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Suz Baldwin has a flourishing freelance editing business now, but things weren’t always that way. She freely admits that when she set out to become a freelance editor—which she’s done not once, but twice—she made a lot of mistakes the first time around. “I was good at what I was doing, but I was not a good businesswoman, which is something you have to be if you’re going to freelance. You’ve got to take yourself seriously as a business, which has been a hard pill for me to swallow.”
Developing a business mindset, navigating price structures, managing clients, doing taxes—you can expect to confront all these challenges and more as a freelance editor. But as any freelancer (of any stripe) is likely to tell you, jumping through these hoops is a small price to pay for the sense of fulfillment and freedom that comes from choosing your own clients, running a business, and setting your own hours.
If you’re contemplating a career as a freelance editor or proofreader, you may well be wondering how all this might play out after you enter the real-world marketplace. If so, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, you’ll learn from five successful freelance editing entrepreneurs how they got started freelance editing, as well as how they handle everything from finding gigs to setting work hours to pricing jobs and more. We’ll conclude with a collection of their best tips, to help you get off to a strong start.
Let’s start at the beginning: How do you know it’s the right time to start a freelance editing practice? The short answer is, the “when” correlates with the “why.” There’s no perfect time to launch a career as a freelance editor—it’s more about knowing when and why you’re ready.
Shannon O’Loughlin had always wanted to work for herself and spent years setting the stage for an eventual freelance business. Today she’s a freelance marketing copywriter and editor serving primarily B2B technology companies. “It’s a niche I kind of slid into,” she says.
Shannon worked for many years as part of an in-house marketing team and was anxious to strike out on her own, but put it off to get more experience. To gain a broader skill set, she moved to a marketing agency. “Those were the puzzle pieces I needed to feel confident to go out on my own. It was invaluable to get both the in-house and agency perspectives.”
After gaining a few years of agency experience and deciding to start a family, Shannon left the security of her full-time job (with its steady income) and went out on her own.
“I had built up a clientele on the side while having a full-time job, so I had a little bit of a cushion. But I had no idea how to grow and manage my business from there. So many things are handled for you when you work for a company—technology platforms, insurance, W2 and tax information—I had to figure all that out. But having the power to decide what was important and where to spend my time—whether on client projects or what I was using as the foundation for my business—was invaluable. It suits my personality to have that control.”
For Christine Florie, who freelance edits for academic, adult nonfiction, and children’s book publishers, the right time was more clear. In 2012, the company she’d been with for eight years as an executive editor, Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, was sold, and she lost her job. She loved her career, but knew she’d likely have to take a job in New York City if she wanted to continue it.
“That big commute wasn’t attractive to me; it just wasn’t something I was interested in doing at that point in my life. I had been doing a tiny bit of freelance while I was working full-time because I wanted to; I liked it. I sat down with my husband and said, ‘I think I can make a go of this. I have really good credentials, a really strong resume, and I have contacts. I’d like to give it a try.’”
Dina Rubin, a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, also previously worked at a publishing company, Scholastic Library Publishing. To determine whether she could succeed on her own, she first worked out a budget and a business plan, and discussed it all with her partner. “Part of that involved us talking to a financial advisor—he helped me determine what my income would actually need to be to keep things rolling. It took a lot of planning to determine if it could be done from a practical standpoint.”
Remember Suz Baldwin? Her second run at freelance editing was prompted by a desire to hone her editing and writing skills, which had gone largely unused in her management job at a digital agency. “I realized that the more responsibility I took on there, the more I was earning, which was great, but it took me further away from the craft. Suddenly my days were consumed with scheduling stuff. I could feel my skills atrophying. I noticed it, and tried to decide if I was happy with that or not.”
That, coupled with the reality of some unpleasant office politics, made her decide to take the plunge once again. But it wasn’t an easy decision. “I thought, I’ve already failed once, what if I fail again? Some part of me thought that if I didn’t do well, that was it for me. Life was over. It was done. But I had a good network at that point, and knew there were jobs out there for editors and writers; plus, I had management experience now. It took me months to realize that I can get another job. I will not be flung into a volcano if this doesn’t work. It’ll be OK.”
It took me months to realize that I can get another job. I will not be flung into a volcano if this doesn’t work. It’ll be OK.
It certainly helps if you’re approaching your freelance business from a place of experience; for many freelancers, previous clients and contacts become their first customers. Shannon, for instance, had a good stable of clients from the get-go, comprising people she’d worked with in the past.
“I’ve also had clients who left their companies and brought me with them [to their new jobs] as their freelancer. For freelancers trying to position their value to clients, remind them that there’s no overhead cost, and they don’t have to pay for your insurance or a seat at a desk.” Companies are starting to realize that if they find a reliable, good freelancer, it pays to hold onto them, “because it is much more affordable for a company to pay my hourly or project rate than to pay a salary.”
