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Rosemary Shipton

Succeeding as a Freelancer

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The key to a successful freelance business is a steady supply of projects. First, decide how many hours a week you’d like to work — 20, 40 billable hours? — and then set out to achieve your goal. Your professional life and income will become almost predictable. Here are some suggestions.

Develop a strong client base

If you have only one or two clients, you’re sunk when they experience a downturn or your contacts there move on. Security comes with numbers. With multiple clients you’ll have too many projects at times, but you can work long hours or share the load with trusted colleagues.

Get a variety of clients

Different kinds of clients pay different rates for editing/writing/communications. It’s generally recognized that corporations offer the highest pay, followed by governments, indie authors, non-profit organizations, and publishers. If you love editing manuscripts selected by trade or scholarly publishers, balance them with a few reports or other well-paid but less interesting assignments.

Include one ongoing project in your mix

A multitude of short, one-off projects means a lot of searching and administrative work for you. Try to find one steady project that you’re responsible for — such as a scholarly journal, magazine, newsletter, report or other publication that appears regularly. The schedule will clash with your own plans on occasion, but, again, arrange for a colleague to take over in your absence.

Market yourself strategically

In recent years the number of in-house jobs with traditional publishers (newspapers, magazines, book publishers of all stripes) has declined. There are ample opportunities for freelance work — with established and indie authors alike — but the competition for attractive projects can be fierce. If you’re new to the business, you’ll need to get yourself known through an impressive website, online connections and skillful networking in editors’ and writers’ groups.

Develop multiple skills

The more professional services you offer, the more attractive you will be to clients. Today, most print and online publications use only one editor, so it’s not enough to offer copy editing alone. To be fair to your clients, you need the full set of substantive, stylistic and copy editing (see “Twelve-Step Editing”). And why stop there? Many editors are also writers and so can add rewriting, ghostwriting and researching to the mix. Others combine indexing, proofreading or design/layout services. As university and college courses proliferate, along with seminars, workshops and webinars, more and more professionals are becoming teachers, too.

Train for success

How do freelancers develop new skills? That’s difficult, now that many will never work on staff and have the advantages of experienced colleagues and in-house training. The obvious ways are to take courses, read books and articles, and participate in online chats. But how can editors know when they have reached an acceptable professional level? I have three suggestions:

1/ Register for a graded classroom or online course at a well-regarded university or college. There you should expect good assignments drawn from real manuscripts and helpful, personalized comments from your instructor.

2/ Try to arrange a mentorship with a gifted editor to shadow edit a long, challenging manuscript (“Mentoring”). You’ll get invaluable experience and have a “master” edit to compare with your own work.

3/ Never turn down an opportunity that excites you. It may seem scary, you may not feel up to the task, but find an experienced coach and do it well. You’ll never regret that breakthrough.


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Those Unpublishable Manuscripts.

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About the author

Rosemary Shipton

Rosemary Shipton edits trade, scholarly and art books as well as commission of inquiry reports. From 1990 to 2007 she was the founding academic coordinator of the publishing program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

7 Comments on “Succeeding as a Freelancer”

  • Anita Jenkins


    All there in a nutshell. I agree with everything you say, Rosemary.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      You are wonderfully supportive, Anita, as ever. But surely some readers have other suggestions to make? Please join the discussion. And how are you all finding the freelance world in 2017? Is it better than in previous years, with more work available and more interesting projects? Or is it more challenging?

  • Mary MacDonald-LaPrade


    Rosemary, it would be helpful if you could talk about the number of administrative hours (non-billable) that must accompany the billable hours. For example, if I decide to work 40 billable hours per week, how many administrative hours should I expect to work on top of that?

    Thank you.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      A good question, Mary. When you’re working on a project, the editing as well as all the other tasks that belong to it – communication with the author and others via email, correspondence, phone, or meetings – are billable hours. The time you spend on organizing, promoting, and running your business in general is not billable hours to a client. That time would include setting up your office, buying and maintaining equipment, advertising your services, dealing with inquiries and estimates, sending out invoices, and paying your taxes, HST, and other bills.

      Once you’re well established as an editor, your hours tend to be filled by returning clients and by referrals, so you don’t have to spend much time in soliciting work. On the contrary, your hours are filled to the maximum. The other administrative tasks take, on average, maybe five hours a week. I suspect that the balance shifts for editors who are new to the freelance world – unless they have a previous employer who now hires them frequently on contract.

  • Anita Jenkins


    I always preferred to estimate for a job as a whole, as opposed to getting paid by the hour, because most clients simply do not understand that your hourly rate has to cover your overhead (equipment and office costs), vacation pay, health care, professional development costs and on and on). They divide their annual salaries by about 1800 hours a year and think this is a reasonable hourly rate for a contractor or consultant. Of course it is not. To avoid saying that my hourly rate is $100, I preferred to say, “This editing project – which will include the following tasks – will cost $4000.”

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Estimate up front works well if I’m offered a complete manuscript ready to be edited. So often, though, I’m brought in at the concept stage of development of very large projects, and my tasks may include project management as well the edit (and possibly research and writing). In that case, I have two options: to charge by billable hours; or to estimate based on a set of clearly listed tasks and assumptions, with the proviso that the estimate will change if the project expands or contracts.

  • To my mind nowadays freelancing becomes more challenging and competitive, as a lot of people are trying to make money online.

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