Chip MacGregor

February 13, 2013

How can I become a freelance editor?


Someone wrote this: “My friend wants to be a freelance editor. What advice would you have for her?” 

Right now it’s a tough time to be a freelancer in book publishing. The publishing economy has been down, it’s hit publishers hard, and there are a lot of out-of-work editors and writers who are trying to freelance. (I just spoke with a publisher at a conference who told me she’s got a long list of good freelance editors she can’t use.) So that’s the bad news. The good news is that if your friend is willing to move away from strictly book publishing, there are plenty of opportunities. Every company on the planet is putting together content for their website, and somebody has to write and edit all those pages. Consider talking with businesses (or with the marketing and ad agencies that assist businesses) about providing writing and editorial help. 

One thing that has long been true in publishing is that good copyeditors are hard to find (and even harder to keep, since they generally get bored and want to move on to substantive editing). If you’re well-grounded in grammar, can spell well, and have a basic sense of what makes writing work, you might consider taking a class in copyediting, either online or through a local college. Emerson University, long a leader in programs for those interested in publishing and communication, now offers a certificate in copyediting, with classes in grammar, clarity, fact-checking, indexing, and using bias-free language. 

I think the best introduction to the role is still the Dummy’s book — Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, which I liked so much I used as a textbook in the Intro to Editing class I taught. But there are other books you should be familiar with — The Chicago Manual of Style is the bible for book editingwhile The AP Stylebook is the choice for magazines. So if you’re a boring, anal person who doesn’t mind going over mind-numbing details and doing the soul-sucking work of a copy editor (you can tell how much I enjoy it), then get some training so you really understand the role. Then write to book publishers and ask if you can take their copyediting test, which should get you on their list of CE’s to try on a project. Remember, most of the publishers axed their in-house CE’s, so they send out most of their text to be copyedited by freelancers. Magazines also do this to an extent, though the growth area is web-based text, which I’m sure you’ve noticed is apparently all being edited by nine-year-olds who failed spelling. 

Working as a freelance substantive editor pays more, but also requires more complexity. Understand something: being an editor is more than knowing your grammar rules and being able to spell well. A nonfiction editor needs to understand what makes a good book, how to clarify scope and sequence, and how to keep the author concise while still allowing her to sound like herself. A fiction editor has to understand characterization, plotting, conflict, and pacing. These are learned skills that take time (and, in my opinion, are best learned by working with an experienced editor). Of course, that study on freelance editors that I’ve cited in the past brings a thought to mind… We’re being told there are now more POD and self-published books available than there are books offered through regular royalty-paying publishers. If that’s the case, there is a LOT of crap out there in desperate need of editing. So there’s certainly a future for those with good word skills, who are willing to reach out to all those lousy writers looking for someone to help them improve their work.

My experience is that most freelance fiction editors are former in-house editors or published novelists who now work on others’ books. So if you haven’t proven your editorial ability, either by working at a house or by publishing with them, you may find it harder to land a role with them. 

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