So You Want to Become a Freelance Editor

Freelance editing books might sound like a dream job: creating your own schedule, deciding what work you want to take on, and no longer dealing with frustrating managers or coworkers.

While this certainly becomes a dream occupation for some, there’s still a lot of time and effort that goes into getting yourself to this point. So before you quit your full-time day job, I’m going to go over some of the essential first steps you should take to start building up your freelance career.

How do I become a freelance editor?

  1. Determine Your Niche and Read It
  2. Decide What Type of Editing You’ll Specialize In
  3. Continue Your Education
  4. Choose Your Rates
  5. Build a Website
  6. Join a Freelancer Marketplace

If you want to learn how to become a freelance editor, keep these tips in mind as you start to plan your business. Let’s get started.

1. Determine Your Niche and Read It

While you may think you should offer to edit as many age categories and genres as possible, it’s actually better for your career (especially when you’re getting started) to determine your niche.

Your niche could be:

  • Children’s books and/or YA
  • Romance and/or women’s fiction
  • Adult commercial fiction
  • Science fiction/fantasy
  • Nonfiction
  • Or others!

Of course, it’s okay to choose a combination of some of these. But the point of it all is, as an editor, clients will look to you to have some idea of how their books should be structured. If you’re not actively reading in that market, you won’t offer as much value in your services or be able to help them develop their manuscripts specifically for the market. 

For example, a romance should always have a happily ever after (HEA) or HEA for now. If a client says they’ve written a romance, but it doesn’t include an HEA, you’ll be able to gently explain to them that, currently, it’s not a romance they’re writing.

Understanding the nuts and bolts of the genres you’re working in will in turn make your edits knowledgeable, helpful, and actionable for your clients.

2. Decide What Type of Editing You’ll Specialize In

Believe it or not, but the type of editing you offer will also come into play as you plan your business.

There are multiple levels of editing, and you should familiarize yourself with each one to ensure that you offer services you can do well.

Here are some of the most common types of editing:

  • Developmental editing (also known as content or substantive editing): This is a big picture edit, where you look at character development, pacing, structure, plot, and an entire array of other craft elements. This is generally one of the most time-intensive edits, and most suitable for earlier drafts. Copyedits/line edits and developmental edits should not be combined into one, for reasons explained next.
  • Copyediting: This is where you put your grammar cap on, checking for consistency in the spelling of names and places, fixing punctuation, and combing through the manuscript for other technical errors. You shouldn’t combine this with a developmental edit because, once your client incorporates your suggestions, the text will undoubtedly change. Save the copyediting until after the content of the manuscript has been finalized.
  • Line editing: Often confused with copyediting, line editing addresses your writing style and how you communicate your story at the sentence level. Rather than combing through for errors, like with a copyedit, line editing ensures your language is fluid and enjoyable to read. You can probably guess why you shouldn’t combine it with a developmental edit!
  • Proofreading: Proofreading is the final step before publication and usually done on the formatted PDF galley to ensure no errors were introduced during typesetting. Proofreading involves catching any last minor errors and typos.

Beyond these types of edits, you can choose to offer other services, such as query letter and synopsis reviews (also known as submission packages) or manuscript evaluations. Depending on your experience, you’ll want to decide which services best suit your skills.

3. Continue Your Education

I want to chime in at this point to talk about experience. I’ve seen a few people suggest that working in-house for a publisher is the best way to get started on the path of freelancing. While it’s true that this can help you understand the editorial process better and gives you valuable industry knowledge, this can also alienate aspiring editors who may have the skills but aren’t able to live in a city that’s a publishing hotspot (read: NYC).

For this reason, I don’t believe that working in-house is the only way to go. In terms of my own personal journey, I started as an in-house editor at a literary agency near Atlanta. I edited manuscripts for their assisted self-publishing program and quickly built up a portfolio of books I’d edited and helped publish.

But even then, for many editors, landing a job in the publishing industry at all can be a big challenge. That’s why I’m going to focus this section on continuing your education on your own.

