Despite my warnings about the long and lonesome road to a life in freelance editing, you’ve gone ahead and notched your first editing client. To keep things simple, let’s imagine your former editor at the Daily Bugle has penned his memoirs and has hired you to edit them at a set fee.

(Finding clients, figuring out what to charge and getting everything under contract are the three biggest bugaboos for editors; I’ll save that for a day when I’m feeling more ambitious.)

Before you fix your first dangling participle as a professional editor, you’ve got to get your head in the freelance game. The physical work may be the same, but it’s whole new factory floor.

Bosses vs. clients

“The first thing I learned as a freelancer was the difference between a ‘boss’ and a ‘client,’ ” said Dave Alluisi of Green Ink Edits in Charlottesville, Virginia. When somebody else is the boss, you do whatever it takes to keep the boss happy.

“I made the mistake during my first few months as a freelancer of treating my clients like bosses,” Alluisi told me. “It couldn’t be further from the truth; clients are clients, and you are your boss. You’re in charge of finding the work, of promising results, of establishing the timeline during which those results will be delivered. You’re in charge of quality control, of vacations, of payroll, all of it.”

Clients won’t act like your old boss did. They aren’t writing your performance review, you’re not a cog in their deluded schemes for corporate domination. You’re just somebody they’re paying to finish a project.

“Most of my clients so far have been very non-boss-like,” Alluisi said. “They’re chummy, they don’t need to look over your shoulder, and they’re happy to pay you — as soon as you invoice them. Clients don’t typically want to micromanage you or keep you on task, they want to hand their problem to you and then forget about it for a few days while they carry on with the other 20 things they have to get done.” (Alluisi tweets at @GreenInkEdits.)

Don’t leave your first gig to chance

If you’ve done any online research into freelance editing, you should’ve run across the website of Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, also known as EditorMom. O’Moore-Klopf, who tweets at@KOKEdit, squeezed her best advice for first-timers into two tweets:

“You must ask enough questions to determine project parameters and to be able to do the job to the client’s satisfaction. Ask, ask, ask.

“The other thing you must absolutely do: Keep the client informed during the project about any glitches. Do not maintain radio silence.”

(KOK Edit’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base is a must read.)

Style and authority

So you’re an old Associated Press Stylebook hand, while your boss’s memoirs are in the Chicago Manual of Style. Both are online; buying the subscriptions is mandatory (sorry, but as an indie you need the productivity boost from a searchable database).

It’ll be easy to get your hands on a client-specific stylesheet. The client’s tolerance for exceptions to it is another matter.

“While many publishers allow deviations from, say, Chicago style as long as the material is consistent, those same publishers may not allow deviations from house style,” said Patti Bower, a freelance book editor in Baltimore. “Always ask before deviating from house style. If the publisher has included a report, transmittal memo, or cover letter detailing specific items that need attention, read it, and then read it again. That seems like such a simple thing, but when I worked in-house as a production editor, I could always tell which freelancers hadn’t read my instructions.”

If you think that’s complicated, imagine establishing boundaries on your editing authority. Madness will ensue if these issues aren’t hammered out on Day One.

“Keep in mind that your client will have a budget and a schedule,” Bower said. “If they have hired you for a light copy edit, don’t be a hero and give them a substantive edit instead.”

Doing more than you’ve been hired for can gum up the works for everybody. “Additional editing could create a completely wigged out-author who now needs an extra two weeks for review, which will mean the book won’t be available for the conference and the publisher will lose sales on the title for which you’ve now blown the editing budget,” Bower said.

“At this point no one will remember that you’ve made the book sooo much better. They’ll only remember that the budget and schedule were blown and the author sat at a table with a poster of the book jacket but no copies to sign and sell.”

Applying your ‘secret sauce’

I asked editor Dawn McIlvain Stahl of Monticello, Illinois, how she’d approach this mythical first gig. Her advice:

“If I’ve just earned my very first freelance editing assignment, I will certainly feel the need to go above and beyond. As counterintuitive as it seems to a perfectionist copy editor like myself, my first step is to control that feeling!

“This project is not about demonstrating every editing trick in my arsenal,” she said. Stick to the client’s playbook, and use a checklist to make sure you’ve nailed down every style detail.

McIlvain Stahl’s “secret sauce” is to figure out how she can smooth out any wrinkles in the production process. That means writing specific, friendly notes to the author or editor, and cleaning up the document for typesetting.

“Having been on the project-manager end of things, I can attest to the power of this secret sauce. But it can’t be used arrogantly. If specific instructions are given, they must be followed exactly, even if other methods seem better. It’s a first project — there will be plenty of opportunities in the future to share ‘better methods.’ ” McIlvain Stahl tweets at @PurplePenning.

Why you have to be flexible

While you have to follow your client’s marching orders, you can’t forget that clients are trying to do what’s best for their business, not yours.

“Just because you signed an agreement with a client promising you’ll meet all of their deadlines doesn’t mean they will meet all of their deadlines,” Alluisi said. Accept the shifting sands of their business as a reminder of who’s running your business.

“Maybe you were counting on editing that ad copy for three hours on Friday, or on writing that website copy for at least 20 hours next week. It doesn’t always work out that way,” Alluisi said. “As the boss, you don’t want to overbook yourself, but you can’t wait around for the clients you have to drop infrequent work into your lap. It’s your responsibility to keep yourself busy with work, to put in the time finding new clients, no matter how busy you are (or, more likely, think you are).”

And the other thing you must do on Day One? Start thinking about Day Two.

“Freelancing means you are, now and forever, unemployed,” Alluisi said. “You have to treat every single day like a job hunt, whether you’re offered a great new gig or not. If you freelance long enough, and get good enough at it, then maybe you’ll start to find that most of your new work comes from referrals, but I would bet even those lucky few still trawl for clients every day. Because that’s what being your own boss really means.”

Thanks to my sources:

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