Dina similarly started out with clients culled from her previous job. In addition to publishing and media company jobs, she now works on ebooks, children’s books, and activity books; she also works with independent authors. But her initial contacts weren’t enough to keep her busy. “Sometimes I sent out resumes and did tests. If it worked out, they’d add me to their freelance pool. But it was all mostly word of mouth. People I knew moved from company to company, and they would pass my name on to coworkers.”
As a former manager, Suz can speak to the other side of the coin. “When I was head of content, I handled hiring full-time writers and editors and contracted with freelancers to take overflow work. A lot of people in that position love hearing from freelancers. Not every single person, but a lot of them—enough that it can and does make a difference. I want to stress that if your hiring contact (whoever that may be in a company) likes the look of your resume, portfolio— whatever you have—even if they can’t use you right that minute, they will keep your information for later. They may pass it on to another department, or even someone they know who works at another company. So even if nothing comes of it right this minute, you are getting your name and work out there. You are starting to build a network of contacts—or rather, your contacts are doing that for you.”
Lisa Jorgensen had never been an editor before she started freelance editing, but “I knew I had that skill and I felt confident in it, so I highlighted it as part of my experience.” She was very transparent on her resume, being clear about the fact that her previous work experience was with an edtech company as a content manager/director. “Big parts of my work involved original writing and curation of content that I either wrote or curated/edited and updated,” she says.
I knew I had that skill and I felt confident in it, so I highlighted it as part of my experience.
At the beginning of her freelance journey, Lisa spent several hours a day scouring Indeed and Writers Work, her main sources of jobs. (She also recommends Mediabistro, Problogger, and Journalism Jobs.) Eventually, a neighborhood news site took a chance and gave her an editing test, and that started the ball rolling.
If you don’t have experience in the field, don’t let that stop you—but be realistic. “Not everyone can be a copyeditor,” says Christine. (She herself is part of a Facebook group for freelance editors; she has also occasionally looked for jobs through LinkedIn and Reedsy, a platform that connects authors with publishing professionals, including editors.) “It’s really a developed skill. It’s also subjective—some people think you’re good; others don’t. You need to get experience or no one will hire you.” She suggests finding ways to build your resume, potentially even doing some work for free. Or, she says, consider taking a proofreading/copyediting course. “Spend some money. Educate yourself and learn how to do it. When you feel confident in your skills, reach out to publishers and if they like your resume they’ll send you a test. If they think you’re good, they’ll add you to their roster of freelancers.”
Very often, potential clients will try to assess your editing skills via a test. “Most people can identify good writing,” says Suz, “but good editing is harder to spot, especially if you’re working on good writing to start with!”
Generally, a sample edit for a novel or nonfiction work might entail editing three to five pages of the document. Businesses might ask you to edit an email, blog, brochure, or anything else that would be representative of the work you’d be doing. Suz is willing to edit about 500 words—sometimes up to 1,000—in Word or Google Docs with track changes/comments on, so they can see exactly what she’s doing.
Will you get paid for this edit? “Some companies will pay you, usually by the word or maybe a reduced portion of your hourly rate. But I generally accept this as a cost of doing business and provide sample edits for free.”
Suz views it as beneficial for her, too: “It lets me see what kind of work to expect, and potential clients see what kind of work I do. It’s a way for both parties to determine whether this is the right kind of partnership. However, I do restrict the free sample to leads I’ve already decided I like—the work looks interesting and doable, the pay is right, the potential client and I have had a couple good conversations about the gig and what they want/expect. I spend an hour or less on each sample edit, and I definitely cap them—I think my record was four per week when I was actively searching for multiple new clients. (There is a limit to what’s effective versus what takes up too much time.) If you’re providing free sample edits to 10+ people per week, that starts eating into paid client time. And if none of these people are hiring you for anything…well, that gives you something to think about, too. So it can serve as a sort of self-assessment depending on how much or little work you’re landing.”
Before you jump into becoming a freelancer, take some time to consider how you want your business to operate and what you can do to set it up for success. Some of the main considerations around how to start freelance editing are time management, setting pricing, and handling clients.
Figuring out your ideal work schedule and pattern is one of the biggest challenges of being a freelancer. You’re not required to be available at certain times, but does that mean you shouldn’t be? And how can you arrange your work schedule to get everything done, but during times that work best for you?
Clients often have expectations that you’ll be available immediately to them during normal work hours, just like a regular employee, but Suz “fights that [misconception] every day. Freelancing means you can step back a bit. If something is a red alert, of course I would help immediately. But don’t set the expectation that you’ll be on call unless that’s the relationship you want.”
