How to become a freelance editor or proofreader

Blonde woman typing on laptop

Starting out as a freelance editor or proofreader can be daunting. My step-by-step guide will help you through the process.

So, you can spot a typo at twenty paces and you’re a grammar nerd? These are good starting points for looking into an editing career, but they are a tiny part of what’s required.

Let’s dive into how you can begin your journey to becoming a fully fledged editor or proofreader!

Decide if freelancing is for you

Before you even start on the road to freelance editing, ask yourself whether freelancing is the right decision for you at this stage. Running your own editing business is a huge amount of work, albeit rewarding, so research carefully what is involved before you begin.

If you’ve been editing in-house (with a publisher, for example), you will have gained indispensable skills and experience working under someone. These will stand you in good stead if you choose to strike out alone. That’s not to say you can’t begin your editing journey as a freelancer off the bat, but you will need to spend time and resources understanding the publishing business and getting trained up (more on that below).

Sure you’re ready for this? Read on!

Choose your niche

The first step is to decide on the kind of editing you’d like to offer, as this will determine the training and experience you’ll seek out. Think about your previous experience and the kinds of books or content you enjoy reading.

There are many different types of editing, including developmental, line, copy and proofreading. Then, there are specialist content areas, such as:

  • academic
  • legal
  • financial
  • medical
  • fiction (broken down into genres, e.g. romance, mysteries, erotica)
  • non-fiction (broken down into genres, e.g. biographies, memoirs, business, self-help, reference)
  • children’s books (broken down by age range, e.g. picture books, middle grade, young adult)

Some editors cover a range of genres or types of content; others highly specialise in one genre or content type. I edit and proofread fiction, especially books set in France, mysteries and historical fiction. I also edit non-fiction, especially memoirs/autobiographies and biographies. Finally, I also offer editing services to website owners, due to my extensive experience with web content.

If you aren’t sure what kinds of editing you’d like to offer or which niche/s you’d like to specialise in, this may become clearer further down the line. Try out a few different training courses (e.g. fiction, non-fiction, proofreading, copyediting) to get a flavour of the options available. You could also start by editing a range of types of content then specialise once you’ve discovered what you prefer working with and where your strengths lie.

If you aren't sure what kinds of editing you'd like to offer or which niche/s you'd like to specialise in, this may become clearer further down the line. (From 'How to become a freelance editor or proofreader') Click To Tweet

Get trained up

While professional development is an ongoing element of being a good editor, undergoing quality training from the outset is key to establishing yourself as a credible option for potential clients and ensuring you’re doing things correctly from the start.

Editing is an unregulated industry. You don’t need a licence to become an editor or proofreader, so it’s important to seek out other ways, such as gaining certificates and completing courses, to prove your competence.

Many organisations and individuals offer training in editing and proofreading, but some are more credible than others. Select your courses carefully to ensure you receive quality training from a reputable source that is applicable to the kind of editing you would like to pursue. Ask in editor networks (see below) and read reviews.

Reedsy’s blog post about copyediting certificates is also a great place to discover more about why to complete an editing course and the best ones out there.

Decide on your editing rates

Now you’ve decided on the editing services you’ll be offering, it’s time to calculate what your work is worth. This will depend on a few things:

  • Your skills and experience
  • Your niche and target clients
  • What you need to earn
  • The rates of other comparable editors (in terms of experience and niche)

Don’t forget to take into account costs that would be covered if you were an employee, such as sick leave, holidays, taxes and pension. Also remember that not all your working hours will be billable. Your income will need to cover the time you spend on admin and finances, marketing, maintaining your website, writing blog posts and more.

Next, write the following sentence in huge letters and stick it on your wall: DON’T UNDERSELL YOURSELF!

In the early stages of becoming a freelance editor, especially if you don’t have prior experience or testimonials, you may have to charge slightly less than you’d like. However, this should be only a short-term strategy to get some experience and reviews for social proof.

Imposter syndrome may whisper in your ear that you’re not as good as other editors so you can’t charge as much. Tell it to take its negativity and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. As long as you’ve undergone training in the type of editing you’re offering, and you have the nerdy knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation you need to spot errors, the curious nature to constantly look up points of grammar (even seasoned editors have several reference books and websites as constant companions) and the dedication to offer the very best service to each and every client, you’ve earned your place at the table.

Tell imposter syndrome to take its negativity and stick it where the sun doesn't shine. (From 'How to become a freelance editor or proofreader') Click To Tweet

CIEP’s suggested minimum rates and the median rate ranges on EFA’s site will give you an idea of what to charge.

Get your admin and finance ducks in a row

Depending on where you’re based, the laws around setting up as a sole trader will differ. Carefully check tax laws, the rules for registering a business and other regulations for freelancers in your country or state.

Which software you use for running your business is personal choice. Again, do your research, ask other editors and read reviews. Read my blog post on five of my favourite tools I use for my editing business.

For the actual editing, most editors use Microsoft Word. I also use Excel for logging data about my editing projects (dates, word count, price, words per hour and more).

Build your online presence

Your online presence refers to anywhere you appear online, including your website, social media and professional directories.

You don’t have to wait until you officially launch your editing business before setting this up. In fact, it’s better to create your editing social accounts and website before you start offering your services. This allow you to get to grips with social media and make mistakes before too many people see your trials and errors.

