How to Get Started Freelance Editing

My very first editing client was a man named Dr. Northouse, a guest at the hotel where I worked during my sophomore year of college. Every day during his extended stay he would come to the front desk and ask me to fax pages of his book to his editor. We’d talk while waiting for the fax confirmation. One day he asked what degree I was earning; I said English. He asked what I wanted to do with a degree in English; I told him I wanted to be a book editor.

“Why don’t you take a stab at the new chapter in my book?” he asked.

I spent the rest of my shift neglecting the hotel while I edited his pages. Then I slipped them under his door along with a thank you note that probably read more like an apology.

The next day he came down to the desk and pulled up a stool to chat. He said he loved my edits. He thought they were spot on. One of the suggestions had stumped him, though, so he had called his editor in New York and asked him about it. His editor said, “Yeah. She’s right about that.” (A little reluctantly, apparently, since he had already edited the chapter. I’ll always be thankful that the editor was secure enough to admit he had missed something!)

Mr. Northouse gave me a check for $25 and thanked me for my services, but then he did me one better: he recommended me to his colleagues and students. Every year or so I get a message from Mr. Northouse. “Hi, Joy. Are you still editing? I have a friend…”

I’ve been editing for ten years, and the only time I ever took an editing test was for a job with a university. I did finish that degree in English, but no one (except me) ever seems to care! The formula for getting started as a freelance editor (or a freelance anything, probably) is simple: Tell people what you do, and do it well.

My fear-based instinct would have been to reverse that formula, but then I never would have gotten started.

Joy Neal