to help you with taxes. You also need to learn whether your state requires sales tax for your business. Texas, for instance, does not require sales tax for my editing business, which falls under data processing services. In Texas, data processing services are taxable, but an editorial business classifies as a professional service that uses a computer as merely a tool to complete or provide said service, and thus is not taxable. You might want to apply for an employer identification number (EIN) to use instead of your Social Security number (SSN).

Hire a one-on-one business coach

Once I’d developed a solid freelancing contract, I went back to researching to determine my next step. As I noted all the tasks I felt I needed to accomplish, I became overwhelmed and lost. Where do I go from here? How do I best organize my business? How do I balance my various tasks? I decided hiring a business coach or consultant would be ideal to unscramble my thoughts and carve my path. I wanted someone who understood freelance editing to help me navigate my editorial business, so I ran numerous Google searches and followed various rabbit holes. Many coaching services exist, and some fellow editors, I’ve since learned, have their own consulting services.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered a one-on-one coaching program called Biz Bestie by Sagan Morrow, a former freelance editor who is now a productivity strategist and book author. The program caters to each person and lasts almost two months, so, of course, it is a bit pricey. I weighed the pros and cons and decided it was worth the money, which proved to be a brilliant decision by the end. If you’re lost and need guidance with your business, find a one-on-one coaching or consulting program that works for you.

I began my Biz Bestie program the same day I started training my replacement at my day job, which became a fun balancing act for the next few weeks. It worked out well, and I had more time and energy for my program’s last several weeks and my business, as I was, by then, officially a full-time editor. This program guided me and taught me elements of running a business, but I accomplished the tasks myself; Sagan provided advice and feedback when needed. During the program, I created business and marketing plans, discovered time tracking and task management systems that work for me, signed up for EFA and ACES and created directory listings for them, learned ways to manage overwhelm, established my rates, learned about and tried various marketing techniques, found a way to set and balance tasks with the understanding that not everything has to be done right now, and much more.

Balance your interrelated objectives

One of the most important lessons I learned in my journey to start my own business is that you shouldn’t pick one broad business-related objective and complete it entirely before moving on to another. I started with that structure: pick a business name, build a website, create a contract, and so on. But I soon realized that this strategy is inefficient. You can’t finish one objective completely and ignore the others; instead, all your objectives work together in supporting your business and should be done in tandem.

I’ve learned to classify my work tasks under broad categories: marketing, networking, continuing education, business maintenance, and client-related. Often, these categories overlap, and one task can benefit multiple categories, even if it falls under one. For instance, networking with other editors and authors doesn’t just act as networking; it also acts as a form of marketing in the long run. Once people know who I am from our interactions, they might refer people to me. So when I’m networking, I know I’m working toward both my networking and marketing goals. Win-win!

Continue your education

Once I learned how to manage my business objectives and balance my interrelated objectives, I became more successful with my freelance work. I knew that in order to remain successful, I had to continually strengthen my skills. Enter continuing education. Much of my continuing education has been through ACES and EFA webinars and online courses. I cannot stress enough the value of these resources. Even if you know the basics of an editing service and have applied them to editing manuscripts before, ACES and EFA webinars and courses still have more to teach you. In addition to reminding you of a few basics and strengthening your expertise, they can also reinforce your certainty that you enjoy and excel in a specific service. I found this benefit particularly helpful as a new freelance editor. I already knew I was on the right career path, but I was grateful to be reminded that I'd made a solid choice.

With webinar topics ranging from business maintenance to editorial tools, there is always something new to learn, especially as the options are online. Continued learning courses also provide you with the opportunity to connect with fellow editors through the course forums and conversation threads about the course. I attended one such online four-week EFA course for an intermediate level of developmental editing of fiction. Other ways I continue learning include reading editorial articles, email newsletters, editorial blogs, and novels in my specialty. You may surprise yourself where you will learn about editing and running a business.

Another major component of my continuing education these past few months has revolved around business maintenance. I watched EFA presentations about onboarding clients and developing deliverables, and I started using a business management website (I decided on Dubsado, but 17Hats is also worth exploring) to help me manage my client relationships and related aspects of my business. I also hired Amber Helt, a fellow EFA chapter member, to help fine-tune my onboarding and offboarding processes on Dubsado, brand my business, create deliverables through branded Word templates, and reassess my editorial rates. Now I have a smoother system when working with clients all while I am also addressing other elements of my business, such as marketing. While I have deliverables established, they partly outline that I will fill in and save as templates when I edit my next few freelance projects.

Final Tips

That’s my story so far, but I want to leave additional advice before I conclude this article. Decide on your ideal client and editorial niche, then say yes to jobs fitting that criteria. I might be starting out, but I will say no if the job isn’t right for me, especially if the genre is outside my niche. If I accept, I’ll do a good job (perfectionist, remember). Then, hopefully, that client will refer me to other authors, who would probably write in that same genre. Slowly, my niche would shift to that genre rather than my preferred ones. The right jobs will come along. You simply need patience, which is often a pain (for me at least), but it’s necessary. Patience does not mean staying idle; you can actively attract clients but wait for the right ones.

As I’m researching and setting up an email newsletter, I’m learning that you need to know only a little more than your audience. In other words, you need to know a little more than your authors. I may not know as much as experienced editors who have been in the business for twenty-plus years, but I know more than my authors because I am a professional with a good foundation for editing. I know more now than when I graduated from Stetson and DPI and more than when I launched my business. I’ll continue to learn and know more every day. Yes, mistakes are inevitable, but they’re teaching moments for me to grow. You don’t need to know everything before starting your own freelance editing business; rather, you need to know enough to start out then continue learning along the way.

Summary

The bare essentials needed to start an editorial business are a business name, a website, an assumed name record, a business bank account, an understanding of editing services you want to offer, and your editorial rates. I recommend that you also develop business and marketing plans, which help you understand your goals. Once you have these items, launch your business and start attracting clients. It will take a while, so start now and figure out the rest as you go. While you wait patiently, work on other objectives like branding, onboarding, offboarding, automation, and deliverables.

My business has made tremendous progress since I decided to give freelance editing a true shot. I’ve had my doubts and worries, and I know they will only shift focus over time. However, I am extremely happy I decided to pursue my calling. “I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail” by Muriel Strode is one of my favorites. I imagine I’m blazing my own path as I continue my journey. May you find your own path and act on your calling. Happy editing!

Helpful Resources and Editorial Terms

Here are additional resources I found super helpful in starting my own editing business and common terms new editors should know.

Header photo by Sereja Ris on Unsplash.

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