You may be tempted to rely solely on social media in the beginning, as it’s easier than facing the mountain that is building a website. However, if you’re serious about being a freelance editor or proofreader who will be taken seriously, look professional and attract quality work, you need a website.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or huge – just a homepage, ‘about’ page, services page and contact page is fine. Read my blog post on setting up your editor website, and take a look at my book Improve Your Editor Website for clear, actionable tips on every aspect of getting your site ready to attract your ideal clients (20% off PDF and EPUB formats for my mailing-list subscribers).

Improve Your Editor Website by Debbie Emmitt, "Definitely a must-read for any editor". Attract clients, build credibility, climb search results. Buy your copy now.

Network with other editors

Finding your tribe in the editing community is so helpful in the early stages of your career. We’re a super-helpful bunch, keen to offer advice to newbies!

The Editpreneurs Facebook group, set up by Jessica Brown, is a friendly place to start. The group is made up of editors and proofreaders at every stage of the editing journey, and no question or worry is too “silly” or small to post there.

Another brilliant Facebook group, newer than Editpreneurs but no less helpful or welcoming, is The Editors Network.

LinkedIn is also a great place to find other editors and proofreaders. Seek them out and connect with them, comment usefully on their posts and tag them in your posts where relevant. Visit my LinkedIn profile and connect with me!

Join professional organisations

Being a member of a professional organisation benefits you as an editor for many reasons. These include:

  • Having a directory listing to market your editing and proofreading services
  • Networking with other editors and potential clients
  • Enjoying discounts on products and services
  • Gaining credibility
  • Accessing training and professional development opportunities
  • Feeling a sense of community with other professionals, knowing you’re not alone

There are a few professional organisations for editors, such as the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). The CIEP is UK-based and the EFA is US-based. There are associations based in other countries, and you don’t necessarily have to join the one based in your country, although in most cases it probably makes sense to do so.

There are other organisations that you can join to market your services and network with other editors and authors. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is a great example – read my blog post about the benefits of being an ALLi Partner Member.

Let everyone know

You never know where your first few clients will come from. Authors and content producers are all around us! Let your friends, family and wider networks know about your editing intentions. Post on your social media platforms. Tell the world!

Find work

It can be daunting to try and land your first editing gig, but don’t worry! There are lots of places to look. Read my blog post on how to find editing work.

If you don’t have any editing experience or testimonials, as mentioned already, you may need to set lower rates at first. Once you have testimonials from your first few clients (make sure you ask them to write a review of your work!), add these to your website, socials and professional directory listings to show potential clients how great you are at what you do!

My first editing job as a freelancer was via Upwork. There are lots of editing jobs on there, but the platform is a bit like Marmite: editors either love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp. I think it’s a great place to find work, especially when you’re starting out, but you have to know what you’re doing. Flesh out your profile, ignore the really low-paid jobs or spammy/scammy-looking ones and write bespoke proposals. My post about Upwork for editors and proofreaders has lots more tips.

There are other freelancing platforms such as Fiverr, People Per Hour and Find a Proofreader that you could try when you’re starting out. Like Upwork, a lot of the jobs on these sites can be low-paid, so choose carefully. If you find the perfect job for your niche but the client’s budget is low, you could view it as an apprenticeship to get your foot in the door and gain a testimonial. However, remember to ignore that naughty imposter syndrome!

Once you have a couple of excellent testimonials and some experience to cite, don’t continue to work for low rates. It’s bad for your self-esteem, your bank balance and the editing industry as a whole.

Upwork is a bit like Marmite: editors either love it or hate it. I'm in the latter camp. (From 'How to become a freelance editor or proofreader') Click To Tweet

Now that I’m firmly established, most of my editing jobs come via my website or my directory listings on CIEP and ALLi.

Manage your expectations

Unless you’re extremely lucky or have bags of experience and testimonials from previous employment as an editor, work will not come in immediately. When projects do start to appear, they’re likely to trickle in for a while, rather than provide you with full-time work.

Don’t expect to launch your freelance editing business one day and have clients hammering on your door the next, filling your diary for months on end. You’ll likely spend a lot/most/all of your time on unbillable work in the early days – marketing your services, tweaking your offerings and networking with other editors and potential clients.

You’re climbing a steep learning curve and juggling many new skills (understanding the industry, marketing yourself, networking, running a business, not to mention the actual editing!). Be patient with yourself and potential clients – they need to learn they can trust you with their precious work.

Be prepared to need thick skin and lots of perseverance. If you have a day job, don’t give it up until you’re earning enough from your freelance work to support yourself.

Keep marketing yourself

This subheading says “marketing yourself” rather than “market your services” for a reason. As a freelancer, you’re selling yourself – a unique blend of your personality, services, experience and everything else that makes you the editor you are!

When posting on social media, offer a variety of post types, rather than constantly pushing your editing services. Read my blog post on how to be effective on social media as an editor.

It can feel odd at first to put yourself out there, but you’ll soon get used to talking about what you do and how previous clients have valued your services. Rather than seeing it as boasting or selling yourself, view it as helping people (because that’s exactly what you’re doing!)

Keep learning!

You underwent training at the start of your freelance editing journey, but it doesn’t stop there. Keep your knowledge of language and editing fresh by seeking out training courses from reputable sources, reading articles and posts by established editors (Louise Harnby’s website is a rich source of information!), and remaining curious!

Thanks go to …

A massive thank-you to my fellow editors in the Facebook Editpreneurs group who beta-read this article and offered invaluable feedback and input:

  • Lola Broyles
  • Annie Deakins
  • Melissa Haskin
  • Jen Hinderliter
  • Carla Packer Myers
  • Siân Smith
  • Lizzy Tanguay
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