I’ve been asked on various panels where you can get experience in editing, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about this answer. Here are my suggestions:

  • Become a critique partner or beta reader. I can’t begin to tell you how many CPs I’ve had that offered me invaluable advice and feedback on my writing. If you’re unfamiliar with critique partners, they are writing friends with whom you can swap manuscripts for critique. Beta readers are typically non-professionals who read your manuscript for you and provide feedback prior to publication. Whichever path you choose, here’s the bottom line: Learning how to give effective editorial feedback is crucial to your success as a freelance editor. Use these resources to learn how to give feedback and see how others give feedback at the same time.
  • Take continuing education courses. This option comes with a price tag, but I do suggest it if you have the means. Associations like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) offer webinars and courses that help you build your skills in a certain area of editing. The EFA in particular offers a wide array of courses on developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, proofreading, and other areas of fiction and nonfiction editing. But if that price tag is too much, look into courses within your community, either through local colleges and universities, your library, or other community centers. Sometimes these workshops are low-cost or even free!
  • Build your network. I’ve been fortunate to have a large network of publishing professionals to exchange questions with. Reach out to other editors who are working in fields similar to yours. Ask for an informational interview. While this suggestion doesn’t focus on skill-building, it can still help you get pertinent questions answered, learn more about the publishing process, and become a more valuable editor to your clients as a result.

As you can see, there are other ways to build up your skills aside from working at a traditional publishing house. While in-house editing is valuable, don’t feel discouraged if that opportunity isn’t within reach at this point!

4. Choose Your Rates

Of course, the big question is: What should I charge?

Ultimately, this is up to you, but I highly suggest consulting resources like the EFA’s rate chart. You may choose to charge per hour, per word, or even per page (which I don’t recommend). As you might have seen by my rates, I charge per word. But your choice will depend on how long it generally takes you to complete a project, the scope of the project and what stage it’s at, and any other factor that affects your decision.

That’s why I always recommend having potential clients submit a sample of the manuscript with their request. This way, you’ll get an idea of their writing style and what kind of service they need (sometimes clients think they need a line edit when they really need a developmental edit!), and be able to provide an accurate quote.

In terms of your actual rate, depending on your experience, start on the lower end and revisit your rates every six months or so. If you’re moving slower or faster on projects than you anticipated, adjust them accordingly. And of course, pay attention to how clients respond to your rates. If several clients say your rates are too high, consider lowering them. If no one contests your rates over time, it might be time to increase them.

And above all else, be sure to set a portion of your earnings aside for taxes! If you’re not working a W2 job and can’t withhold extra from that (or a spouse’s job), you’ll need to pay quarterly taxes. Save at least 25% of your pay for this.

The best thing about setting your rates is that they are not set in stone. In order to land your first few jobs, you may feel you have to undercharge by a lot, but you should still charge what you and your skills are worth!

5. Build a Website

Once you’re ready to start putting your business together, it is essential that you have a website. A professional-level website doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, but I do recommend at least purchasing a domain name and hosting so you can have a YourName.com address.

On your website, you can choose to include:

  • An About page detailing your experience
  • A list of your editorial services (and rates if you choose to publicly list them)
  • Your portfolio (if you already have a growing list)
  • Testimonials
  • An FAQ
  • A contact form

As you begin vetting clients, be sure to have a conversation with them before offering a quote. Get to know their project, their goals, and their personalities before deciding to move forward with a contract.

After each job, don’t forget to ask your client for a review or testimonial! Asking while you’re fresh on their minds will increase the chance that they’ll do it at all. You can also ask their permission to include their testimonial on your website. And once they’ve published their book, be sure to follow up and ask to include their work on your website’s portfolio.

Building a website might sound daunting, but through platforms like WordPress or Wix, you can learn a lot about how best to present your content.

6. Join a Freelancer Marketplace

You might have heard of certain freelancer marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr. Through these sites, you can begin to build up your portfolio and find new clients. However, the freelancer marketplace I personally recommend is Reedsy.

Reedsy is a highly curated freelancer marketplace specifically for book publishing professionals. They issue their own contracts you can use, guarantee payment, and help get your foot in the door as a freelancer. You do need to have a growing portfolio of positively reviewed books before you can be accepted onto their marketplace, but once you are, you’ll be introduced to an entire network of clients.

If you’re interested in becoming a professional editor on Reedsy, sign up here!

Becoming a freelance editor takes a lot of work, but it’s also rewarding and freeing, and introduces you to wonderful new relationships. If you’re on the fence, consider your goals, think about what skills you have (or want to build upon), and most importantly, take your time deciding! You want to make the best decision for yourself. 

Good luck!