I get a lot of questions from people asking how they can become a freelance book editor or proofreader. The questions are often about how to get started, and how to find work. It can be difficult to know where to begin, and the amount of information out there is overwhelming to say the least! I thought I’d write this blog post to help anyone who is looking to start freelance editing, taking on authors and publishing houses as clients.
Disclaimer: This post is based heavily on my own experience and focuses on being a freelance or self-employed editor. What worked for me might not work for you. It’s difficult to give specific advice because your circumstances will be unique to you.
I want to become a book editor! Where do I start?
Learn to edit – Training and qualifications
If you want to become a book editor, it goes without saying that you’ll need to learn how to do the job! My own “training” (if we can call it that) started with my degree in English and Creative Writing, and years of experience reading and writing fiction. That gave me a foundation for working as an editor, which I built on with editing courses.
But you don’t need a degree in those subjects. Plenty of freelance editors have different degrees or no degree at all. The most important thing is that you get some training so you know what you’re doing. It’s no good hanging up your shingle as an editor if you don’t know how to edit. That can lead to a bad reputation and a lot of unhappy clients.
Training can come in many forms. There are lots of respected courses that you can do. The two providers I recommend are:
I’ve done courses with both of these, and they’re well-regarded by publishers in the UK. If you want to work with publishing houses directly you’ll need courses like this to show them that you know your stuff. Other course and training providers include:
- ACES: The Society for Editing (international)
- Editors Canada (Canada)
- The Editorial Freelancers Association (US/international)
- Sophie Playle’s developmental editing theory and developmental editing in practice (international/online)
When choosing your courses, think about the type of editing you want to do, and specialisms. Do you just want to proofread, or do you want to offer developmental editing? Do you want to be a copyeditor? Would you like to work on fiction? Courses tend to be focused on one area of editing (such as Sophie Playle’s developmental editing courses for fiction).
If you can get on-the-job training in some way, this can be a big help. When I was at university, I worked for the student newspaper and learnt about style guides. When I graduated, I took on a job proofreading IT content and textbooks, and I was trained by senior editors. This isn’t an option for everyone, though, and these job opportunities are hard to come by. This is where mentoring schemes, like the one offered by the CIEP, can come in handy – although most of these schemes cost money.
There are ways that you can learn by yourself. Reference books will be essential and you’ll use them all the time. Start by learning the basics of some styles guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style for US English, or New Hart’s Rules for UK English. Read books about being a good editor. If you’re interested in working with fiction, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King is a must-have (and if you write as well, like I do, it can help you with your writing too!).
Read – a lot
It goes without saying that if you want to become a book editor, you need to read. If you want to edit and work with books all day, but you don’t read, then I’d be wondering why!
Read widely in the genres and/or age categories you want to edit. This is how you get to know the conventions of that genre. Read as much as you can get your hands on!
If you want to do story editing or development, read books as if you were studying them. Pick apart the story and the author’s choices. What works about the book and what doesn’t? Why do you think the author did something a certain way? What could be improved? What are the different plot beats and are they satisfying?
Aside from reading fiction, read books about the craft of writing. Read books on publishing, editing and running a business. You’ll learn so much from craft books to help you with your editing. Knowing the ins and outs of publishing will help you advise your clients. Learning about running a business is essential because as a freelancer, you are a business owner.
This is where the catch-22 comes in: people want editors with experience, especially publishers, but how do you get that experience in the first place? How do you get someone to take a chance on you when you’re just starting out? How do you get those elusive editing jobs, and keep them coming in?
It’s a difficult one, because the truth is, you’ll probably have to do work for a less-than-ideal rate to begin with. I’m aware that this is not an option for everyone, but pro-bono work or volunteer work can be a good starting point if you can afford to do it.
If you want to work with fiction, you can get your feet wet by offering to beta read or critique for authors in exchange for a review. Join writing critique groups or online workshops to practice giving feedback.
Some smaller publishers may be more willing to take a chance on newer editors or proofreaders as well. If you’ve got editorial qualifications, any publisher is more likely to give you a chance.
Marketing is how you will find work, and what will help you keep the jobs coming in, so I’ll go into that next.
Finding clients and marketing yourself
It’s crucial as a freelance editor to dedicate time to marketing yourself. This is how you’ll make yourself visible to clients. It’s often the thing that people struggle with the most, though, as there are so many methods, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Keep a separate Word document to track your marketing efforts and how well each approach works for you. That way, you’ll know where to focus your time. I decided to drop websites like Fiverr early on because they weren’t working for me, but I had a lot of success joining editorial organisations.
