I spent five years as a literary agent, three of them in NYC, and I never thought I’d leave that business. Then I met the Midwestern man I would marry in a Brooklyn bar. And here’s the thing: Midwesterners always go back, no matter what they try to tell you. Many people agent successfully from outside of NYC, but it wasn’t for me. So I returned to my first love—working editorially with my clients—and started a freelance editing business.
Happily, writers supported my new venture and I now work on over 500 freelance projects per year. You heard right. In the last few years, I’ve been getting a lot of requests for information on how to start and run a successful freelance editing business. Here, I’m happy to share five things I’ve learned over the years.
1) Get Legitimizing Experience
If you want to be a freelance editor, you’ve likely studied English (or your language of choice) in some capacity, learned a manual of style (or two!) by heart, and like to read or write yourself. But a lot of people do. That’s not to discredit your experiences … but you also need something to set you apart when you hang out your shingle as a small business. My biggest piece of advice would be to get legitimizing experience. Writers are hungry for “insider knowledge” and will pay more for perspective that brings them closer to their publishing goals.
The good news is, you can get experience that legitimizes your career as a freelance editor more easily than ever now. You don’t have to move to New York or London or another big publishing city. Many literary magazines, publishers, magazines, and literary agencies hire remote interns or readers. Productivity tools allow us to work from anywhere. So follow your favorite publications, publishers, and agencies and look for call-outs. Get behind the scenes experience that you can pass on to clients. This will help to set you apart, because, alas, everyone else has that English degree, too.
2) Read for Free or Cheap
While you gather industry experience, you will also have to gather editing experience as well. And that means doing amazing work for free or cheap—at first. Many writers are on a budget, and not all of them will spring for an unknown freelance editor, no matter how great you are. That means you need editorial experience, and the good news is, you can easily get it by offering to give feedback on manuscripts as a critique partner or beta reader. List yourself as a beta reader or critique partner on CritCollective.com and see what happens.
Hone your chops this way. The great news is that writers talk to one another. If you do a great job for one writer, they may recommend your name around. With every successful or helpful critique you do, you reputation will grow. Then you can start charging more for your editing (though I would recommend giving your first and best clients a discount or grandfathered rate).
3) Go Above and Beyond
When you think you’ve done enough, do more. Remember that writers seeking editorial feedback are putting themselves out there in a very vulnerable way. If you’ve given them some good, positive reinforcement, give more. If you’ve given them some constructive feedback on what isn’t working … don’t stop there. Give them some suggested solutions as well. If you’ve given them manuscript feedback, think about giving them query feedback, synopsis feedback, a list of comp titles. Give more.
For example, I was working very hard on my line edits, but not putting as much attention toward overviews and summaries. I figured that I was giving someone 500+ comments in the margins. What would an overview say that wasn’t already said somewhere in the project? Well, one client pointed out that she really would’ve appreciated a bird’s eye view, and so I started really pouring myself into overview reports that now accompany each one of my projects. And in my off hours (which aren’t many, as a small business owner), I read. I read so that I can stay on top of the market and recommend interesting comp titles. So be prepared to do better, and do more. Owning a small business is not a relaxing enterprise, but my inability to rest on my laurels—or rest, ha!—seems to set me apart.
4) Focus on the Back Office Now
Every year of my small business, I told myself that I’d get the logistical stuff in order “next year.” When I hit this or that dollar amount, I’ll hire an accountant. When I work on this or that many projects in a year, I’ll make it official with an LLC. Well, I’d hit the dollar amount or the number of projects, and still put stuff off.
Earlier this year, my busiest year ever, I was managing over five hundred projects a year from a single spreadsheet. I didn’t realize that it was madness because this “system” had developed over time and I was used to it. But it was slowing me down quite a bit and generating a lot of stress. It wasn’t until I hired my assistant and she said, “This is not working, let’s do something about it,” that I realized she was right. Up until that point, I didn’t want to pay for any additional tools for CRM, bookkeeping, email marketing, invoicing, or payroll. I was doing it all myself and wasting a lot of time.
If I had this business to do over again, I would put tools in place now. Maybe not the fancy CRM (customer relationship management) and invoicing software that I’ve started using (it’s called Honeybook and has made a world of difference). Three years ago, that would’ve been premature. But bookkeeping? Yes. My stubborn mess should’ve done that years ago. An accountant? Yes, please, with a cherry on top. Separating out a business entity? Absolutely—and the IRS will thank you.
I often see new business owners spending a bunch of money on fancy branding and business cards and all the trimmings before they have their first client. This is a waste. But some tools are worth spending money on, right from the beginning. Get your systems in place and you’ll never have to do an overhaul of your entire business seven years in—which is exactly what I did this summer and it sucked. Set yourself up for success so that if you need to scale your freelance business at some point, you can grow without a total overhaul.
5) Ask for Feedback and Listen to It
As an editor, you will be telling people what to do all day long. It’s great. It fits my personality very well—just ask that Midwestern husband of mine! But you also need to be willing to hear feedback. If a client is dissatisfied, it’s your job to help them get the most out of your edit. It’s okay to stand by your feedback, but if you need to add something to the edit to make it worth the client’s while, you should go back and do it. One client asked me to find something good to point out on every page, because she was feeling discouraged. Done! And it was a really positive, inspiring exercise for me, too. A great reminder that we are helping to nurture someone’s creative brain and heart child when we sit down to edit.
I send a questionnaire to all of my clients six weeks after their service. If anything negative comes back, I pout in private—sure, I’m only human—but then I reach out and try to talk to the client. Happily, most of the feedback is positive. In that case, I keep a spreadsheet of testimonials and quotes that I can pull from for my website (if I have the client’s permission, of course). Testimonials are incredibly legitimizing, so you should always collect them.
And that brings me back to the first point in this article. Edit. Rinse. Repeat!
As a former literary agent, Mary Kole knows the ins and outs of the publishing industry firsthand. Now, she focuses on—simply—helping writers craft a good story. She founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of providing valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast and Crit Collective writing forum—to writers of all categories and ability levels.
On the craft side, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing and have worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She’s been blogging at Kidlit.com since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer’s Digest Books. She is developing a class on everything a freelance editor needs to learn to start their own business, slated to launch in early 2020. You can sign up for more information here.