How to Become a Freelance Editor

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Have you ever been reading a book, only to notice all the typos that slide past professional authors and their editors?

Or maybe you’ve read a news story and thought to yourself, “This article could really have used an editor.” From there, it’s not a large leap to start wondering if you could do the job yourself. This is especially true if you’re looking for a job you can do freelance from home, which is right in the editor’s wheelhouse!

So, if you’ve ever wondered about how to become a freelance editor, below we’ll cover the skills you need, and where to find jobs.

Qualifications and Resources to Become a Freelance Editor

Unfortunately, becoming a freelance editor is a little more complex than having good grammar test scores in the third grade. Many of the job ads you’ll come across will want some type of bachelor’s degree education requirement.

The type of degree can vary based on what type of work you are looking to edit. More general editing roles tend to like to see a bachelor’s degree in English, literature, journalism or communications. More scientific or technical publications want higher education in the type of science that the publication covers, such as biology.

Style Guides

You’ll also need to be well-versed in whatever style guidelines the publication follows. There are actually a few popular different styles:

Associated Press Style (or AP Style): This is the official style for journalistic articles and is the most common style for consumer publications. You can find the official handbook here.

The Chicago Manual of Style: This is another popular style guide used by a wide range of publishers. It’s also found in many academic settings and is generally the style you’ll want to study if you want to edit books. You can find the manual here.

APA Style: Short for American Psychological Association, you may remember this style from writing essays in school. It’s the chosen academic style, and you’ll need to know it if you do academic journal editing or professional essay editing for students. It also has a hefty manual that you can find here.

MLA Style: Standing for the Modern Language Association, this style guide is also used in academic settings, usually in the humanities. You may need this if you’re editing for students or other scholarly works. You can find the guide here.

The first thing you might notice is that these style guides are very comprehensive. This is a nice way of saying that they’re long, thick and detailed and can be tedious if you’re not passionate about grammar. (Editor’s note: If you’re not, you might want to rethink editing as a career choice!)

What’s more, different styles often contradict each other, such as one style using the Oxford comma and another style wanting you to forgo it.

It can take a lot of study and practice to get these styles down if you’re not already familiar with them. That’s where higher education requirements come into play on many job ads, as these usually mean that the candidate is proficient in at least one of these styles.

On top of that, many publications develop their own style guidelines. These usually come in PDF form. They can range from a few tips, like how to format dashes the way the website wants, to 50-page documents. You’ll have to be good at learning these requirements inside and out so that you can correct the writing of others exactly how your client want.

Even if you’re a grammar wiz and know the Chicago Manual of Style back to front and front to back, it’s one of the great weaknesses of the human mind that typos can slip past the best of us. You might also consider looking at tools like Grammarly (you’ll find a full review of it here). You can also find helpful grammar classics, like Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” An excellent thesaurus like “The Synonym Finder” by J.I Rodale can help, too.

Grammarly emails

The best way to learn these skills is through college writing/editing courses or dedicated self-study. Each style’s official page tend to contain quizzes, tutorials and/or other learning materials. Be wary of any expensive third-party course that tells you it can teach you how to become a freelance editor. You can save a lot of the money by buying the books and teaching yourself.

Freelance Editor Soft Skills

In addition to being skilled in one or more common style guides, there are many different personal attributes a strong editor must have. The most important of these is being good with people. Guides to how to become a freelance editor don’t always emphasise how important this is, but as an editor, it will be your job to encourage writers to improve their writing.

There’s a fine line, however! It falls between being so nitpicky and difficult to please that writers don’t want to work with you, to letting any type of writing slide for fear of bruising egos. The most successful editors and writing teachers I’ve worked under know how to balance telling you what you’re doing right and calmly mentioning what you could improve on.

You also need exceptionally solid organizational skills. As an editor, it’s often your job to schedule deadlines and sometimes even whole content schedules. You must then keep up with who is turning in what and when.

Some editors even check in with writers before deadlines to see how things are going. And if a writer misses a deadline, you must know how to tactfully get the work on your desk ASAP. Being an editor often involves a certain element of man-management.

You may also be required to find and recruit writers, or even to sift through piles of story pitches. And you might have to sever writer relationships if there is a style mismatch between a writer and the publication – no matter how much work you put into improving the writer.

Training and learning

On top of all that, a good editor should have a solid, almost instinctual eye for how a piece fits into the overall tone and mission of the publication they are working for. You’ll have to know your readership, and understand what they’d want to see from the publication or website.

Along the same lines, language should be your life and your soul. That sounds romantic, but beyond just knowing whether your style manual likes the Oxford comma or not, you’ll need an intuitive grasp of the English language. You’ll need to know on a gut level whether a sentence sounds amazing or a piece has a true sense of overall cohesion. That’s a sense you can only develop if you read widely and devote yourself to learning the intricacies of language.

How to Get a Freelance Editor Gig

Ok, so you’ve read through all of the soft and hard skills that you’ll need to be a successful editor. And rather than looking daunting, it looks like a fun challenge. The next step in our guide for how to become a freelance editor is to actually find the work.

You may wish to start out with looking at online job boards. These can help you get a feel for what requirements you should focus on honing, which style guides your target clients typically works with, and what level of editor role you’re qualified for. If you’re just starting out, you may want to look for titles like associate editor, assistant editor or even an editing internship.

Some of the top job boards in the industry include Journalism Jobs, Mediabistro and ED2010. These sites tend to post tons of freelance editorial roles. If you’re looking to work from home, you may narrow your search down to remote positions only.

You may also think about putting your profile up on sites like Upwork. However, if you are brand new to this, it can be hard to gain work on Upwork without showing some previous experience on your profile or past customer reviews. You’ll likely have to apply to many editorial gigs and bid at lower rates to land your first clients. You’ll find some tips for sites like Upwork here. 

Editing jobs on Upwork

Local Editing Opportunities

In order to avoid the bidding war on Upwork and sites like it, you might also think about networking for your first clients. Ask around with your friends, family and colleagues. You might be surprised how many people have a dusty manuscript in a drawer that they wouldn’t mind someone looking over, need proofreading on a business document, or someone to check over a website to catch typos.

You may have to do a little work for free at first, but you can have the people you do the work for write up testimonials about your editing skills. Those can then go on your website or online profiles, leading to a better chance of landing paying gigs. And it’s also a great way to hone your editing skills before being officially “pro.”

Another option is to get creative with search engines to find publications, publishers and websites devoted to a topic or type of writing you’d like to edit. For instance, if you have experience as a nurse, you might look into healthcare publications geared towards the nursing profession, websites devoted to caregivers for family members, or general consumer health publications. You can write to them or check their job pages to see if they are looking for an editor.

You might also want to consider joining your country’s main editor association, like the Editorial Freelancers Association in the U.S. or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the U.K.

If you have the right attributes and level of determination you can become a freelance editor by following the advice above – it might take some time to get established, but it’s a perfectly realistic home working career to aspire to.

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