Erin Brenner of www.righttouchediting.com gets JobShadowed about her career running her editorial services business.
I run an editorial services business.
How would you describe what you do?
Simply put, I edit, write, market, and manage for clients. I edit copy for lots of clients, most of whom are businesses. Mostly I copyedit, which entails correcting for grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, style, and content (awkward constructions, jargon, transitions, etc.). I also write about language and editing for a couple of clients, the most visible of which is Copyediting, a newsletter and online resource for copyeditors. I do social media marketing for myself and a couple of clients and manage freelancers and projects for Copyediting. I also teach copyediting and social media online for UC San Diego, and I speak at events.
What does your work entail?
When I’m editing, I’m reviewing the text several times for the errors I’ve been asked to correct, such as grammar and usage. It means I have to know a lot about English and, just as importantly, how it works. But I also have to know how to look things up. No one can remember everything or know everything. And even when we think we know it, we can often be wrong. So being willing to look things up repeatedly is important.
As an editor, I also negotiate a lot. It’s not my manuscript, and the author may not say things the way I would. That’s OK. It’s not my name on the manuscript. But sometimes I have to help a writer understand why I made the changes I did or coach them through how (and why) to rewrite something. Being edited is like being graded. As an editor, I need to be sensitive to the author’s feelings while still being honest about the work.
What’s a typical work week like?
The lovely thing about running your own business, about being a freelancer, is that you have more control over your schedule. I tend to start early in the morning and stop for periods during the day. I end my day at the end of the traditional workday. Others I know are night owls and work at night. It’s really what works for you–as long as you meet deadlines and are available to clients when they need you.
In a given week, I will edit several documents of varying lengths or edit one book-length manuscript. But I’ve built my client list in a way that means I’m juggling several clients’ projects a week, sometimes a day. I like the variety it gives me, but I have to be a good time manager to make it work.
It’s good to have other activities mixed in with editing. No one can edit for 8 hours straight; you start missing even the most basic errors after a while. If editing is all you do, make sure you take frequent breaks.
I will plan my week’s activities at the beginning of the week and plan daily activities each day. I prioritize tasks based on deadlines and my work routine. The structure helps ensure I meet all my deadlines. You won’t work as an editor long if you don’t meet deadlines.
I studied literature in college and at that time, all I knew is that I wanted to keep reading. I was good at grammar and writing, and I wanted to keep doing those things. My adviser suggested editing and helped my get my first job out of college, which was proofreading direct mail (aka junk mail) for nonprofits. From there, every time I got bored, I looked for more challenges.
What do you like about what you do?
I love that I’m paid to essentially read all day. I love learning new things, which I get to do every time I take up a new manuscript. I like finding answers to problems, and I enjoy researching those answers. It’s satisfying to see how a manuscript is improved by these small, usually invisible changes that I’ve made. It’s a great feeling when the author appreciates those changes too.
What do you dislike?
The feast-and-famine cycle that freelancing can bring. I work hard to fill my list with clients who can offer me repeat work to help prevent that. I also stay on a tight budget that includes saving money so that I can get through lean times. And I’m constantly marketing, even when I have a full client list.
Clients who don’t respect the fact that I am a business owner. Authors can be passionate about their work, as well they should be. I can be passionate about it, too, but I work to make a living. I can’t work for free. I’m willing to negotiate, but I have my bottom line, just like my clients do. Clients who want something for nothing are not ones I’ll work with.
Clients who don’t respect the fact that I’m a human being. It’s not easy to be edited. One of the best things about being a writer as well is that I’ve had my work edited. It’s humbling. It’s fine to disagree with your editor. It’s fine to reject the changes I’ve made. That’s the author’s right. It’s not OK to verbally abuse me or otherwise treat me unprofessionally. I’ve been lucky that no one’s treated me that way to date, but I have plenty of colleagues who have been. It’s never OK to be treated as less than human, and I am always willing to walk away from a project in which I’m treated less than professionally. (That’s another reason to make sure you always have some savings!)
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Clients pay me to edit, write, manage, and market. I do a lot of tasks to run my business that don’t pay (marketing myself, getting more training, invoicing clients, filing, etc.), but I’m paid only for what I do for my clients. So those billable hours have to cover my nonbillable time as well.
I work with my clients to determine the best pay structure for them. I will do project rates and per-piece rates (e.g., per page, per word, per chapter), which allows clients to know exactly how much they’ll spend. I will also charge an hourly rate; this works well for clients who have an upredictable stream of work to send me.
As a freelancer, I don’t earn bonuses or commissions. Nor will I work for a share of profits (too risky for my taste). However, having a strict budget means I know how much money I need to make each month. After I’ve paid myself and the taxman, anything left over is also mine. My financial adviser calls it “profit,” but I prefer to think of it as capital for running or growing my business.
How much do you make?
I earn a little more than what my father would call “a living wage.” I no longer need a second job, and I can take vacation time and time off for my family. It took me about three years to earn what I had earned at my previous full-time job, where I’d been for 10 years.
