So You Want to Be an Editor, Part 3: Building a Sustainable Career as a Freelancer

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Have you been thinking of setting yourself up as a freelance editor either while you’re still working in academia or in preparation for transitioning out? As a grad student, I started a business that grew from a side hustle into a small agency, where I work alongside a team of current and former academics in the various aspects of academic writing and publishing. Without access to mentorship or the ability to perform unpaid labor, I learned the basics from scratch, and I want to give you the scoop.

The field of editing is full of talented people and, especially now that we’re officially in the middle of Great Resignation, highly qualified candidates. Now that you’ve gathered the courage to start a business, investigated professional development, and received some training, how do you stand out from the crowd? How can you, too, turn your side hustle into long-term success?  

In this final installment of my multipart series on becoming a freelance editor, I’ll share some advice about how to avoid jumping from one short gig to another and, instead, establish a professionalized operation. In case you missed them, you can go back to Part 1, where I described the mental and practical challenges of my own transition out of academia, and Part 2, in which I offered practical advice for setting out on your own.


Think before you make the leap.

As academics, most of us haven’t had to learn business basics: marketing, finance, and how to protect ourselves legally. As a bourgeoning editor, you may have only considered the “creative” part of this profession—what I describe to my team as “the fun part”—editing others’ writing. However, these practical aspects are essential to setting up your own business, and they require a significant (uncompensated) investment of time and money before you can expect to get a return.

So, once you’ve defined your niche and done some professional development to determine what kind of editor you’re going to be, seek out professional advice or do some research on how to establish a freelance business. Good resources for this are MedEdit’s Deliberate Freelancer and Malini Devadas’s Edit Boost (Malini also does coaching for editors!).

In my experience, it’s best if you can do this while you have an existing income stream coming in and while you’re waiting to build up a solid client base, because this is the time in your career when planning will be the most beneficial and you’ll actually have the time to focus on it.  

In the beginning, freelancers tend to experience what we call “feast or famine”: you’ll have periods when you have more requests than you can handle and others when you don’t have any clients, perhaps for longer than you find financially feasible. It can take a while to build enough clients to fill your schedule and to make enough to survive on. For me, this took about three years!

Having a good strategy in place, including narrowing your niche, will help you avoid this feeling and overcome the slumps faster. Those “down” times are a good opportunity to work on other aspects of your business.


Set yourself apart by mastering the business basics from the get-go.


When I was starting out, I had very little business training—and if that’s you, you’re in good company. I’m going to give you two tips for establishing your business that they don’t review in editing certificate programs: first, get ready to learn about personal finance; and, second, know how to protect yourself from getting screwed. Financial management and legal protections are what set the professionals apart from the amateurs.


As you get more and more clients, you’ll need to know how to keep yourself organized financially, particularly when it comes to tax time. If you’re able to and, like me, you aren’t a particularly financially savvy person, I’d really recommend that you seek out the help of a financial planner with experience working with freelancers. I can’t tell you how many years I spent months organizing myself to submit my materials to the IRS. Don’t be this person.

Learn how to invoice clients and accept payments and figure out what kind of bookkeeping system works best for you. You can find invoice templates online that you can customize with your information. Make sure it includes things like an invoice number, description of services, and directions for how clients can pay you. Use this as a template when you bill clients for work.

There are also plenty of invoicing programs out there that can handle many of these functions for you, the most well known of which is probably QuickBooks (invoicing, payment processing, tax organizing), but you can also do many things using PayPal (invoicing, payment processing), and others. At the recommendation of my own accountant, I use the unpaid version of Wave to manage my invoicing.

You’ll also need to keep track of all expenses in order to write them off at tax season. Plenty of people use spreadsheets for this (me included!) but you can also find programs to categorize the charges for you.

Once you’ve gone through the legal process of getting a business certificate from your local government, you can also open a business bank account to keep all charges and payments in one place.


Legal protection

As editors, we don’t usually require the same kinds of protections as other small businesses, such as liability insurance. Nonetheless, you need to be savvy in order to protect yourself from some of the more prickly parts of being a freelancer.

Unfortunately, not all clients are trustworthy, even those you’ve known for a long time. Take my word on this: get a contract for all jobs.

When I was starting out, there were plenty of times when there was miscommunication about expectations, deadlines, document handling, payments, and more. I only decided to write a contract when I started getting stiffed for big projects. But, really, it just makes sense to get all aspects of a project in writing so everyone is on the same page right from the start.


Contracts, or “agreements” as I refer to them, can be more or less formal, written as letters or as more concrete legal documents. My own has transformed from brief and casual to longer and more complex as my business has grown.

You’ll want to consider adding in paragraphs or sections on:

  • The scope and schedule of the project

  • The rate and estimate

  • How clients should handle your edits and communicate with you

  • Payment terms and method

Check out the book The Paper It’s Written On by editors Karin Cather and Dick Margulis, who put together some comprehensive tips and two possible templates.

Whatever you include, though, be sure to have it looked over by a legal professional, especially if you have nonstandard terms.

Achieving long-term success isn’t a magic recipe. It takes hard work and persistence.

A few years ago, I encountered a woman who had transitioned out of academia—she was an EdD who worked in higher ed—and into a six-figure job in editing in the tech industry. I thought to myself, “If I want to reach the next level in my career like this person, I’ve got to start setting my goals higher.”

Where do you see yourself as an editor six months, a year, five years from now? What are some of the steps you need to take to get there?

If your goal is to start making enough money—however you define that—to quit whatever you’re doing now in order to focus on your editing career, then one of the best ways to focus your energy is into finding a steady stream of ongoing projects/clients who will give you consistent work. These might develop through a one-off project or you might apply for these when jobs are posted.

Ongoing opportunities often happen through your network, so make sure that your contacts know what you’re up to. For example, my job at Facebook was obtained through a friend who knew about my work and recommended me to the hiring manager.

Put yourself out there and become the go-to expert in your chosen field. And, of course, try to learn as much as possible from those of us who have already made a name for ourselves.

Need more advice or personal feedback? I’m here to help. Post a note in the comments or reach out to me for a coaching session. In the near future I’ll also be hosting a live webinar on how academics can transition into editing and set themselves up for success, so sign up for our monthly newsletter or check our Events page for more details when it’s posted.

Read the other posts in this series: Part 1 and Part 2.