Behind the Scenes of Freelance Editing: 10 Facts From Sylvia Spratt

This post was originally published at The Poetics Project by Missy Lacock.

Let’s face it: If you’re reading this blog, you love writing and reading—and probably wouldn’t mind a paycheck for doing it. Enter freelance editing, just one of the many positions available to talented bookworms. Sylvia Spratt, cofounder of Ex Libris Editing, a two-person editorial firm based in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, agreed to share ten behind-the-scenes facts with The Poetics Project about operating a freelance editing business.

Consider founding a company, partnership, or informal collective.

Although Sylvia has been editing in some capacity for around ten years, she decided to cofound her LLC two and half years ago with her friend and business partner, Sarah Heilman.

What’s the advantage of forming an LLC instead of maintaining sole proprietorship?

“Increasing consumer confidence,” Sylvia said. Some clients feel more secure working with a company instead of hiring an individual. “We collaborate on marketing, and we have the legal protection of a company, even though we take on most of our projects individually,” Sylvia said. “We also wanted room to grow in the future, which is why we settled on an LLC.”

The hard part? “Remembering to get out of your PJ’s when you’re working from home!”

Be prepared to take tests.

It’s not always as simple as finding a manuscript to edit; editors often undergo regular testing to prove they’re worth the expense—especially for larger clients. Test materials usually cover grammar and style, especially where less-common style guides such as AMA Style (for the medical sphere) and IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) are concerned. The tests are usually timed for acceptable ranges and completed using track changes in Microsoft Word.

Most clients are referred by word of mouth.

Networking and positive referrals are key to consistent freelance employment. However, freelancers can also find editing gigs by combing sites like bookjobs or mediabistro, or, for a yearly fee, by joining the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Businesses still hire copyeditors.

More and more businesses are utilizing freelancers to help cut costs, but Sylvia said in-house office jobs for editors definitely still exist at ad agencies, PR firms, publishing houses (but they’re extremely competitive), universities, and even local giants like Nike and adidas.

Be multi-skilled.

More positions are combining creative jobs, like designing and editing.

“People are being asked to do more for less,” Sylvia said. That’s why certain programs, like the publishing program Sylvia graduated from at Portland State University, are valuable. The PSU program maintains its own student-run publishing house, Ooligan Press. “You graduate with an array of skills [from multi-disciplinary programs like Ooligan].”

Sylvia’s advice: diversify. “Lots of people want to edit,” she said. “It’s a great job and it’s fun. But, if you can find the time and motivation, verse yourself in another complimentary field or two that you’re interested in like coding, copywriting, e-books, InDesign, website design, or marketing. Make yourself stand out. It’s tough to make yourself be seen as a valuable asset to a potential employer if you’re standard answer to the inevitable why-do-you-want-this-job question is, ‘I love reading.’ Great. So does everyone else! What makes you special?”

Rates vary.

Sylvia generally charges in accordance with Editorial Freelancers Association rates, as she and Sarah are both members, but negotiating is part of freelancing. Rates also depend on the region and the freelancer’s experience, and sometimes paychecks can be less than impressive. Content mills and bid-driven sites are especially low paying, primarily because editing can be a saturated market, and sites like oDesk and Elance are utilized by contributors from countries where US dollars have a high exchange rate. This often means that it’s very easy to get outbid by editors willing to work for much less than industry standard, Sylvia said. In general, however, freelancers should stick to their guns and counter higher rates with higher quality. “It’s hard to take jobs that don’t pay well because you need the work, but sometimes it’s necessary,” Sylvia said. “Accepting underpaying jobs is bad for everybody, though. If you can stick with it and charge what your work and time is worth, that’s always better in the long run.”

The life of the freelancer is not for the weak of heart.

“You’re constantly juggling work, promoting yourself, and looking for work,” Sylvia said. “I’m not a low-anxiety person, so sometimes I wonder if this is the job for me,” she laughed. “I’m a big fan of stability, and we’re still working on the ‘stable’ part of the equation.”

Since freelancing doesn’t include loping into the office for that day’s batch of assignments, freelancers must supply their own work. “If you’re lucky, you have a few steady customers from whom you can count on projects far out in advance, but sometimes they don’t have anything for you and you operate on a month-to-month or even week-to-week basis,” Sylvia said. “The key is to not get paralyzed by that fear when things dry up. It’s a good idea to save and to have a backup plan for income in emergencies.” Those considering freelancing should also remember it’s a job without benefits like health insurance and retirement plans (although there are creative collectives and other organizations that offer things like this, and many freelancers are insured through their spouses/family members).

Work at home without being at home.

Working from home is a blessing and a curse. While it’s nice to wander into your own kitchen at lunchtime, “it’s really hard to stay at home all day,” Sylvia said. Working at home on your own schedule takes enormous discipline.

Sylvia’s tips? “Set physical boundaries. Try not to work in bed. Work at a desk or table, and take a lunch break. Separate your life from your work as much as possible.”

Three keys to successful freelancing.

1. Keep up with what’s going on. “It’s easy to become a recluse as a freelancer,” Sylvia said. Stay active and involved in your literary community, both locally and nationally/internationally.

2. Help people. “That’s one of my favorite things about the creative community in Portland. Instead of being at everyone’s throats, we spread the word and recommend people. It’s very supportive.”

3. Sylvia’s number-one piece of advice: “Make and keep friends! When people say ‘network,’ that’s what they really mean—not just going to an event and standing around with a margarita blinking at people, which I’ve definitely done my fair share of. Be genuine. Be interested. Care about other people.”

If it works, it’s worth it.

Despite its drawbacks, freelance editing can still be the way to go. “The perks have so far outweighed the pitfalls,” Sylvia said. “I love it…eliminating split infinitives and chasing down errant ellipses,” Sylvia said. “Not everyone gets why, but that doesn’t matter. I’m happy with it.”

We get it, Sylvia. We get it.

If you need a qualified editor for your manuscript or other editing project, check out Ex Libris and spread the word.


About Ex Libris Editing

Editorial services catering to the diverse creative communities of the West Coast and beyond.
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