Starting Your Freelance Editing Career: My Story and Tips

Thu 25 May 2017
By Claire Maby

Claire Maby is my editor and good friend. She brought editing and proofreading into my vision for North for Sun. She will share her experiences in the world of freelance editing. Thanks for everything, Claire! You can contact Claire at claire.e.maby AT or check out her Upwork page.

Guess what? You don’t need a field-specific degree to do what you love.

Take me for example. I have a degree in psychology. Now I’m a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader.

Do I have a degree in English or writing? No.

Do I have much “formal training” aside from reading voraciously, writing prolifically, and honing my eye for detail? No.

Did that stop me? Well...for a long time, yes. But within the past year, I got past these imaginary constraints and changed my career and my life.

Here is my story and some practical tips for how I started a career I really enjoy.

When I was a kid, I loved to read and write. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I scrawled my first stories in a Lisa Frank notebook before graduating to word processing. I shared my writing with anyone who was interested, delighting friends and family with tales of thwarted high school romance and the evolution of preteen friendships.

Then I started taking “formal” writing classes. Bombarded with all the “good” writing of my (obviously superior) classmates, I became crippled with insecurity about my abilities. After getting rejected from a creative writing major track in college, I decided to major in psychology and leave the writing for my journal.

During that period of my life—high school and college—I cared very much about other people’s opinions. Most of the feedback I received on my writing was a mixture of positive and negative, and yet I paid attention only to the latter; instead of taking criticism in stride and using it to improve, I took it as a sign that I wasn’t meant to pursue this path.

It didn’t occur to me that the Creative Writing Major Selection Committee is made up of only a few people, that the competition is steep in this field, that everybody has an opinion…and that all great artists face rejection and criticism.

The world of publishing and editing had long interested me. I felt this was another way into the “writing world,” and I pictured myself sitting happily in a cozy office with a cup of coffee, getting paid to read! Yet as I stepped back from my writing dreams, it seemed easier to just switch tracks completely. I still consider editing a “creative” career, and at the time, a creative, artistic life just didn’t seem in the cards for me.

For a few years after graduating (B.A. Psychology), I pursued other jobs. I tried all kinds of things I thought I might like: office management, research, lifestyle coaching, crisis intervention, teaching. Each time I succumbed to boredom, stress, or the sense that this was a “dead end,” not something I wanted to keep doing forever.

You know that word “epiphany”? “An experience of sudden or striking realization”?

I had an epiphany—or something like one.

I was working at a startup as a 24/7 crisis intervention counselor. I was on-call constantly, and I was more stressed out than I can remember being at any other time in my life. I felt helpless to change my situation. My anxiety got so bad that I decided to see a therapist.

My therapist was an angel. She asked me the age-old question: what would I ideally like to do instead, if money was no object and I could choose anything?

First: I would like to try my hand at editing. Second and third: writing and music. (I play the flute, and had also wanted to be a musician for a long time; this dream had followed a similar trajectory to my writing, but it was around this time that I began taking lessons again. I couldn’t be happier that I did.)

My therapist asked me, “So you want to try editing. Why can’t you do that?”

For the first time in years, I really started thinking about it.

Why couldn’t I be an editor? What was stopping me? I listed reasons like lack of degree and experience; fear of not having a job; fear of failure. Yet it became clear to me that most of these were barriers I was putting up. I am fortunate enough to have had the finances to quit my job without immediate retribution; I could take some time to really think this over and try something completely different.

Once I realized I had the resources to make a change, life suddenly felt too short to stay at a job where I was miserable. I knew I had to at least try, and if I failed, I could go back to having some disenchanting job until I figured out the next thing. But at least I wouldn’t have to wonder “what if” forever.

This realization started a chain of events that changed my life and brought me to where I am today: I quit my job. I took some time off for the first time since graduating, which was enlightening and refreshing. I started my career as a freelance editor!

No, it’s not enough to live on yet. It’s still a “side gig”; I did have to get another job, but I decided to try something I’ve always wanted: working as a barista. I love doing that, too. I’ve had to dramatically alter my lifestyle, moving to a cheaper apartment and significantly decreasing my spending. Yet I find that these things don’t matter at all when I love my jobs. Working as a barista may not be a “glamorous” job to drop at a dinner party, but I enjoy it. And it gives me time to slowly but surely build my editing business without the pressure of it being my only thing. So far, the modest success I’ve had is more than I could have imagined when I started on this journey, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.