How much money you make from editing can vary greatly from industry to industry. Traditional book publishers (esp. academic publishers) and media companies (esp. newspapers) pay notoriously low wages. The editing can be easy (and, as a result, faster) in book publishing. Big companies who hire editors for their marketing or in-house publishing departments pay better. So do niche publishers who need editors with special skills, such as editing ESL copy or medical copy.
How much money you make as a freelancer can vary greatly as well. Not only does it matter which industry you work in but also how you charge. When you charge hourly, you only have so many hours to sell. When you charge by the project or project piece, you can profit from being a fast (but still accurate) editor. Technology offers lots of ways to be more efficient and, thus, faster. Having subject matter expertise can help you be a better editor and can mean a higher pay rate because you offer more to the client.
The Editorial Freelancers Association maintains a chart of standard rates their members charge: http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php. That can be a good starting point for setting your own rates.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
My first year freelancing, I probably made less than half my previous salary. I spent more time marketing myself in various ways than actually earning money. It was really important for me to have a savings account to help through those lean times; it’s your business’s start-up capital. I was also willing to work nights and weekends at the mall to bridge the gap. But I kept at it and made more money each year.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A strong, thorough knowledge of English grammar, usage, and spelling rules is required, as is a working knowledge of a common style guide (that doesn’t mean you memorized the book). Choose a style guide that your desired industry uses. Most media outlets use the AP Stylebook or something similar (e.g., The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have their own style guides, but they’re based on AP). For books, try The Chicago Manual of Style. For medical texts, The AMA Manual of Style.
Also be familiar with at least one dictionary, again preferably the one your desired industry uses. The AP and other media outlets tend to like Webster’s New World Dictionary, while Chicago and other book-related styles prefer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.
Any subject matter knowledge is a real boon for an editor. If you’ve got a degree in biology and have the other skills required for editing, editing biology manuscripts (books, journal articles, etc.) would be a great choice. Hiring editors love a copyeditor with subject matter expertise.
To get the training necessary to be a copyeditor is tougher. There is no formal training required to be a copyeditor, nor are there any industry standards nor licensing/accreditation board, although many would like there to be one.
A college degree is an excellent start, even if it’s not in English or communications (though those are preferable). If your degree is in something else, that could help make you a subject matter expert.
With or without a degree in English, you need to be trained to edit: what to look for, how to fix things, how to explain things to authors, and so forth. Editing is a craft, much like writing. You have to be shown what to do, but it takes practice and feedback to master it. I wrote a three-part series for Copyediting on how individuals can get training to be a copyeditor: http://www.copyediting.com/tip-week-copyeditor-training-part-1. The best way is still to have someone read and critique your edits, but few companies hire untrained editors and then train them anymore.
What is most challenging about what you do?
In the beginning it was finding work. These days, it’s balancing my work with my private life. I enjoy my work and it’s a part of who I am, but it’s only a part. I work to live, not live to work.
What is most rewarding?
That’s a tough one. It’s very rewarding to have written something that helps someone else or to have improved a manuscript so that the author loves it even more. But it’s also rewarding to know that I’m running my own business and earning a living doing it.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Read everything. Read the kind of texts you want to edit. Read about current events, pop culture, and historical events (references pop up everywhere). Read things you enjoy. Read good writing and try to understand what makes it good. Read bad writing and try to understand what makes it bad. Keep reading.
How much time off do you get/take?
When I first started my business, I didn’t take much time off. Just weekends and holidays. But I didn’t have a full list of clients, either, so there was downtime. And although I tried to make the most of it by marketing myself, I also took care of myself as well. A coffee with a friend, a walk with my family, something away from work. There are no paid sickdays for freelancers!
These days, I make enough money to calculate vacation time into the equation. I take 2-3 weeks a year, plus long weekends and holiday weekends. It’s really important to find a way to take time off. No matter what you do or how much you love it, if you don’t take a break, you’ll burn out.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
So many clients come to editors saying “I need this proofread” when what they really need is a copyedit or, sometimes, a major rewrite. It’s great to work with clients who understand publishing, but not all do. You have to educate them about what is involved with the different levels of editing–from developmental, which helps with rewrites and planning, all the way down to proofreading, which is looking for typos and big errors.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
A smaller goal is to write a usage handbook that covers rules that aren’t rules, sometimes known as zombie rules. Rules like “Don’t split an infinitive.” That’s a completely bogus rule created to make English work like Latin. In English the modifier goes next to the word it modifies. I’ve started researching the book and hope to publish it within the next year.
A bigger goal is to expand my business by taking on other freelance editors and writers on a contract basis. I enjoy managing and coaching people, and I like the idea of helping others find work and being someone who will treat them fairly. I’ve just assigned my first subcontract, so we’ll see where that goes.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
There’s this idea that publishing is dying and editors are dying with it. This is simply not true. Publishing is changing–massively–and editing is changing with it.
In some cases, editors are taking on new responsibilities alongside the old. That’s good for job security.
In other cases, people and companies who don’t think of themselves as publishers and who know nothing about publishing are suddenly putting out text and other media for public consumption. They need training in how publishing works: what all the steps are, why they’re important, and how to find the best people to do those steps. Editors who can help their clients understand that will be more successful.