A freelance editing service is like any other business: It sells products people want. When I got started, I sat up nights for months fretting over what I had to sell.

Inside of a sporting goods store

What have you got to sell? You won't need enough products to fill a sporting goods store, but you need something people want to buy.

After all, I built newspaper pages for 20 years — editing copy, designing pages, selecting photos, writing headlines, wrangling with pagination systems. Newspapers had a problem: They needed people who could ram pages to the press room in a hurry. Their solution: Hire me (and all my pals in the biz).

A harsh reality slapped me on Day One of my freelance life: The only obvious market for my skills was a failing industry selling stuff people don’t want anymore.

I reassured myself that because writers need editors like cars need shock absorbers, there will always be a demand for what I do. So I started sending query letters to outfits like local marketing agencies that I figured might hire editors, asking, essentially, “hey, if you ever need an editor, could you drop me a line?” It was good exercise, I suppose, but it didn’t earn me a nickel.

Why this almost never works: Simply telling people your service exists makes about as much sense as the owner of a gas station e-mailing all his neighbors with news that refined petroleum products are available nearby. Somebody opens that e-mail and thinks, “Hey, Bud, I pass seven gas stations on the way to work. What makes you think you’re so damned special?”

Getting special

My first Verb Nerd editing gig (an association for fitness professionals) emerged by pure luck: I got hired by an old friend who had projects coming up. Then I started pitching other professional associations, which at least got me a lot of “we’ll let you know” and “you’re on our list if we need any.”

After awhile it occurred to me I was doing something special, perhaps even unique, for my pal at the fitness association: cleaning up the often cluttered, disorganized prose of people who had decades of experience in their chosen fields. They are all incredibly smart and passionate about their life’s work; they just aren’t professional writers.

Bringing their work up to print-publication standards wasn’t difficult for me, but it was time-consuming. So I started thinking: What editor with an entire magazine to worry about has two hours to burn shaping up a single column?

Finally, a product to pitch

I cooked up the Mangan Cure for Mangled Copy by boiling everything down to two essentials: the problem and the solution.

Then it was just a matter of creating a mental image of the person most likely to buy it. That was easy: I just pictured my editor at the fitness association dealing with 947 daily catastrophes and imagined I could take at least one train-wreck off her to-do list.

But did it sell?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves: a product will not sell if the buyer doesn’t know it exists. That’s marketing, which is another entire article.

Here’s an editing product that did sell: A couple years ago I had a freelance gig working for a guy who edited his way into a full-time job: He came across a financial newsletter that he found interesting, but felt like it’d be much more successful if the author had an editor to polish his prose.

He essentially wrote the newsletter author and told him he sure could use an editor. The author’s response: “Yeah? Prove it.”

So my guy reworked one of the author’s newsletters and before he knew it, he had a full-time editing job and ended up co-writing a book for the author.

While my guy didn’t have a formal product, he had the next best thing: knowledge of something the author truly needed and the ability to provide it. Of course the prospect must be able to pay for the product and you must be able to produce it at a profit; those, too, are sticky issues that deserve an article to themselves.

The take-away from this article is to start thinking about your freelance editing business as a collection of products, each one solving the distinct problems of a specific kind of client.

With a product, you’ve got something far more tangible than “hey, I’m a fine editor who has worked for all these great publications.” You’ve got something to sell, and there’s no business without it.