Keep your eye on publishing job boards and other job boards for opportunities (this is how I found one of my first clients):
- The Bookseller freelance jobs
- Publishers Lunch Job Board
- Independent Publishers Guild vacancies board
- Indeed (try typing in “freelance editor” or “freelance proofreader”)
Lots of these job boards advertise full-time positions, but you may occasionally come across a freelance role, so they’re worth a look.
If you’re a member of professional editorial organisations, they will have job opportunities. For example, the CIEP has an IM Available list for intermediate members to offer their services, and an “Announce” email list for job opportunities for professional members.
Content marketing can be useful, but it takes time and a lot of effort. It means creating resources that will help your clients: blog posts, podcasts, videos, ebooks and resources. This isn’t a necessity, but can help clients find you and your website, and it shows that you know what you’re talking about.
If you want to work with publishers, contacting them directly (cold-calling or cold-emailing) is more worthwhile, as they’re highly unlikely to find you by themselves (although this does happen from time to time). Call them up and ask for the person who manages freelancers, or send them an email asking about being added to their list. Offer to take an “editorial test” to demonstrate your skills. Publishers commonly test their freelancer editors and proofreaders before working with them.
Networking is a big part of freelance editing. And the good news is, you can network just as well online as you can in real life. But first, let’s talk about the real world.
Attending publishing and book events can help you learn about the industry, and you never know who you’ll meet. I attended a writing conference once and met a production editor there. I contacted her afterwards about freelance work, and that publishing house is now one of my most regular clients.
Get to know other editors. Join editorial organisations. One thing I’ve learnt is that editors (and bookish folk in general) are kind and generous people. If they have a full schedule, they will often share opportunities with others on message boards and forums. (Just don’t go around asking people for their client list or leads – that’s rude!) Here are some places you can get to know other editors:
- Business + Professional Development for Editors (Facebook group)
- Fiction Editors of Earth (Facebook group)
- EAE Ad Space (Facebook group advertising opportunities for editors)
- Editorial organisations such as the CIEP
Networking often leads to word-of-mouth referrals which is how a lot of editors get work.
Get on social media. You’ll be largely working online and that means tapping into the writing and editing communities so people know who you are.
Twitter is a great place for keeping up with the publishing industry and the writing community. Follow publishing houses and editors and get involved in hashtag discussions such as #amwriting and #amediting. Follow editing organisations and other book editors.
I don’t use LinkedIn much myself, but I’ve heard others have had success there, so it might be worth a go.
There is no quick route or fast-track if you want to become a freelance book editor. It’s going to take time and work – and you have to be prepared to put the work in.
This isn’t true for everyone, but some people set up as a freelancer and immediately panic that they don’t have enough clients. Don’t panic! This is normal. It’s why a lot of people start out by doing it on the side, before transitioning to full-time.
Most of your work in the early days will be in honing your skills as best you can, and putting yourself out there.
There will be luck involved – but also hard work. Sadly, some things will just come down to luck. I was lucky to secure a role proofreading IT content and textbooks which gave me a leg-up before I switched to fiction. But the rest? Hard work. Effort. Perseverance. Trial and error. As I mentioned above, there’s no fast route here. You’ll have to work hard for quite a while before your efforts start to pay off. That can be discouraging, but don’t give up.
Learn the business skills you need.
Don’t forget that as a freelancer, you will be responsible for your own taxes, expenses and invoicing. This is a huge topic to cover so I won’t get into it too much here, but you’ll need to do your research on this before you start accepting clients and getting paid. If you’re in the UK you can visit the HMRC website for advice.
Do good work and be good to your clients.
If you do good work, people will remember you – and they’ll tell other people about you (remember what we said about word-of-mouth)! If you’re nice and professional, even better. When I say “be good to your clients”, I don’t mean be a doormat: you don’t have to start offering extras for free or answering emails at 2am. Just be kind, friendly, and professional. For authors especially, it’s scary sending their work out into the world, so your kindness will be appreciated!
And that’s all my advice on how to become a freelance book editor! It’s a lot to take in, and I’m sure there are things I haven’t covered here. This topic could fill a book in itself, and as I said, there are no clear-cut answers. But what you can do is use this advice as a starting point to plan out your route. With some hard work and perseverance, you’ll be well on your way.