Freelance editing is one of the most popular work-at-home careers. After all, many think, how difficult can it be? You learned how to write in the third grade, so how much do you really need to know? Read along. You may be surprised.

Is freelancing the right choice for you?

Before deciding whether to embark upon a new career as a freelance editor, first determine whether freelancing is the right choice for you. Especially for new professionals in the field without an established client base, freelancers cannot count upon a steady paycheck or even an income stream at all. They spend much of their time chasing down projects or gigs, an occupational hazard in the gig economy.

Freelancing requires personal discipline, both to work and to quit working. Just like a “real” job, you must get yourself out of bed to work even when you don’t feel like doing so. You must notify clients of illness or upcoming absence from work, such as a vacation, and then figure out how to rearrange your schedule to accommodate their projects and deadlines. After all, as a freelancer, you no longer have coworkers to whom you can shift your workload during your absence.

A successful freelance professional understands his or her limits with regard how many hours he or she can devote to both paid and unpaid work and the capacity for production. This takes some trial and error, unless you’ve been doing this for a good while in regular employment and have developed a good idea of how long it takes you to edit a standard word count.

Savvy freelancers also understand the wisdom of not devaluing their time or the work they do. Consider the gig economy similar to automotive sales. You know the process of landing gigs will entail some negotiation. The salesman (i.e., you) want to sell the service for as much as possible to gain the most income possible from the project. The buyer (i.e., your prospective client) wants to spend as little as possible and must be convinced that the quality of your service justifies the fee you ask. Unless you have a portfolio of work and list of clients to testify to your credentials and experience, you may find yourself a low-bid freelancer working for less than minimum wage.

Finally, you must determine what type of editing you will provide. It comes as a surprise to many new in the field that editors specialize.

Editor categories

Smart writers know they need editors. They understand that their self-edited manuscripts are not yet ready for public viewing. (Inexperienced writers often learn this lesson in the proverbial School of Hard Knocks & Scathing Reviews.) Freelance editors typically come in basic categories, each performing a different task related to improving an author’s content. Freelance editors come in three general types.

A developmental editor, also known as a structural editor, tackles story ideas still in the rough stage. This type of editor takes a bird’s eye view of the project and advises on improvements to structure, organization, and concept. A developmental editor may also evaluate a finished manuscript, provide a critique of the manuscript, and advise an author on the work needed to turn a diamond in the rough to a polished gem worthy of public view.

A content editor, also called a substantive editor, concerns herself primarily with the clarity and accuracy of the content. This editor suggests improvements in phrasing and rewrites to strengthen the writing and improve the flow. A content editor also identifies discrepancies, inconsistencies, and redundancies. This level of editing concerns style, tone, pacing, flow, and readability.

A copy editor, also known as a line editor and often synonymous with proofreader in the digital age, focuses on the technical competence of the writer. This editor applies an intimate understanding of grammar rules and the standard language conventions that govern good writing to the manuscript. A good copy editor also understands when breaking those rules and conventions is justified and effective.

Freelance editors may offer a combination of services. Many writers do not require development editors and demand that a single editor provides both content editing and copy editing. Of course, editor categories may be broken down into further specialty categories; however, the main three usually suffice for most freelancers and the writers who hire them.

Establishing a business

Once you have determined your category of editing expertise, it’s time to set yourself up as a business professional. Writer’s Edit offers good advice specific to Australian entrepreneurs, but most of it applies to anyone anywhere.

In addition to the general recommendations regarding small business establishment, Writer’s Edit hits one tip that strikes gold: knowing your target client. This meaning determining what kind of documents you want to edit and then figuring out the types of clients who produce those documents. For instance, “If you want to freelance edit books, it’s no good focusing [sic] all your energy on following and tweeting to established authors. You need to target emerging writers and self-published authors–the people who need you!”

Determine your target client by building an ideal client persona. If your focus is on technical documentation, then build a character sheet that describes the types of small businesses you should approach. Someone with expertise or a background in medicine may seek out medical writers, medical journals, medical practices that produce newsletters and informational brochures. A background in business applies to editing business-oriented blogs, website content, proposals, and more. A background in theater, television, or movies works well in assisting screenwriters and playwrights polish their screenplays and scripts.

Content surrounds us and saturates our environment, but it differs in purpose and interest. Targeting your background toward service in a particular niche strengthens your credentials to edit the content directed toward that business interest.

Set your rates

That first client will throw out the money question: how much does it cost? So will every client after that. Newcomers to the industry who don’t have a portfolio or client list that justifies top rates must prove themselves before climbing to the upper echelon of the field. Don’t be surprised by that question.

Many freelance sites, such as Fiverr, Upwork, Freelance.com, Remote, and others, require vendors to bid on projects when submitting their proposals for work. Many buyers leave out critical information in the requests for proposals (RFPs) that freelancers need to calculate fair and accurate bids for work. This is where judgment and experience give savvy freelancers the advantage. Many buyers who frequent these sites seek lowest-bid providers, so higher priced bidders must convince prospective clients of their value at the outset. There’s little or no room for exploratory discussion or negotiation. Oftentimes on such sites, buyers will state that their budgets are firm and any vendor wishing to be considered for the gig must not bid any higher fee. Such RFPs leaving no wiggle room for discussion reveal how much (or little) the prospective client values the service being hired.

In those circumstances, it’s important to develop a consistent base rate. One way to establish a base rate for service is to research industry standards for compensation. The Editorial Freelance Association offers a range of fees by an estimated pace of completion. Rates vary from per-hour to per-word and factor in the editor’s capacity to edit content. How many words per hour can you edit? Use that calculation in figuring your hourly rate.

Writing for ACES: The Society for Editing, Samantha Enslen researched standard metrics for editing production. What she found from various sources that the common metric of six pages per hour held true, assuming that the pages conformed to standard manuscript format. By that standard, six pages equals 1,500 words. Because editing is a deliberative task—the editor doesn’t read so much as analyze every word of the document—it takes a lot of time. A manuscript burdened with poor quality writing takes even more time. Many indie authors don’t know of or understand standard manuscript format, which introduces many unpredictable variables to the project. Differences in font size, spacing, margins, and even page size can double and triple the amount of text on a page. Because of such variation, many editors no longer quote fees by the page, but by the word.

Working with clients

Writers never take an objective view of their own work. As a professional, the editor is obligated to remain objective, even if he loathes the content in front of him. NY Book Editors advises writers on how to work with editors, which includes suggestions on how to choose an editor. This brings up the conundrum of how do you get experience if you can’t get the work? As an editor, you may find it difficult to discern your client’s vulnerabilities. Some clients need editors who serve more as cheerleaders; others want ruthless professionals who don’t mince words. Every editor has strengths and weaknesses as does every writer.

Discovering these nuances entails conversation, remembering that there’s a real person behind the manuscript. Use the phone as well as email, margin comments, and in-line discussion. Understand that the writers you serve will not unilaterally accept or approve the changes you suggest. Don’t take it personally. This is their work, you’re just trying to make it better.