Freelancing: An Editor's Journey
It has always been my dream to edit fantasy novels. When I finally set about making that dream a reality, I found pages upon pages of advice and tips; it was a bit overwhelming! Here, I’ve laid out the process I followed, some spreadsheets to help track your progress and finances, and some mistakes I made in the hopes that I can help others follow their passion.
Establishing a Career in Freelancing:
Starting Out with a full-time job
Let’s face it: when you decide to start freelancing, you can’t usually just dive right in and quit your day job. (Unless you didn’t really need to work in the first place. In which case, that’s awesome, I’m slightly jealous, but you still might find something useful in here!)
However, do not despair! There is a path to full-time, work-from-home (assuming you don’t already), type-in-your-pajamas bliss. While I’m not there yet as I’m typing this, I’m working toward that goal and am optimistic that I’ll be able to get there within the next couple of years or so.
Before we go any further, I do have a disclaimer: This guide is intended for use by editors and writers, but I think, with a little tweaking, it could work for other professions as well, especially creative types like graphic designers. I believe the spreadsheet templates that my fiance made for me will be especially helpful since I’ve not found anything like that elsewhere, and if you never had any reason to learn to use Excel, why start now? (Just kidding, Excel/Google Sheets can be very useful but getting beyond the simplest of the formulas can be a bit confusing.)
So, with no further ado… Here we go!
Step I: Mustering up the courage to do it
If you’re reading this, you’ve already started at least thinking about doing it. Maybe you’ve lost the spark you used to have at your job. Maybe the pandemic made you realize that your old job was crummy and didn’t pay enough to make up for the stress it caused you. Maybe you’re just ready to finally use that degree you earned all those years ago. Maybe it’s a combination of these (like it is for me) or something else altogether. Whatever your reason(s), congratulations! Really, that’s the first step: peeking through the crack in the door to see if that place is somewhere you want to step into.
For me, the journey started as my satisfaction at work declined. I was driving half an hour (on a good day) one way over miles and miles of pothole-ridden road to get to work five days a week. I was doing more than my job called for, and the extra work I was putting in went unnoticed (or at least unrecognized). The organization I work for is fairly small, so opportunities for advancement only appear sporadically; I was already as high as I was likely to get unless someone died or robbed the organization and was fired or whatever. I was having a hard time leaving the stress of my job at work, and was coming home complaining to Mark every night.
In short, I was unhappy, and I was bored. It was painfully obvious to the people around me, and those closest to me started hinting that my skills were wasted at my current job and that I should probably move on.
To me, this seemed easier said than done. If you’ve read my previous “Life’s Story” blog posts, you know that I don’t have the most illustrious past when it comes to my career (or lack thereof). Granted, I’d been working for this organization for almost four years and had been steadily promoted during that time (until recently), but I was still terrified to make a change, even as unhappy as I was.
As scary as it seemed, I started shopping around for something new. I put in applications online and even had a few interviews. Even though I thought they went well, I never got called back. Talk about discouraging!
The problem was, I was looking for more of the same. You won’t find a 9-5 in retail management. The schedules are always changing. Instead of getting holidays off, you have sales and end up working harder on those days than usual. The turnaround for your staff is high; there are very few people who want to make a career in retail! You don’t often get the most motivated employees, but who can blame them? Most places don’t give enough hours (or benefits) for anyone to make a living, and it’s hard work. The best thing I can say about it is that, since you’re on your feet all day, you don’t really need to go to the gym. (I’ve lost about 50 pounds since I started working there!)
I am extremely fortunate to have a partner who encourages me and believes in me. I had often verbalized my dream of editing, but never thought it was something I’d be able to do. At this point, however, Mark began to poke at me. He sneakily did some research and found several places online that catered to freelance writers and editors, and suggested I look into it. Over a couple of months, he gently encouraged me and I started to believe that this was something I could actually do.
