So You Want To Be a Freelance Editor…

You’ve seen how overflowing the current marketplace is with self-publishing writers and would-be ebook authors, and you’ve recognized the potential profit to you in becoming a freelance editor. Now what?

Here are some things you should know…

(1) In case you haven’t watched enough People’s Court episodes yet, you need to get everything in writing – changes and amendments to contracts included. “Verbal contract” is a joke, and basically unenforceable by any judge or credit agency. Clients will know this and laugh at your repeated requests for payment, and ignore all your phone calls. Any possible changes that you need to make to your time estimates and schedules must also be in writing.

You’re a professional, and professionals have contracts, written estimates, and invoices. Amateurs and hobbyists have verbal agreements and undocumented phone conversations. Text messages don’t tend to last long enough to act as evidence – phones get lost and phone companies sometimes delete old text messages. Private messages and posts from social media aren’t always accepted or accessible in a courtroom. Only get it in email or on paper.

(2) There are some really crappy writers out there, and some really good ones, but they all can use an editor – but not all of them realize how much they need one.

Unfortunately, they won’t all have a positive and agreeable attitude towards your editorial input. You have to be careful to not upset the writer, and be prepared for the inevitable one who will reject everything you said (no matter how well-stroked their ego), only to go back to the original version (this is often where your paper contract will save you a big loss of time & money).

When I say, “not upset the writer,” I don’t intend for it to be demeaning. What I mean is, that some writers are very good, but take every little correction to heart as evidence of how supposedly “terrible” they are. A very few others shouldn’t even be writing greeting cards, but don’t want to hear that brutal truth. Yet others are very open to criticism and are too willing to make every change you suggest without question (an editor should be questioned, because an editor is not a “Manuscript God”). Most writers are somewhere along this spectrum, and can change their place on it from moment to moment.

Editorial work requires a lot more people skills than many aspiring editors realize. Expect to have a lot of long conversations and polite drawn-out disagreements about such trivial things as the placement and use of a single comma.

Freelance editing is different from editing for a traditional publisher, in that the freelancer has less control or say in the final outcome of the work. Instead of working for the entity who’s paying for the publishing process, and therefore having more say on what is or isn’t in the final print, you work for the writer. The writer is paying for it all, and therefore has final say on his/her own work. You have less authority than an editor at a trade/traditional publisher, and are less able to insist upon anything.

(3) Some clients will only want a “line edit” (basically just a spell-check), while others will want to have a full “book doctor” job, rewrites and all. Yet others will have different expectations along that scale. Clarify what level of editing the client is expecting and put it in the contracts before you start your work.

Restrain your editorial instincts (and grit your teeth to refrain from comments you think ought to be made) when you are asked to only spell-check writing that really needs a major rewrite instead. You can tell them some things (like, “these scenes don’t make sense in the order you wrote them in”), but don’t let yourself start rewriting or making major mark-ups unless the client says that they want that. However, even when the client says they want the content mark-ups etc., don’t be shocked if they sometimes end up ignoring and/or undoing your edits.

(4) Most writers have no idea how many hours it takes to properly edit a document (especially if you do more than just spell-checking for them) and might object to the number of hours of a decent edit (read: unexpected high cost, if you charge them hourly). Keep in touch with clients throughout the process, to give them an idea of how it’s going, so your hours invested won’t be so much of a shock to their pocketbook.

(5) Dedicate as many hours per day as you would be expected to dedicate to an office job somewhere. Don’t treat clients as a hobby or part-time job (unless you clarify with them beforehand in emails that you have another client at the same time, or some other valid professional reason for minimizing your hours). Doing so is very unprofessional, and will hurt you in the long run. Bad business practices do haunt you in these days of online reviews and LinkedIn networking, etc.

First and foremost in this, behave and treat your work the same way would expect a true professional in an office to behave and treat their work. Your client is your boss and your next reference for your “resume” (online reviews, etc), so don’t mess around and/or screw him/her over. Don’t try padding your hours, either. Your client already thinks you’re taking too much time and costing too much. (Besides, that’s dishonest – and honesty always makes for good, professional business practices.)

(6) For your first few freelance gigs, you might want to have a more experienced editor look over your work before showing it to the client. This is not to negate your abilities, but an experienced eye does pick up on things a less-experienced one misses, and it’s a great learning experience that will make you all the more desirable and better-paid in the workforce (freelance or otherwise). Even at my age (I’m in my 50s) and with my many years of experience, another pair of eyes double-checking me has never hurt my work, and only helped it. A good mentor/partner, whether free or paid, is invaluable to any editor.

I think of editing like piano tuning. Some people have an ear for music, and some don’t. Having an ear for music can help you get a career in music, but the ear alone won’t make you a good piano tuner (just as having an eye for typos does not automatically make someone a good editor). To be a good piano tuner, you need professional training and mentorship. (In this, I speak with some personal knowledge; my brother is a piano tuner with an excellent musical ear, but he realized he needed to go to a special school to study the craft.)

The same is true with editorial work: It’s more than just finding typos, it’s also knowing some other things to look for/at, and the people skills needed to deal with authors. There are things that someone of more experience can best teach you. Yes, there are those people who stumble into piano tuning/editing and somehow manage to master it alone, but they are doing it the hard way, and (no offense to anyone who might be doing well after stumbling into freelance editing, but…) the quality of their work is usually not as high as the trained piano tuner/editor.

(7) You can never learn too much about copyrights. Really. Some things on the internet might seem to be public domain, or you might think you are safe using a certain quote as long as you credit it or get verbal approval, but every single thing must be checked and double-checked for legality and reproduction– text, photos, artwork, quotes, music, etc. Merely being past the legal date for becoming Public Domain is NOT safe, because the copyright might have been renewed or purchased at any point along the way.

There are a lot of weird and unusual copyright issues that have come up for me through the years, things that I never expected to be an issue ever.

These days, with the internet, things are actually worse for copyright infringement – but easier for checking out. Never hesitate to send a client to a copyright lawyer if you have any doubts or questions (drag them there kicking and screaming, if necessary).

A famous example of bad copyright checking: The entire big-money “Barney the Dinosaur” show was cancelled because they used a common tune, “This Old Man” redone as “I love you, you love me”. They assumed it was so old as to be public domain. It was not, and they were sued.

Another famous example: Weird Al Yankovic parodied a song after merely asking his agent to ask the other agent. Supposedly, everyone was okay with him doing the parody, but it turns out the band he was mimicking said they had never even heard the request to use the song. (He didn’t have it in writing!)

Even the famous and successful can sometimes mess up a copyright issue, so a good editor should never assume anything, no matter what verbal assurances their client gives them or which lawyers they claim to have spoken to. (Yes, you as an editor can get dragged into a courtroom and be made part of a legal mess for someone else’s copyright infringement.)

And, of course (which also goes back to my original point) – Get everything in writing from the legal copyright holder.

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more writers and editors.

Thank you!


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