I built a freelance business as a struggling grad student that grew from a side gig to support my research into a small, boutique agency, where I work alongside a team of editors who specialize in the various aspects of academic and arts writing. With little access to mentorship or professional development in my academic field or from my university, how was I able to do it?
Building a business isn’t an exact science and it isn’t for everyone—I don’t have a background in business and most of what I learned came through trial and error. This post is for those of you in academia hoping to use some of the skills you’ve learned through peer reviewing, performing service on editorial boards of journals, and grading student papers to get into the world of editing for hire. It’s also for those risk-takers who want to do it on their own!
In this multipart series, I’ll share some advice from my years spent freelancing and growing my business as a solo entrepreneur. In short, it’s about taking an alternate path that, in many ways, is still connected to academia but, as opposed to being guided by dissertation advisors, department chairs, and fellowship application review boards, I control how I engage professionally with my discipline.
In Part 1, I described the first steps of my journey out of academia and some of the challenges I faced, both mental and practical. The goal of this post is to explore the latter in a bit more detail. Now that you’ve faced your fears and decided to make the leap into freelance life, how do you go about starting a business?
Begin by defining your niche
The very first step in creating a business is deciding what kind of business you want to have. You’ll need to determine what kind of editor you want to be (see the different levels of editing on my website) and the audience you want to market to (mine, for example, is art historians and visual artists).
Think about your innate strengths. Those who are better with big-picture feedback about argumentation and organization of writing tend to gravitate more toward developmental editing, whereas those who have a knack for applying rules and hammering out rough sentences go toward copyediting, and those who have an extreme eye for detail go toward proofreading. You might be skilled in more than one area, and that’s great! But be aware of your limits, too (personally, I don’t particularly enjoy proofreading).
Then, consider what kinds of materials you want to work on and the types of clients you want to have. Do you want to work with students to improve their writing? Or would you prefer to guide a professor in what acquisitions editors look for in a book manuscript? Or perhaps you want to help those from underrepresented groups get jobs in your field?
Your choice might depend on your experience—perhaps you’ve worked with many students while teaching, and you either want to continue working with them or you’d rather move on to other pastures—or it might come through other motivating factors. I encourage you to find a niche that brings you joy, doesn’t rouse personal insecurities, and that you can build on in the long term. As they say, do what you love!
Although you’ll continue to refine your niche as you move forward in your career, when you start out you should try to get a few clients however you can, just so that you can gain the experience (more on that below). Then start directing your energy toward the kinds of clients and projects you really want.
Professional development is essential
As I note in my last blog post, professional development is key to refining raw talent into a marketable career. Many people have the aptitude for editing, but fewer have the qualifications to back it up—it’s those that prove their interest in the field through training that will get ahead faster.
Professional development can mean different things: it can be an organized program, individual classes, or mentorship. And, just as I say to my own potential clients, you get what you pay for. Consider professional development as an investment in your career; it does pay dividends.
When I was starting out as an editor in grad school, my university (the CUNY Graduate Center) did not offer many opportunities for alt-ac career development, but they now do. If you’re still a grad student, you might start with the career center at your school or ask your program coordinator about fellowship/internship opportunities. For example, my university now houses a resident acquisitions editor at a university press who has an assistant from my former department; the university also funds fellows to attend a summer seminar with the LA Review of Books in the basics of the publishing industry. These would definitely help any student get a leg up in freelance editing!
If you’re not a grad student, or you want to be more discreet about your transition out of academia, consider taking a certificate program at a university or courses through an editing organization. For copyediting, some of the most well-known certificate programs in North America are UCSD, UW, Simon Frasier University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. These programs range in intensity and cost (the latter two being more expensive as I understand it); most offer online, asynchronous classes. These courses train you in the technical skills that you need to perform the duties of a copyeditor, as well as the credibility to get better-paid clients.
For more specialized areas of editing, like academic developmental editing or proofreading, consider courses like those offered through one of the many editing organizations: the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (EFA), the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), Editors Canada, and others. The more experience you can get in a course the better, so, unless you’re just dipping your toe in, opt for multipart or multisession offerings over one-off classes or workshops.
Individual, one-on-one mentorship is also an option, though I’d only go this route if you can work with your mentor on projects and get their feedback—and eventually their testimonial or recommendation for future work.
Use all of the above experiences to start building your resume for future projects!
Then get your first clients
Finding paid clients is the toughest part of starting out as an editor. Ask a random group of editors how they get new clients, and my guess is that there will be consensus that more than 50 percent of our business comes from word of mouth (maybe more like 75 percent). Recommendations are everything.
So how do you start getting people to recommend you? Start with your existing networks. Let them know that you’re now taking individual clients and offer your services to those who might need it. Use any experience you’ve had in the past as a selling point—mentoring grad students, service on an academic journal, even your own publishing record.
In my own case, I expanded my business into academic editing starting with my own grad school cohort: I sent an email to the student listserv advertising my services and inviting them to pass on the word to anyone they knew who might be interested. I also accepted a few low-paid jobs that were posted on a community email list that weren’t in my field but were attached to a big-name foundation that I could add to my resume.
If you need to, you can even volunteer to get some projects under your belt. However, before jumping into any unpaid opportunity, weigh how passionate you are about the cause and how many connections you’ll make versus the amount of time it will take you to complete. It’s not impossible to start getting clients simply by offering a discount, rather than working for free.
From there, you’ll also need to do some marketing—setting up a website, engaging on social media, making profiles on the above associations’ websites, etc. Marketing is key to getting new clients outside of your existing network and it takes a lot of work (and investment)!
Be realistic about your business growth potential
By this point, you might be wondering how to establish your rates. Great question! There are a lot of resources out there about this, and it varies widely depending on your experience, subject area expertise, geographic location, and other factors. Start by speaking with others in your field to get an idea and, at least to start, you might consult the EFA rate chart (this chart skews low, so it’s good for beginners). Don’t expect to start near the top if you don’t have the experience to back it up, but also don’t do a disservice to other editors by trying to undercut everyone else. This field is much more collegial and supportive than academia, as you’ll soon see, so it’s in your best interest to treat your “colleagues” with respect from the beginning.
Finally, when you’re starting out, be realistic about how much experience and skills you bring to the table, but don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of, either. Also, be realistic about how quickly you can build a solid client base—at least enough to coast on, if not book out your schedule. In my own case, it took about three years before I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d have enough clients to break even financially.
In my next post, I’ll go further into details about the mechanics of setting yourself up to run a business and establishing long-term success.
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.
About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.