How to Become a Freelance Editor

Before I was an agent, I was a freelance editor. Now a lot of people ask me how to get into freelance editing, but I never quite know how to answer. My freelance career grew from my contacts and experience working in the publishing industry for a dozen years. It grew organically out of what I was already doing, which was in-house editing.

I think you’ll find that most freelance editors are either published novelists whose skills the in-house editors trust, or former in-house editors, either at a book publisher, a magazine, newspaper or other kind of publication.

If you haven’t proven yourself by working your way up in a publishing company, then it will be more difficult to convince companies that you do, in fact, have editorial skills. I guess the first question I’d recommend you ask yourself is, “How do I know I have editorial skills?” Many people are good writers and excellent with grammar and punctuation, but there’s more to it than that. Do you have any objective evidence of your editorial ability?

If so, make sure you know what kind of editing you’re good at. Substantive/developmental editing? Line editing? Copyediting? There’s a world of difference between them.

Also, you need to be familiar with some of the guides editors commonly use:

The Chicago Manual of Style
Elements of Style
The Associated Press Stylebook
The Copyeditor’s Handbook

Here are some others I like:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style
Woe is I
Lapsing Into a Comma
100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses

Once you know you have skills, and you know what they are, there are a few ways to approach the goal of becoming a freelance editor.

1. You could get a job as an Editorial Assistant in a publishing house, work your way up the ranks and be an editor for a few years, then go out on your own as a freelancer. That’s obviously the long way around, but it’s the route the majority of freelancers took.

2. You could write and publish several well-regarded books (with major publishers), spend years learning and perfecting the craft, impress lots of people with your skills, then begin marketing yourself as an editor. This is the route taken by some of my friends including Mary DeMuth, Camy Tang and Susan May Warren.

3. You could begin offering your editorial services to smaller local publications—magazines, newspapers (most communities have them)—and you could even start by doing it for free to hone your skills and prove yourself. You might do this at your church, or find local businesses that need help. Then work up to bigger publications and/or book publishers.

4. Most book publishers hire freelance copyeditors. When you apply for the job, they give you a standard copyediting test. This is a great way to find out if you really do have copyediting skills, and I can tell you that most people can’t pass the test. You definitely need to study! If you pass, this is a great way to get started copyediting for a major house. (Try to find out ahead of time if the company uses AP or Chicago as its main style source.)

Other than these basic ways to get in, there are probably many individual stories that are as varied as the people themselves.

→ Any readers out there who are freelance editors, please share your stories of how you got started.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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  • Wendy Melchior

    >If there are a 100 words that almost everyone confuses and misuses, it seems to me that we should just keep using them the wrong way so as not to confuse everyone.

    No, my question is about editing really. If a book publisher and/or periodical editor (etc) is considering a first time author, do they base their decisions on amount of editing the project will require even if content is great?

  • Timothy Fish

    >Let’s take a breathe and be not lead down the path that the traditions of the passed telling us its wrong to turn are writing lose and use the word we like when their our too or more words that we may confuse, must be followed. We must except that its no allusion that some principals must be obeyed or loose cite of the needs of are readers.

    • Joanna Baldwin

      It took me a minute to read that through, but that was amusing. :)

  • Marla Taviano

    >Oooh, interesting!

  • Rachel Overton

    >Aaarrrrrgghh! Timothy, I’m in tears! :-)

    I began work in publishing as a typesetter for a commercial/business law publisher. When I was obviously bored and capable of fixing things like Timothy’s post, they created the first nonattorney editing position for me. I worked my way up to copyeditor and then managing editor of several of their newsletters and books. I was also their night manager (I worked from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m.!) Then I went freelance for them, writing all their indices. A few years ago, they were bought out by Thomson-West, who didn’t need my services. That was a bit of shock, but oh, such a good thing!

    Funny how what we see as disaster is really God bringing blessing our way.

    I sent my resume out to every publisher on my bookshelf. I now freelance for Barbour on a regular basis. I love working with people who have the same values and standards I do. I also do my church’s newsletter and provide desktop publishing and editing services to local clients.

    I’m best at content edits and picky proofreading. (Now, let me go back and make sure I didn’t make any mistakes in here…!)

  • Jessica

    >I know nothing about editing :-) But I will say that I loved Camy’s Sushi series, and Sushi for One made me cry. So you guys did a great job!

  • Cheryl Barker

    >Rachelle, thanks for this. I’ve wondered many times how a person goes about becoming a freelance editor.

    Would you explain the difference between line editing and copyediting, please?

  • Camille Cannon (Eide)

    >Rachel, aren’t you bean a little hard on are pour Timothy?

    I like Wendy’s idea. So there are only 100?

