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Letitia Henville

How (And Why) I Developed a Digital Tool for My Freelance Clients — And Then Gave It Away for Free

Illustration of man, eyes closed, sitting cross-legged, zen-like, in front of a laptop, while papers fly around him.
Copyright: sirichoke

This past June, I launched a new digital tool for academic writers — my preferred clients — at This tool enables academics to compare features of their own writing with the features of a writing sample of their choice. For instance, users could see whether they write sentences that are, on average, longer or shorter than their most influential colleagues do — or whether they use the passive voice more, or the first-person less, and so on.

The path I took to developing this tool wasn’t easy; the site exists because of five and a half months of work, an additional eight months of planning, a team of six people and a substantial quantity of grant funding. In this post, I’ll share how I developed this tool, how I accessed the resources needed to build it and why you might want to make a digital tool or resource of your own.

How I made my digital tool

In 2021, I co-founded an academic editing mastermind group with my colleagues Drs. Cath Ennis, Cara Jordan and Jennifer Quincey. As freelancers, we were at similar stages in our careers — comfortable and confident as editors, but needing accountability in figuring out the business practices that fit our values and lives. From working with this group, I determined that I wanted to develop a digital tool similar to some others I’d seen online (my favourite being Count Wordsworth), but tailored to the needs of my clients: academics.

I knew that many academics struggled with writing well. Even my own PhD in an English department hadn’t taught me the techniques to make paragraphs flow or to easily reduce word count. I also felt that a lot of writing advice out there for academics was sub-par — because it was, for instance, too quick to discount disciplinary conventions, the value of jargon or the instances in which passive voice can be perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, my own one-on-one editing services couldn’t bring about broad, systemic change in academic writing. I needed something that could work at scale. And so the idea behind was born.

I sketched paper mock-ups of the website I wanted to build and emailed a few trusted colleagues (and one or two total strangers) to ask them if they knew what qualifications someone might need to be able to build the tool that I imagined. I planned on hiring a graduate student — either a computer scientist or a computational linguist — to transform my paper sketches into a functioning tool.

The truth is, I love working with students, and with masters and doctoral students specifically. Since I first hired a student in January 2021, I’ve recognized the value that student staff can bring to my business — even when I’m not hiring trainee editors. I ended up finding my employee-to-be, Logan Born, by searching Simon Fraser University’s computational linguistics pages. Logan and I worked together to transform my sketches into a beta website, drawing on his expertise in natural language processing, and my experience with academic writers’ needs and writing patterns.

I also hired Michaela Dunn to design the site and Andrea Kampen to run UX/UI testing on the beta site, ensuring it was intuitive and easy to use. A fourth student, Ky Kim, made videos for the site as a part of a larger contract, and my trainee copy editor, Ali Cayetano, copy edited the site text and made illustrations of the core team’s headshots for our “About” page.

I was incredibly proud of the site we ultimately developed, When I shared a screenshot of the homepage on LinkedIn, it received over 10,000 views in under a week — the closest I’ve ever come to a viral post.

Earlier this summer, I launched the site, announcing it first to subscribers of my newsletter, The Shortlist, and a week later through my advice column, Ask Dr. Editor. At the time of writing, the site had been officially live for only three days, but it has already received over 4,000 views. I couldn’t be more excited to have built something that people seem to find useful.

These few paragraphs may make the process seem straightforward in retrospect, but in truth, took many hours to develop, test, revise and improve — many hours, the support of friends and colleagues who gave their time and perspective in a series of focus groups and interviews, and thousands of dollars in grant funding.

Why you should develop your own digital tool or resource

While the costs associated with building something like are significant, I’m proud to have brought into the world a tool that I think will bring substantial value to the kinds of people I support — including academics who might never be able to afford my time one on one. I don’t feel great about only being able to support academics who are already well resourced, and allows me to provide a long-term service with only a short-term outlay of time and resources.

Making available for free aligns with my personal and political values, and may also serve as a marketing strategy if users connect the name of the site with my business name, Writing Short is Hard. The interest in on LinkedIn speaks to the value in a strategic approach to marketing. People are attracted to people and to businesses who work to provide accessible solutions to the problems they want solved. At worst, this tool will be valuable to the folks who find it and use it; at best, it will also raise awareness of my business and respect for the expertise that professional editors bring to their work.

If you don’t have access to thousands of dollars in grants or five brilliant students, how might you adapt this approach in marketing your own business? One option: consider developing digital resources, rather than tools, that your clients will find valuable. Free-write, doodle, or brainstorm options for what your resource might do, and imagine multiple forms it might take: blog post, webinar, infographic, video, app, tin-can phone or whatever other medium may reach your client population. Then, set yourself a six- or twelve-month deadline by which you want to have your resource out in the world. By publishing your resource, you will serve others while building your reputation as a helpful, smart professional who knows what their client population cares about, and who can help them reach their goals.

Then, tell us all what you made via The Editors’ Weekly!


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