Working at times that appeal to you is one of the benefits of freelancing. Suz structures her day based on predictable cycles of her brain functioning. She’s most creative in the early morning and late at night, which is when she writes (her other freelance job). She’s also sharpest between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.—those are her ideal editing times.
Christine tends to work traditional office hours. Until recently, she worked every day of the week (even weekends!). Reducing her hours to just Monday through Friday was a huge step. “I really like what I do. And it’s very important to me that I either turn in a project early or on time. Turning in a project late is not acceptable.” Having worked at a publishing house, she knows that production editors have schedules and books can’t be late. “I want to be their go-to freelancer—the one who is dependable and whose work is excellent.” Now, she’s enjoying having her weekends back. “After the first weekend off I said to my husband, why did I never do this before?”
Lisa worked a mix of on- and off-hours to get jobs done. “When you’re a freelance editor with multiple clients, you’ve got to be able to prioritize and manage projects. I was willing to work whenever I needed to work. It didn’t bother me.” To handle the workload of multiple clients, she evaluated her workflow daily and projected work out through the end of the week so she could schedule her time appropriately. “The quality of writing ranged, too, and I got to know how much time it would take to do something. For me, editing is not just about correcting someone’s work, but also trying to teach them at the same time how to do it better next time. I spend a lot of time leaving comments.”
The perennial question is what to charge. If you’ve never done this type of work before in a freelance setting, it can be difficult to know if you’re undercharging or overcharging—or if you’ve hit the nail on the head.
Sometimes agencies and publishers have set prices. In fact, in all her time freelancing, Lisa never had a freelance job where she dictated the price (she’s moved on to a full-time job now). But most of the group we interviewed for this article agrees that pricing can be tricky.
“Some places have set budgets, and if it’s reasonable, that’s fine,” says Dina. But other times, independent authors would ask about her fee, she’d name it, and then never hear from them again. “Sometimes you’re willing to negotiate. But as you go, you begin to know your worth. Look at sites online, Google what places are paying, find out basic salary ranges or hourly rates for freelancers doing X, Y, and Z. Also, talk to people. Eventually you find your way.”
Christine factors the amount of work a company gives her into their pricing. “My biggest client pays the least, but they give me so much work that at the end of the year they’ve paid me the most. Others pay great, but I don’t get as much work from them. When I do, it’s a nice paycheck. As a freelancer, you have to say to yourself, what’s the lowest I’m willing to take? The answer to that is personal.”
Like any job, don’t be afraid to ask for raises over time. Christine notes that she’s asked her biggest client for a raise more than once, and now she’s at the top of their pay scale. But to do this, you have to build up a reputation with a client over time. And of course “you can ask, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it! Some publishers say this is what we pay, take it or leave it. If it’s not reasonable, don’t take it.” Christine also recommends checking out the Editorial Freelancer’s Association’s editorial rate scale to see how much you should be charging.
Don’t be afraid to ask for raises over time.
Undercharging at the start is pretty common, even if you’ve worked in the industry already. To help set her rates, Shannon used time-tracking software in her early days as a freelancer to determine exactly how much time it takes to do certain projects—editing a blog versus an ebook versus an email campaign, for instance. She could then give clients a more accurate time assessment.
“That first year, I absolutely undercharged. I lost money. I was so nervous about building my business, I kept thinking, I’m just glad to have clients. That’s not the way to think about it.
“It’s most beneficial for both me and my clients if I charge by the hour. I typically use 15-minute increments, so I won’t charge for the full hour if I do a quick project, like editing a short press release. This allows me to provide high-quality content at fair pricing to my clients—they get their money’s worth. In general, I would advise people to shy away from clients who want to pay you by the word, as is the standard in the journalism industry. It’s not useful for the marketing industry; sometimes writing or editing the title of a home page will take you longer than writing a 300-word article because it has to be perfect—it’s such a high-value page. So I’d advise to charge either by hour or by project instead.”
Suz recommends aiming high when setting your rate or providing a quote. “If someone wants to work with you, they can come back and negotiate. A lower price might still work for you.” Early on, she worked out how much money she needed to make each month to feel comfortable and cover her rent, insurance, groceries, electric bill, etc. Then she tacked onto that a few hundred bucks for taxes and fun. “Once I had that number, I had something to work toward. It helped me evaluate potential clients: How many hours will this take? What will I potentially earn from this? Will I still have enough time and brainpower to work on my other clients? Breaking down my expenses to this granular layer was helpful.”
“People think that when you go out on your own, all the problem people will disappear,” says Shannon. “It’s not true.” In fact, as a freelancer, difficult clients are entirely your problem, as opposed to being a shared one.
