Brian answers: Advice to an editor

The first question comes from blog reader backstorycat, who writes:

Hey Brian!
I’m a new editor trying to break into the publishing business. I’ve been freelancing pro gratis for several years now, and am currently applying to a few publishing houses. I’ve already taken a few post-graduate classes in editing and completed an internship. Unfortunately it’s a tough job market, and I’m beginning to lose heart. Any advice?

Hi! Thanks for the question.

First, I should mention that I’ve only been editing professionally for about two years myself. The very beginning of my editing journey was in February 2015, when I signed up for a subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. It wasn’t until June 2015 that I landed my first paying job, and even that offered a very modest salary.

So this may be the blind leading the blind, to some extent. And probably some of my advice is stuff you’re already doing. But here we go.

First, you said you’ve been freelancing pro gratis, for free. Have you tried freelancing pro [I don’t know Latin] money? That might be a good intermediate step, a way to build a solid professional resume that can help you land a bigger job. Or you might find that you like freelancing and want to keep doing that full-time. Many people do.

There are a lot of ways to ramp up your freelancing. Talk to your past clients, and see if they have any paying projects, or know anyone who does. Do some searching and find indie authors, and cold-email them to offer your services. As for publishers, you might want to start small — there’s an enormous searchable database of small presses, and again, don’t be afraid to send out emails offering to edit for them. I’m not saying you should spam, of course. Do your research, choose your targets, tailor each email to its audience. But cast a wide net.

You say you’ve taken classes and done an internship, which is great. You might consider joining the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). Membership is a bit steep, but I’ve found it very useful, and it looks good on a resume. If you’re a copyeditor, consider joining ACES. I belong to both, and I’ve found the EFA to be the more useful of the two, but ACES is cheaper and also looks good on a resume. Both offer a variety of networking and job-hunting opportunities, among other things.

Since you’re relatively new and relatively inexperienced, consider doing free sample edits. Many editors scorn this practice, saying that their time is valuable and they should always get paid, whether it’s for sample edits or taking editing tests or anything else. Well, my time is valuable too, and I’ve gotten a number of paying jobs that way, so in my opinion, it’s worth it for less-experienced editors. Or, from the client’s point of view — why should they take a chance on an unknown editor of uncertain ability, without some proof of their skills?

I’d also suggest becoming a jack-of-all-trades. The more skills you have, the more job opportunities there are. If a client wants me to do something that I’m not currently qualified to do, my standard response is, “I haven’t done that before, but I’d love to learn.” If you specialize in Chicago style, try picking up AP or APA. Never fact-checked before? Give it a shot. Not sure how to edit Australian English? No time like the present. As long as you’re (1) open and honest about your lack of experience, and (2) willing to spend the time on research and do the best job you possibly can, it’s a win-win.

Of course, you also want to be sure that your core editing skills are very, very strong. If you’re a copyeditor: Read your preferred style guide cover to cover and take notes, if you haven’t already. You should have an opinion about when to use “judgment” vs. “judgement,” and “toward” vs. “towards,” and “gray” vs. “grey,” and “blond” vs. “blonde,” to name only a few. You should have a strong opinion about whether it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions, and whether the singular “they” is acceptable, and whether it’s all right to use “literally” as an intensifier. In other words, when you take an editing test, you want to be confident that you can not only pass, but impress.

If you’re an American editor — and maybe even if you’re a non-American editor — you really should have a copy of Garner’s Modern English Usage. If you have a dictionary, but you don’t have Garner’s, you’re flying blind. That’s how important it is.

I’d also recommend a paid subscription to the Unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It might seem strange to pay for this when the regular Merriam-Webster is free, but you get two major benefits. First, as implied by “Unabridged,” you get more words — a lot of relatively obscure (but potentially important) stuff that the regular dictionary just doesn’t have. And second, the paid version has no ads, which means the pages load faster, which is really nice when you’re looking up a bajillion words. The subscription is only $30/year, which isn’t bad, IMO.

If you use Windows and MS Word, and especially if you’re a copyeditor, consider getting PerfectIt. It’s basically spellcheck on steroids, and it’s caught countless little mistakes and inconsistencies that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Oh, and if you don’t have a professional website, I’d strongly suggest making one. Not only does it make you seem more professional yourself, it also gives potential clients a sense of what you’re all about. In fact, I met my most recent client when they emailed me and said they wanted me and no one else, because they could tell from my website that we’d be compatible. It really does make a difference, IMO.

As for social media … I think you could go either way. Being active on Twitter or Facebook can certainly be helpful, but it’s mostly helpful if you’re already interested in, or even excited about, communicating that way. If social media sounds awful and you create an account just for the sake of self-promotion, your lack of enthusiasm will probably come through in your tweets/posts, and you may be better off focusing your energy elsewhere.

Whew! That’s a lot of info I just dumped out there, and I could probably ramble on for another hour. Did I answer your question? If you have any thoughts or follow-up questions, by all means, leave a comment.

I’ve got four more questions in the queue already, and I’ll get to those soon. But if you haven’t asked a question yet, you’re still welcome to do so. Keep ’em coming!

2 responses to “Brian answers: Advice to an editor

  1. I would like to add a word about social media. I agree with your comments about Facebook and Twitter. But a good LinkedIn profile can help a lot. It also can tell your client a lot about you and it can be a useful tool in building relationships will like minded people.

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