The one certainty of freelance editing is that you will fail for a very long time before you start to succeed. Really, like 18 months to a couple years. Your 15 years on the Daily Bugle copy desk have prepared you only for another 15 years on the Daily Bugle copy desk — and as we all know, the Daily Bugle’s parent company is bankrupt and owned by bankers who are encouraging your bosses to offshore your job to Mumbai.
Yesterday I wrote about getting started as a freelance editor. I described the often bleak landscape a beginner faces but I saved the specific, how-to-get-started details for this post. So here goes:
1) Save up a LOT of money
I banked a year’s living expenses before I started out. A year before that, my wife and I bought a small condo with ridiculously small payments. We even put 20% down so we’d have some equity to borrow against in a pinch.
If you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed and you’re living paycheck to paycheck, I’d advise getting any job you can just to keep some money coming in and work on becoming a freelancer in your spare time (assuming you have any).
If you’re married and your spouse has a job, you’ll have much more wiggle room, but this blessing can become a curse because there’s less urgency to get off your butt and build a business.
2) Figure out where your health insurance is coming from
A lucky minority of freelancers are married to somebody whose job provides health benefits. The rest of us have to suck it up and pay the absurd premiums.
We’re paying over $7,000 a year as a hedge against getting in a car wreck that costs $150,000. If you’re in good health and don’t need prescription drugs, you might be able to save a load with a high-deductible policy that kicks in only when there’s a catastrophe.
3) Study up on small-business tax law
There are a thousand ways to fail in business, and the surest among them is to run afoul of the IRS. Though we think of the IRS as inherently evil, the tax man offers a wealth of info on how to stay out of trouble.
Notice how I’ve written almost 400 words and not mentioned a thing about editing? Get used to that. Once you have actual clients, you can worry about the nitty gritty of where the commas and semicolons belong.
4) Identify everybody you know who loves your work
With any luck you’ll know people who think you’re God’s gift to the editing craft. Chances are they came to this realization because you saved their fanny on deadline a time or two.
They will be the first people who will make a few calls, do some poking around, and send some job tips along.
Contact these people and ask for their help. They’ll be glad to at first. Later, your pleadings for assistance will get on their nerves — that’s when you need to start doing them some favors so they’ll feel obliged to do the same in kind.
5) Identify everybody you know who is a hiring manager
If you’re a graying midlifer like me, lots of your old college chums will have risen to positions of influence in the publishing business. Ask them all whether they hire freelance editors.
That’s how I got my first regular client. Bear in mind that most won’t have any work for you at the moment — this is no different than a friend offering to buy you lunch when you’ve just eaten. You don’t need anything now, but you will at some time in the future.
If they answer “we hire freelancers now and then,” make a note of it and drop fresh hints of your availability every six weeks or so.
6) Make sure everybody who ever hired you knows you’re looking for freelance work
This means going back to all your old bosses and making sure they know you’re looking for gigs. Chances are they know people in publishing who hire freelancers.
Remember, your old bosses plucked you from their pile of resumes and they have a strong vested interest in believing they decided wisely. Your getting in touch with them again reminds of them of their wisdom of years past (well, it should).
Furthermore, if you’ve done any freelancing in the past, all your previous clients need to know you’re back in the game. Often you’ll be their first choice when new work comes up.
7) Prepare yourself for months of loneliness and desperation
The first six months will be a holy terror. The second six months might be marginally better.
Most of your pitches will go nowhere. You’ll see hundreds of ads and apply for the gigs where you’re convinced there could not possibly be anyone better suited. You will not get them.
Your emails will disappear into the ether and you’ll have no idea whether they were ignored for cause or got caught in a spam filter.
You’ll visit discussion sites for freelancers where everybody else is working nights and weekends while you’ve gone days or weeks without any paid work.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is that as an editor, you are a professional finder of fault. There will be much to fault about your initial forays in this business, and you won’t be able to blame your failures on anybody but that face in the mirror.
So why even put yourself through all this? In my case, it’s to prove that the skills I honed for a generation still have value. They do — it’s just a matter of me connecting with the people who need them. They’re out there. I’m finding them.
It’s not easy, but nothing worth having ever is.