What It Takes to Be a Freelance Editor

Image: wooden stick with a carrot hanging from the tip.

Today’s post is by Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir).

You should be an editor.

Perhaps someone’s said it to you. Perhaps, after volunteering to critique a friend’s book, reading for hours, and writing 2,000 words of feedback (more than you both bargained for), you’ve said to yourself:

I should be an editor.

You love reading, right? And you’re really good with grammar and spelling. Maybe you even have an English degree or an MFA. What else do you need?

Curiosity, education, and ruthlessness.

An editor’s number-one asset is curiosity.

Not just double-checking facts or looking up info for the manuscript they’re working on right now, but a constant, lifelong level of I need to know.

I recently edited an essay that quoted King Lear’s Cordelia. It was a great line—“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”—but it didn’t mean what the author thought it did. The quote did not support her point. I didn’t have time to reread King Lear and perform textual analysis, as I’d budgeted 30 minutes for this edit. I already knew it, because I’ve seen Lear four times. Fact-checking wasn’t even officially part of this job, but the essay was fundamentally flawed without that existing knowledge.

I’ve always been curious about Shakespeare. And law school. And the oceanic geology of East Asia. And the workflow of commercial kitchens. And dressage. And, and, and. I’ve never met a fact I didn’t want to know. Eventually, most of them come in handy.

Editing successfully requires constant education.

Not just retaining facts, but following trends in genres and in publishing. Even ten years ago, self-publishing was a sucker’s game. Now it can be a legit way to publish, maybe even make money. But it’s not right for every author, and they need someone to tell them why it will or won’t work. An editor must be able to say, “Your teen vampire novel is well-written but there’s nothing fresh. How can you stand out from the crowd? Let’s brainstorm.” Or, “Your category romance needs a Happily-Ever-After or Happy-For-Now ending. Your book will disappoint readers unless you fix that.”

Editors must stay current on tools, too. Grammarly is a toy scooter to PerfectIt!’s Mercedes. Word has hidden tricks to double your editing speed. You’ve got to make sure your work always, always saves itself.

Most of all, educate yourself about writing. What makes a sentence sing on the page? Look at a favorite moment of your favorite book. Can you describe what mechanically makes it powerful? Here’s mine, from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls:

We tilt our heads back and open wide. The snow drifts into our zombie mouths crawling with grease and curses and tobacco flakes and cavities and boyfriend/girlfriend juice, the stain of lies. For one moment we are not failed tests and broken condoms and cheating on essays; we are crayons and lunch boxes and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the clouds. For one breath everything feels better.

Then it melts.

The bus drivers rev their engines and the ice cloud shatters. Everyone shuffles forward. They don’t know what just happened. They can’t remember.

Gorgeous. First, bad thing, bad thing, bad thing that most readers personally, viscerally understand, and are immediately present for the protagonist. In the same sentence, good thing, good thing, good thing that is also a good feeling. We’re connected to those, too. Anderson’s rhythm pairs three and three, sustaining that last phrase just a little longer. Our sneakers punch holes in the clouds is aspirational. A dream we’ve all had. Anderson lets us rest for a moment in the beauty of aspiration with a paragraph break; lets us—and the narrator—feel better. Then three tight syllables take it all away.

Editors must be ruthless.

What makes that sentence above true to the narrator’s voice?

Is this the right place in the book to show her desperate to return to the simplicity of childhood, and to tear the reader’s heart that she can’t?

Because no matter how beautiful the writing is, if a sentence doesn’t fit the character or the story, it’s gotta go.

Many early-career authors use their elevated Special Writer Voice, and their editors must challenge them not to make their words “better” or “more polished,” but more truthful to the author’s own voice.

Purely nurturing feedback is unhelpful. Straight criticism is discouraging. An editor must identify what’s wrong, clarify why it must be fixed, and excite the author to do the work. Editors must inflict the pain of “It’s not good enough, yet.” I’ve told more than one author to cut their first 50 pages. That’s painful! What I say about their work must ring so true that they trust me enough to endure that pain, for the sake of a better next draft.

One more thing …

Lifelong curiosity. Persistent self-education. Ruthless support.

But to make even a part-time living as an editor, you’ve must be able to do all this quickly.

Editing is expensive. (Yes, Fiverr editors are charging $50 to “edit” a whole book, and authors most assuredly get what they pay for.) Billing in four figures looks amazing, but your hourly rate depends on how fast you can (effectively) work. If a $3,000 developmental edit takes 50 hours, that’s barely enough for a freelancer to pay themselves and their health insurance, taxes and overhead, and at $1,000 you might as well work in an office where at least they pay for the coffee.

You should be an editor.

If it still sounds appealing, give it a shot. Practice on your friends for free; start cultivating authors whose manuscripts will be ready when your skills are. I took three years to hit my editorial stride. If you’d like a bit of a shortcut, this fall I’m teaching the framework of a developmental editing business: what, exactly, you do; how to do it faster; and getting people to pay you fairly for your curiosity, education, and ruthlessness.

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