Here on this blog we’ve recently had some interesting examples of how colleagues – from a range of backgrounds, and with different levels of editorial experience – got started. Next is to consider ways to keep the momentum going through the first few years, and take your business to the next level. As with getting started, there are as many different ways of building sustainability into an editorial business as there are editors, but here are some general tips.
Building a solid client base
When you start freelancing you may gradually build up your business with a handful of clients, and it can be all too easy to start depending on one or two favourite contacts who supply you with a stream of work. But this is a big mistake: no matter how valued you feel, or how well you get on with them, as a freelance you will never be anything other than expendable. The only way to counter this fact is to have a range of clients that you continue to add to over time, and this means ongoing attention to networking and marketing.
Many editors don’t like the thought of either, but they don’t have to mean delivering elevator pitches to rooms full of strangers, or blogging (if you don’t want to). The important thing is to find your own ways of keeping up with existing contacts and finding new ones, using the approaches and platforms that feel most natural to you.
Support networks and feedback
For some of us, one of the hardest aspects of long-term freelancing is the lack of contact with work colleagues. It’s not just about sharing water-cooler banter; it’s also about having people around to bounce ideas off, and to offer support when we suffer setbacks. It can be utterly galling to give a project your all, send it off into the ether and never hear anything about it again. In this situation, how do you know if you’re doing it right? How do you cope with the resounding silence?
You might ask your clients for feedback, but there’s no guarantee they’ll have the time to give it. Don’t despair – various editorial organisations (including the SfEP, of course) offer ways to interact with other editors in person at local group meetings, or online in the forums. And plenty of editors also use Facebook to link up with an international community of editors. You don’t need to feel alone.
Two traps to avoid, when you do make contact with other freelancers, are moaning about particular clients online (you never quite know who’ll end up reading what you write), and comparing yourself to others. Remember that every freelance business is unique.
Staying on message
Uniqueness is important. There are lots of editors out there, and more are appearing all the time. Although this tends to be a very supportive industry, you also need to be realistic about the fact that the only person who can keep your business going is you. To do this effectively, you need to be very clear about what you can offer clients that no one else can.
Now’s the time to develop your specialisms. Perhaps a particular interest (for example in biochemistry, or education, or erotic fiction, or step-by-step craft books) got you started. If you’ve proofread or edited a lot of material in a particular area (and you’d like to do more), you need to say so. The more you do, the more specific experience you will have and the better fit you will be for particular projects.
Think about finding your voice, too. As editors we are often invisible in our work (and that’s as it should be), but when we interact with colleagues or clients, our personality does count. Yes, if you do a good job, you are likely to get hired again. But the way we conduct ourselves in all sorts of other ways matters too. Does your website communicate what makes you the editor you are? Find a way to tell the clients you want to work for what you in particular can offer them.
You need to look at the bigger picture as you progress, and track the projects you’re working on – not just so you can schedule them in and get them finished on time, but so you can analyse other aspects of the work you’re doing. Do you know which of your clients pays the best hourly rate, for example? Do you know which pays you most each year? And do you know who pays you quickest? All these things are easy to keep track of using various free or paid-for apps, or Excel. Find what works for you, and use it.
It’s not just about how the numbers stack up, either. Once your business is up and running you can start to focus on trying to secure more of the work you do want, and scaling back on anything that grinds you down.
Keeping things going long term depends on a series of constant small improvements. Did something take you a long time to do on one project? Find a way to do it quicker next time; ask for advice if you need it. Are you unhappy with your average hourly rate? Use increased efficiency to improve things as far as you can, and seek out clients who pay better. Not good at negotiating? Take tips from those who are and give it a go – you have nothing to lose (and perhaps much to gain).
You may reach the point where everything’s come together and you’re drowning in work (yes, really). But be careful! Now’s the time to concentrate on working smarter, not harder. Stay organised, don’t feel you have to say yes to everything (whether individual projects or specific demands from clients), and try to develop a sense for the projects that will reward you creatively and financially, and the ones that will sap all your energy.
Keep abreast of industry trends, and don’t neglect your training. Try to make every job you do better than the last.
Planning for the future
This is not about retiring to your villa in the sun … though it’s obviously sensible to consider the more distant future. But an important part of staying motivated is maintaining your own interest in what you’re doing. Do you want to keep proofreading the same kind of material for the next twenty years? If you do, that’s fine (although bear in mind that particular clients may come and go, and work methods will evolve).
However, if you’d like to shake things up a bit, it helps to think about what you see yourself doing a few months or years from now. This links to the earlier advice about maintaining awareness, and using it to help you consider where to go next. Could you develop new skills? Might you be able to train or mentor new editors? Would you like to write about aspects of editorial practice? Perhaps you’d like to get more involved with your national editorial organisation? Maybe work for a different set of clients in a certain field? Or simply earn more and work less?
Once you know where you want to take your business, you can decide how to get there.
What tips do you have for keeping an editorial business thriving beyond the first few years?
Liz Jones is the SfEP’s marketing and PR director. She has also worked as an editor for 17 years, and has been freelance since 2008.
Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Anna Black.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.