I hadn’t even considered freelancing before. I thought I’d need to get hired by a publishing company or something. But after doing a little research, I began to get excited. After all, why not? Why shouldn’t I at least try? It’s been my dream for ages, and I know I’m good at it! I used to help my 10th grade English teacher grade essays. People ask me to proofread their papers and resumes. I make notes in my kindle when I find mistakes in the books I’m reading. Just for fun.
So I signed up, first on Fiverr, then Upwork. I made a page on Facebook and, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, joined Twitter. Apparently Twitter is the place to be for aspiring authors and other folks in the publishing biz, and I’ve found that it’s true. (I joined up in June and by August had landed my first job off it.) I was on my way.
Step II: Getting Started
As I mentioned, I signed up for Fiverr and Upwork. These are two sites that cater to freelancers (and the clients looking for them). Fiverr is more of a passive thing for freelancers; you set up a “gig” and then clients look for you. Upwork is more of a back and forth; you can set up a “project” as a freelancer, but I think it’s best for when you want to go looking for jobs. Clients post jobs and you can search through them to find something that works for you. It must be noted, though, that both these sites charge a 20% fee for their services, so once you establish your network you may want to start taking clients outside of them.
Canva works great to create the pictures/logos you need, and the free version should get you what you need right now, although you may want to spring for pro later. You can set custom dimensions for your designs, which is perfect because every site has different sizes for their display pics. Upwork’s project picture should be 1000 x 750 pixels, Fiverr’s 550 x 370. If you do a little research, you can find some great advice online.
It can be a little hard to get started on these sites because when you don’t have any reviews, you most likely won’t be getting the big jobs. You’ll have to take a few jobs that don’t pay much just to build up your profile. Just always always always make sure you know what you’re getting into! Some clients will try to take advantage of you, and you’ll feel obligated to let them because you’re terrified of a bad review. There are lots and lots of articles online about building good profiles and the perfect proposal formats and everything, so I won’t go into that too much, but I’ll link my profiles so you can see an example:
At this point, I recommend setting up a seperate checking account that all your freelance earnings will go into and all your business expenses will come out of. You don’t necessarily need a “business” account, just somewhere you can keep track of what you’re earning and spending, in case some piece of documentation goes missing (“Oh no! I can’t find that receipt from Staples!”). Anything that you spend for your business can be written off on your taxes, from word-processing software to that fancy office chair with lumbar support you’ve always wanted. A CPA Mark and I spoke with recommended printing the bank statement for this account monthly, which should probably include a hard copy and a pdf stored in a cloud-y ether somewhere.
Now, it’s time to get into the grimiest aspect (for me) of this whole thing: social media. :shudder:
Step III: Getting the word out
In the wild country of freelancing, Networking is king. The number one way to get clients is by word of mouth. This means you’ve got to do something that many of us who’d like to work from home would rather avoid: interact with lots of people. Thankfully, at this point, most of this can be done online. You can’t just go through one outlet to do this, though; you’ve got to sign up for ’em all. For writers and others in the publishing biz, Twitter is the place to be! While Facebook is alright and there are people who might stumble across your page, Twitter has the advantage of allowing you to connect to lots of different people without them thinking, “Who is this creepy person trying to friend me?”
The #WritingCommunity tag will get you to lots of people to connect with. I find that the best way to get followers is to follow a lot of people yourself! A good way to find writers is to go to a #writerslift post (there are many, many of these every day) and go through the comments, following as you go. I also recommend actually reading the posts and commenting on things that look interesting. The best way to get people to be interested in you is to actually be interested and engaged with them (crazy, I know). Many writers will buy each others’ books just to be supportive, even if they don’t actually have time to read them (whether they intend to or not), but a lot of them will even leave you reviews, especially if you ask, or trade a review for a review.
From what I hear, LinkedIn is also a good site for writers and editors to network on. I haven’t really started taking advantage of that one yet (I’m on it but most of my contacts are people I know personally), but a lot of articles I’ve read mention it (and if it’s on the internet it must be true, right?) You can also use hashtags here (and on FB) but I still kind of weird and douche-y doing it for some reason. Maybe it’s just a holdover from my resentment of the term “hashtag.”