In the spirit of sharing advice and my path, I’d like to share with you the steps I took to begin freelance editing/proofreading. As mentioned, I don’t have formal training, and I’m not making “big bucks” (yet). But I love doing it, and it has brought me so many opportunities to work with and meet interesting, talented people who are also doing what they love. I can only hope to grow my business so that I can continue making these kinds of connections and doing work that I believe in.

Here are some things I did (that you can do too!) to get started as a freelancer:

  • Create an online presence: The internet has made freelance work more accessible than ever. I did some research and created profiles on the sites Upwork, Freelancer, and Remote. All three of these sites give clients a chance to find freelancers who do the jobs they need, and you can also search and apply for jobs yourself. Out of these three, I have had the most success with Upwork, where I have developed lasting relationships with a few clients who found me through the site. Upwork is also great because it allows you to track the time you spend on projects and get paid through the site, allowing more security about getting paid according to the agreed-upon terms (as so often freelancers are taken advantage of and not paid what they are owed). Freelancer is a very competitive site where freelancers “bid” on jobs and the client chooses; often the person with the best ratings and lowest rate will win. I’ve found it hard to get my foot in the door without investing money in “promoting” my account (which I may do one day, but so far have decided not to). I didn’t find any relevant jobs through Remote—many of the jobs that were suggested to me were jobs I had no experience with or interest in. Since I had to pay to have an account there, I ended up cancelling after a few months. There are certainly more sites out there as well, and I encourage you to do your own research and decide how much you want to invest upfront in creating your online presence. It’s a great way to get started and see what jobs are out there, and in many cases clients will send you “trial jobs” so that they can decide whether to work with you; you work can speak for itself, regardless of your degree or training.

  • Use your connections: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you have friends, family, or acquaintances who may have connections into the field you want to pursue, asking them for advice or networking is a great resource that shouldn’t be overlooked. Too often, especially in the writing/editing world, success is about who you know (unfortunately). I am lucky enough to have a father who has worked at times as a freelance proofreader for Random House publishing company in New York. I asked my dad if they were hiring remote freelancers; turns out they were, and I was sent the proofreading test. I passed and was hired! It sounds easy-peasy, and often times it is, once you get that foot in the door. Because I am a newer hire with less experience, work through this channel has been somewhat slow—yet the jobs I do get are a lot of fun and pay well. I’m not perfect, and I constantly ask the senior editors for feedback so that I can learn and improve. In a career where you are your work, it’s very important to communicate with clients (or employers) and always be open to learning and improving at your craft.

  • Spread the word: Surprisingly, one channel that has proved very effective is good old word of mouth! When I first started this journey, I got together with an artist friend of mine and created some of my very own business cards. I haven’t handed out a lot of them, but the few times I have, the business card recipient has often gotten back to me, which is a huge first step in building a freelance relationship. I also have simply talked to friends and people I know about what I do, telling them to contact me if they or anyone they know could use my services. Even though networking can be kind of annoying when done at the wrong time or in a sleazy, self-interested way, it’s also a very important part of growing your business, and many times people enjoy hearing about what you do. I also think people prefer to reach out to someone they know or have met already rather than search for a rando online. This channel has given me some of my most fun work, including the opportunity to work with Marie on North for Sun.

  • Don’t give up: There were times when I felt like my business would never get off the ground. I struggled to find even a single client; I felt like it wasn’t worth the time and effort. I grew frustrated. However if you really do love something, push through those times. Keep at it. Even if you just do one small thing each day—create a new online profile, do one job search, email one friend, write one sentence—that’s still an important step. In many ways my business is still in its early stages, but I can tell you, I have made lasting connections with real clients who do pay me to read and edit their work. Even these small successes make it worth the struggle.

So there you have it—that’s my advice. Oh, and if you’re putting off pursuing your dream? Don’t. You owe it to yourself to try.

I’m not saying throw caution to the wind and quit your job today. Not everybody is financially able to do that, and I’m aware that I was in a very fortunate position to be able to make such a drastic change.

Yet, as I mentioned above, making even just a little time each day to take a step toward your dream job is all it takes. If you never do the small things, you may never get to the bigger goal.

My boyfriend likes to tell me that the biggest regret people have on their deathbeds is that they “never got their shot.”

So I invite you to reflect: what would you regret not trying? What would you feel you “never got your shot” at doing?

Take a small step. It’ll make you happier. It’ll make you feel more fulfilled.

I promise.

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