Chip MacGregor

December 1, 2012

Can I make a living with freelance writing and editing?


Lately I’ve been besieged with questions about writing and editing for a living. Let me tackle a handful of them…

One person wrote and said, “I’ve been writing for six years, and I’m trying to establish myself as a paid freelance editor with a book publisher or magazine. I hear companies are outsourcing a lot of editing. What advice can you give me for getting started? Is it possible to break into an industry that relies so much on in-house connections and networking?”

Publishers seem to always be on the hunt for good freelance editors. Just this week I spoke to two Associate Publishers who both expressed the need for more outside copy-editors and proofers. In these tough economic times, publishers are going to be sending even more projects to outside editors — thus saving themselves the cost of paying benefits to employees. So if you want to generate some extra income doing editorial work, the first thing I’d suggest is that you become a proficient editor. Make sure you can copy-edit quickly and thoroughly, then contact publishers to begin looking for work.

It’s true publishing relies on networking… which makes it just like every other business in America. I don’t think publishing is any different from any other industry — all of us do business most often with those we know and trust. So that means if you want them to hire you as a freelance editor, you need to invest in networking with publishers and editors. Go meet them at conferences. Introduce yourself at industry events. Email them a friendly note and ask to introduce yourself over coffee. Get face to face and let them see you’re a normal, friendly, capable person. Then show them your work or ask to take their in-house editing test. Most houses have either a copy-editing test, or a developmental editing test, or both. Once you’ve shown them you’re able to do the work, ask them to try you out on a small project. (When I was getting started, I told publishers I’d do the first job for free, just to show them I could do it. They all insisted on paying, but at least they saw me make the offer and have the confidence to suggest it.) You will  probably need business cards, stationery, and a bank account in a company name (“Danielle’s Editorial Service”). That makes it easier for the accountant types to prove you’re legit at tax time. Be willing to take on small jobs at first — especially copy-editing jobs. If you prove yourself able to do the work, and charge a reasonable amount, you can begin to develop regular business with certain houses.

Another writer asked, “You once said you had worked with speakers, turning their speeches into chapters. I’m in the midst of doing that myself for the first time as a freelance writer — can you offer some helpful tips?”

Yeah: Invest in technology so you can start and stop the speaker and catch everything they say. Learn to type fast. At first just get all the speaker’s words down onto the page, then go back through it and reshape it so that it reads like a chapter instead of a speech. (This is important. You probably own a lot of self-help books. How many books of speeches do you own? Not many.) As you write out each paragraph or section, read it out loud. Your ear will tell you where it doesn’t sound right. As often as possible, try to keep the speaker’s outline and sequence of thoughts. Don’t bother typing in asides or extraneous comments the speaker makes. Be aware that most spoken stories seem to ramble when put onto a page — you’re going to have to tighten those up. And many spoken jokes don’t translate well into print, so make sure any joke you include is both funny and clear.

Keep in mind that every speech should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… Your speaker is probably fine on the middle content, but you may have to punch up the beginning and the end to make it work in print. Once you’ve done this and have it at the draft stage, run it by the speaker to make sure he or she is happy. Skip over the speeches that requires you to reshape the arguments — leave those until the end. If you gain the speaker’s trust doing the easy chapters, you’ll find you have a lot more leeway to reshape a weak speech into a strong chapter. Remember that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — a lousy speech isn’t going to make a great chapter, no matter how hard you try.

And there’s something important that needs to be added: If the speaker asks you to insert a bunch of our own material to strengthen and fill out the body of the text, insist on a writing credit. Don’t be bullied, and don’t buy into the argument that “having a collaborator’s name on the book will weaken sales.” That’s bull. I used to make my living writing collaborative books, and on more than one occasion I had a high-profile speaker ask me to include my own material. He then published it in his book under his own name, and got credit for my work. After a couple times, I wised up. If it’s the speaker’s content, I’m happy to reshape it into a book, take my check, and be happy. But if I’m adding content, I’m the writer, and I should get credit for writing. There is zero evidence to suggest that having a book cover read, “Howie Hendricks with Chip MacGregor” will sell any worse than having the cover with just Howie’s name on it. In fact, if you look at most general market books by celebrities, you’ll find they always include the collaborator’s name. Insist on getting the credit so that it furthers your writing career.

By the way, if there is an easy way to make a living at writing & editing, I’ve yet to find it. So for all the folks who have written to ask, “What’s the easiest way to make a living at writing?,” I suggest the answer is simple: Write a bestseller. That’s the best idea…

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  • Steve Johnson says:

    Chip, this is incredibly timely, as I’m at the point of either having to supplement my article writing with editing, etc. or find a full-time job in a related field. There are a few freelance writers that are making a decent living without having a job as a writing teacher, editor, or some other role in publishing.

    Do you happen to know of any freelance writers who focus on the Christian market that have figured out how to sustain themselves BEFORE they had other streams of income like book sales, royalties, and speaking fees?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… me. But that was a long time ago, Steve. The print magazine avenues have dried up. There are certainly people who do marketing writing and copy-editing to help pay the bills, or who do book doctoring or substantive editing to help make it through the lean times.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      Hmm… should have interviewed you for my piece in Advanced Christian Writer a couple of issues ago. I’d be interested in anything you wrote or taught on freelance writing. (Any writer’s seminar CDs out there from when you did that?)

      Thanks also for confirming the diversification I need to do in my writing business and the additional ideas.

  • robinnashville says:

    Chip, your first answer here is spot on. Years ago, during a slow period as a freelancer, I contacted a number of book publishers with my resume (I’d been a newspaper reporter and editor and a magazine editor). Eventually (it was more than a year later!), one of them called me and we talked. He offered me an editing job. He liked the work and eventually I’ve become his go-to guy for editing and ghostwriting. It’s been a very lucrative corner of my work. You’ve got to know something, but it’s even more important to know somebody who can use what you know. Network!

  • Richard Mabry says:

    Now I’m curious. Did you collaborate with Howie? He’s an elder at our church (among other things, including still being at Dallas Theological Seminary).

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