Social media marketing wizards will probably also recommend Instagram, but I have a hard time reconciling this visual medium to a career in editing. I mean, what would I post? Pictures of myself typing in pajamas with my cat on my lap? Sitting on my couch in a robe reading my Kindle and sipping tea? While it may get you noticed by the hipper, younger crowd, I don’t know that this is terribly useful for someone who works primarily with the written word. I will probably join eventually, but right now I have my hands full with Twitter.
Step IV: Keeping track of all the deets
So you’ve dipped your toe in the water. You’ve done a few jobs on Upwork and/or Fiverr, and maybe even gotten a job or two through social media. You think, “Hey, I think I could really, actually, for reals do this!” First of all, WOOHOO! Now… we gotta get down to brass tacks and start looking more closely at the practical details (the “deets,” if you will. I mean, I will.) How much money can you practically make doing this? Can you realistically expect to be able to make enough to replace your current job? How many hours per week will you have to work? Heck, how much are you making per hour (this is a good thing to ask, since a lot of jobs will be fixed-price contracts)?
This is where the awesome spreadsheets Mark made come into play. He created one to track hours and rate of pay, which will also tell you how fast you’re working. (This one is tailored to writers and editors, as it tracks words per hour.) He also made a spreadsheet that will tell you how much you need to be making (and working) to replace your current job, how much to pay your essential bills, and how much will allow you to start saving. He’s pretty wonderful! Here are the spreadsheets:
Download them in Excel format. If you don’t have Excel, you can open them with Google Sheets, (which you can download here.) You won’t be able to edit them until after you download them. Mark has left detailed instructions for their use, but if you have any questions you can contact me or tweet @EditsByKnight.
Check out Part III for a new spreadsheet! It will help you track your weekly finances and figure out approximately how much you need to pay on your quarterly taxes.
Step V: Build a Website
This one gets its own section because it is complicated and takes up a lot of time. I’m actually not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, because, again, there are many resources online that deal with creating a website that can probably explain this stuff way better that I could ever hope to. There are some plugins you need to install and settings you’ll need to change, so I recommend finding (an) article(s) that will guide you through, step by step, all the set-up details that do things like make your website secure and make sure people’s computers don’t catch on fire when they view your page.
Finding a hosting service that works for you is the first step, and can be confusing because there are so many out there. I eventually settled on SiteGround after a good bit of research, but this is the first website I’ve ever had so I can’t tell you the pros and cons of different hosting sites. Luckily, there are many, many articles online that do just that, so I’ll leave you to do that research. I paid about $80 dollars altogether, and there will be a yearly fee as well, which can be written off on your taxes.
This is where you really want to get down to brass tacks as far as creating your brand. You need a logo. A portfolio. Reviews. An “About Me” page. A Blog (very important for writers/editors!) You need to make sure that your site looks good on desktop, tablet, and mobile (these settings can be found in the “responsive” tab). There will be questions you’ll have to answer: “Should I go light or dark, formal or casual? Should I use the first or third person? Should I put a picture of my cat on the home page?”
The answers to these questions usually depend on the type of audience you want to attract. Find your niche. Don’t try to do everything! Pick something you love. If you’re looking to write or edit articles for medical journals, you should probably go more traditional and academic, keeping the tone professional. If you are a journalist writing travel guides, you’ll want pictures of various places you’ve visited, or want to visit. If you write fantasy novels, you may want some faerie-forest-looking backgrounds (Ross Hightower’s site is an excellent example of this!)
As an editor, your tone will define the kind of relationships you want to build with clients. I prefer to make friends of my clients, so I use a somewhat informal tone on my website to convey this. It works well for fiction, but may not be the best approach for fact-checkers or straight-up proofreaders.