“When you’re starting out, you might be tempted to stick with every client that comes your way, even if the relationship isn’t a walk in the park. But it’s okay to say no sometimes, says Suz. Working with people she doesn’t like makes her resent the work, to the point where it poisons everything else. In those cases, she recommends you cut and run. “It’s not worth the mental gymnastics you have to go through [to stay].”
Shannon has changed her mindset—and her approach—toward difficult clients. “Complaining about a problematic client or project is a waste of your very valuable time. If a client is causing me too much stress, I will let them go. If I can’t afford to let them go, I will raise their rates (which at least compensates me for the stress).
“In general, it’s my responsibility as a freelancer to learn how to handle this person better to help my business grow. If the stress isn’t worth it, I need to put on my big-girl pants and say it’s time for us to part ways. That’s why we work for ourselves—to have the power to choose the clients we truly enjoy working with, which I’m happy to say is the case for me.”
“Find a good accountant. Just pay for it. Do it! When you’re trying to build your business, it’s very confusing to figure it all out—how to file quarterly taxes, whether you need an EIN number, juggling different payments—and do it correctly. Find a good small business accountant, sit down with them, and let them do the work for you.”
“When you’re first starting out, think about the niche you want to go into and where your skills will be most valued, especially as an editor. Plenty of industries just want to push content—they want volume and don’t care about grammar. Think about which companies/industries/verticals care about quality, accurate content and target those to build your business. Law firms, for example, can’t afford to be inaccurate, whereas entertainment and media companies may not care as much about accuracy and prefer volume. The legal, financial, and educational fields all really value quality and accurate content; that’s where copywriters and editors will be paid for their skills appropriately.”
“If you can hyper-specialize in something, that’s awesome. But don’t just constrain yourself to something you know. Look into different industries. The cool thing about editing is that you can work for a variety of clients. Marketing firms aren’t necessarily expecting a subject expert. You learn as you go.”
“Get used to hearing ‘no.’ They’re not rejecting you as a person. Sometimes it just means, ‘your skills don’t work for us right now.’”
“With freelancing, work ebbs and flows. Don’t panic in a quieter stretch. In publishing, things happen at different stages at different times. During down times, reach out to new and existing contacts to say you have openings in case something comes up on short notice, or plan with them on a future assignment. Take stock of where you are with things and reach out to people.”
“To know your worth, get feedback from clients.”
“Nothing is more valuable than your reputation. All my clients are from word of mouth or people I worked with previously. Whether you’re a freelance writer, graphic designer, or something else, it’s important that your reputation precedes you. So reliability, good communication, and professionalism are the most valuable things when you’re starting your business.”
“Once you decide [to freelance], start talking to people to let them know, network, etc. Do they have any advice? Do they know anyone they can hook you up with? It’s your business, but you definitely need advisors. I personally have a financial advisor and a tax accountant who have been tremendously helpful.”
“Decide what your core services will be, and know your strengths. Sometimes you may get a request to do something that isn’t quite your thing, or you don’t feel like your strengths are there. Don’t feel like you have to take every offer. If you don’t think you can do a good, strong job on it, then don’t feel bad about turning it down. Simply tell them ‘that’s not where I can serve you best’—they would appreciate knowing that. You want to be remembered for doing a good job. (However, you can also stretch and keep learning, too.)”
“The old adage that time is money is really never more true than when you’re working for yourself. You cannot waste time doing things the long way; you have to be very efficient about the pieces you’re not getting paid for. Invest in some tools to help you be efficient, specifically time-tracking and invoicing tools. Instead of having an Excel sheet open and saying, “I think I started this at 11 a.m…,” just have automated time-tracking software that connects with your invoicing and accounting software. For time tracking I use Harvest, and I use Asana for project management.”
“You may want to pay for a subscription to style guides—for example, AP or Chicago—clients are expecting you to follow. And if you’re in a specific industry, you might also need subscriptions to trade journals with next-level information to help you fact-check and edit.”
“If somebody had told me that someday I was going to be editing an article for the internet about the best vacuums, I would’ve thought, kill me now. But now, having done work like that, I know it’s possible to have a passion for anything. If you feel committed to the company and the work, you’ll surprise yourself with what you can be excited about if your end goal is always to make the piece the best it can be.”
“I was very discriminating about which companies I freelanced for; I would always do my research first. I’ve turned down jobs because I didn’t feel like the company was a good fit. The thing I enjoyed most about working for Bob Vila and Nectafy is that I felt like I was part of the team. Companies get the best work out of freelancers when they treat them that way.”
“One of my biggest mistakes is that I didn’t diversify. If you become dependent on one or two clients, it’s bad news bears. If one goes kaput you’re in trouble.”
“Be prepared to make mistakes because you will. Accept them, learn from them. Don’t beat yourself up unduly. The sooner you learn to accept that the better off you are. Creative people tend to internalize things. We take things to heart.”