  • Rachel Overton

    >Maybe. I think he’s probably a pretty tough guy, though.

    Right, Timothy?!

  • Rachelle

    >Wendy–tough question. The presentation of the proposal and manuscript is important. If it’s full of copyedit-type errors, it will just look like a mess and probably won’t be considered. Other than that, I guess it’s a sliding scale: how much does the editor like it vs. how much work does it need.

    Cheryl–that question has been answered at least twice on this blog. Try these two posts:

    http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2008/09/guest-blogger-brad-lewis.html

    http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2008/08/editorial-process.html

    And you know you can always use the blog search function and type in something like “editing” to see if I’ve covered the topic before.

  • Avily Jerome

    >Thanks for that, Rachelle!
    Timothy, that was hysterical! It drives me crazy when I see that- not that I haven’t been guilty of it one more than one occasion myself, of course. Seriously though, I love stuff like that!
    Have you ever heard the story of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut? It’s the entire story of Little Red Riding Hood, written with the wrong words, but when read out loud sounds exactly right! Very fun.

  • April Frazier

    >I got started as a freelance editor in college. I majored in English/Writing and took a couple of editing classes. Then I edited some Bible commentaries and dissertations for several professors. After I graduated, I was accepted as an intern in the editorial department at Tyndale House Publishers. That's really what helped launch my career. They hired me as a freelance editor/copyeditor when I finished my internship.

    From there I was accepted as a freelance proofreader at Thomas Nelson after author Colleen Coble recommended me to her editor. Then my writing professor in college recommended me to Chip MacGregor at a writer's conference when he was the publisher at Hachette Book Group (formerly Time Warner). That got me in the door as a freelance copyeditor. I also met with JoAnne Simmons (an editor at Barbour) at a writer's conference and talked with her about my editing. She remembered me a year later and hired me on the spot when they were looking for freelance copyeditors.

    So I now freelance for four major Christian publishing houses, as well as contract out to individual clients and companies. When people ask me how to get into the freelance business, my response is always, "Network!" Of course you have to build the skill first, but to really crack into the business, it really boils down to networking. Start out doing lots of freebie jobs and then build from there.

    Also, I always recommend checking out The Christian PEN (Proofreaders & Editors Network). A great place to learn about the business and also bid on jobs as they post. (www.thechristianpen.com)

  • Katharine O’Moore-Klopf

    >I have a degree in journalism. I spent 2 years as a newspaper reporter, and then, like others here, I took the route of publishing employee to freelance editor. I’ve been freelancing full time now for almost 14 years, with multiple publishers and individual authors as my clients.

    You can take courses that will teach you how to be an editor, and then write publishers and ask to take their editing test for freelancers. Once you pass those tests, you’re eligible for editing assignments. If you’d like loads of links to good reading material on this subject, to information about education programs, to networking groups, and to profession-related blogs, peruse the Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, which is accessed through the first 7 links atop this page of my business web site.

    The single best how-to book on editing is Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller

    >I began as a reluctant freelance editor actually. I critiqued Bryan Davis’s first novel, and he asked his publisher to hire me to edit his next several books. I ended working with his publisher on another project and have edited a number of individuals since, primarily because of critiquing (Mount Hermon mentoring clinic, for example) or referrals.

    Becky

  • Cheryl Barker

    >Thanks for the links, Rachelle. I did try to look a little first, but the post under the editing topic had only one post. For some reason, I’m just not seeing a blog search function…

    The second link you listed in your comment above cleared things up for me. Thanks for finding it for me.

  • Cheryl Barker

    >I just found the blog search function. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now, but I just hadn’t noticed that before. Good grief :)

  • photoqueen

    >Thank you, Rachelle, for the information you shared! I’ve decided over the past few years to change my career from public relations to editing. In particular, I want to be an editor for a Christian publishing house. It’s been hard to figure out how to get from here to there, so I appreciate all the information you so generously share on this blog – especially when it’s about editing!

  • Bonita

    >I'm just getting started. I've been a freelance writer for years and never really thought much about editing until a friend was awarded a book contract with a major publisher. The publisher suggested that she hire someone to help her polish the manuscript before sending it to them. She chose me because she knew I'd written a writing curriculum for kids and loved helping writers.

    I did several smaller projects after that and then another friend asked me to help prepare her first book proposal. She received word a few weeks ago that the publisher thinks the proposal is outstanding and the editorial board is in the decision making process about whether or not to publish the book.

    Things seem to be taking off for me now. Thus far, all of my clients have come by word of mouth, through contacts in the publishing industry, or from my writing blog. I've not actively put myself out there as an editor yet, mainly because I never thought this was a road I'd take. However, I find that I truly enjoy it and look forward to doing more editing in the future.

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