My experience with graphic design and layout really came in handy here. I was the layout editor for my college newsletter for three years, and used to draw a lot (not so much anymore, but hey, you know, life) so I have kind of an eye for this sort of thing (can’t you tell?) If you don’t have that kind of background, don’t despair! You can get lots of ideas simply by doing a web search for other people doing the same thing you want to do and checking out their pages. However, if I’d known how time-consuming building a website would be, I might have hired someone to do it for me. By the time I thought about it, though, I was so far into it that I decided to plug on through. When I start getting more traffic, I will probably pay someone to clean it up a bit (which I can write off as a business expense); no matter how many times I check the settings or purge the cache, my Blog home page STILL has a red background that I can’t seem to get rid of…
Step VI: Taking the Plunge
Now you’re getting jobs at a steady pace, even when you aren’t really looking that hard for them, because you’re hitting Twitter hard, perhaps paying for a Facebook ad here and there, your reviews on Upwork and Fiverr make people stop and check you out, and your website is getting some traffic. You start to sweat because while this is really great and everything, between your freelance gigs and your full-time job you just don’t have enough TIME.
This is when you really start looking at that Freelance Goals spreadsheet. How much are you making? How many hours are you working? If you had more time, would you be able to get enough work to ensure you’re making enough to pay the bills?
My advice is to start slow. Build up that emergency fund! Under the “Goals” tab of Mark’s spreadsheet, there is a field that will estimate how many months until you have enough to sustain you through three months of no work. Make sure you’re updating the amount in the emergency fund as you go, and feel free to deposit more money into your emergency fund, not just the amount you have decided to deposit per month. Since you’re working as you’re doing this, I recommend only touching your freelance earnings for business expenses, and you can add your business account total to your emergency fund.
As you save, the number of months to reach your goal will decrease. Once you have a good idea of when you’ll reach that goal… start planning. Instead of straight-up quitting your day job, consider going part-time first (this is what I’m planning to do). When you reach your savings goal (or get very close), start looking for that job.
FIGURE OUT YOUR HEALTH INSURANCE. Find a plan. How much is it going to cost? If you have a partner with a job, can you get on their insurace? As I write this, Mark and I are not married yet, but because we live together and share bills we are in a “domestic partnership” as defined by his company, so I will be able to get on his insurance within 30 days of losing mine. That makes it a lot simpler, but if you don’t have that option, this part will probably be complicated. Well, if you live in the United States, at least. Y’all commies can skip this part.
Step VII: TBD
This is as far as I’ve gotten. I’m still working full-time (or at least I was when I wrote this), but I got transferred to a store that’s closer to home; however, we are seriously short-handed and I’m working a lot of overtime. This is great financially, but it’s really put the crunch on me. I barely have time to edit, let alone spend time with Mark and my family. Mark and I have discussed my career extensively (mostly me complaining about work) and have set a goal: by the new year, I will be working part-time. I’m hoping to find something within the organization I work for now; it will probably involve a pay cut, but it will be worth it to have more time.
I hope that this has been helpful (and not too boring). Feel free to contact me if you want to know more; you know where to find me!
Update: I was offered a raise to stay full-time a bit longer (sort of; they put us back on salary, which involved a raise, but also mandatory 45-hour work weeks, with no overtime if I do end up having to work more.) I didn’t have much time to consider, so after a short phone conversation with Mark I went ahead and took it. For some reason, working nine hours a day (as opposed to eight) really takes it out of me; something about that one extra hour just makes it so that I can’t seem to get anything done when I have to work. I have asked my district manager to find a way to get me back to 40 hours a week, so we will see how that goes…
Be sure to check out Freelancing: An Editor’s Journey (Part II), a more personal update to my trek through the world of freelancing!
Michaeli lives in Harvest, Alabama with her fiance, Mark. They have two cats, Henry and Louise, and live the quiet and satisfying lives of two nerdy introverts. In her spare time, Michaeli enjoys playing the piano, singing, playing JRPGs, Tabletop gaming, and (of course) reading.