How I Became a Full-Time Freelance Copy Editor

How I Became a Full-Time Freelance Copy Editor

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Or, How I Get to Sleep Till I Wake Up Every Day, Have No Commute, and Am Paid to Read Books?but, I Also Don?t Know What Evenings and Weekends Are Anymore.

Once upon a time I had a full-time day job outside the house, with retirement and benefits and all that; I was also married to a man with a great income.

Then that part of my life came to an end. But that?s another story.

Today, I am a full-time stay-at-home copy editor and proofreader. I have a large stable of fantastic, loyal repeat clients, and occasionally take on new ones. Even more wonderfully, I also turn away potential clients ? I did that just last week, as it happens. It feels sort of terrifying and marvelous and irresponsible and unreal; I haven?t quite gotten used to that part yet. I?m still emotionally in the days of what if there will never be another client, never another gig; I will never work again; we?re going to starve?

Even if I haven?t actually been in those days for several years now.

I can?t tell you how to become a freelance copy editor/proofreader so successful that you can pick and choose your clients. I can only tell you how I did it. As with any personal narrative, there will be parts of my story that are just random luck and happenstance ? but, I think there are some things that are generalizable. Things you can control, if you think you want to try this at home, as they say.

The first thing I can identify is that, from the start, I?ve lived a life that has left me very qualified to do this kind of work. I am a reader. (I?m a writer too, but that?s also another story.) I grew up without television, and very few other kids around to play with, so I turned to books. I love to read. I get paid to read books all day, and when I go to bed, I?read books. I see these ?reading challenges? on Goodreads and the like about how ?you can do it, you can read six books this year? or ?a dozen!!?, and I think, Oh, sweet summer child. I read one hundred and forty-eight books last year. Of course, only sixty-four of them were for ?fun?; the rest were for my work.

So that?s one piece. Luck or planning? Let?s call that luck, since nobody was exactly mapping out my future career when I was a hippie kid reading library books by candlelight at home on the commune.

I did well in school, as you might imagine. The American public school system is absolutely set up for people like me: folks who are comfortable with the written word. I am not quite as conversant in math and science, but I muddled through those well enough while excelling in language skills. (I?m one of the only people I know who scored higher on her English SATs than on math.) I liked school, and I liked knowing that the teachers found me smart and talented.

As a result, I got away with stuff. In high school, I was busy reading Michener?s Hawaii when we were supposed to be writing a book report on something from a prescribed list in our Social Studies class. I just didn?t get around to reading a qualifying book (Hawaii is very long, and I was a teenage girl with a teenage girl?s social life) so?I invented one. The novel I made up was called Owyhee: Story of the Islands, by Arlo Hutton. Arlo was the family dog of the Huttons, for whom I babysat regularly (don?t bother Googling him, Owyhee was, sadly, Arlo?s only novel). I invented the whole plot of the novel, and the publisher, and the date of publication; I wrote a book report on that. Somehow, that seemed easier than choosing a book from the teacher?s silly list.

I got an A.

Speaking of education: I also managed, later, to attend a really fine university. This part was entirely luck, of the temporal and geographic variety. UC Berkeley was our ?local? school (two hours from where I grew up), and, though admission wasn?t a shoo-in in the mid-1980s, it was a heck of a lot easier than it is today. (Especially if you had good SAT scores.) Also, it was priced like the state school it is (and still should be, alas), so I was able to put myself through college without help from my parents, or crushing student loans ? just part-time jobs. That was impossible even five years later; and it costs as much as a new car now, per year.

So, okay. I got lucky in the education department, and I?m a weirdo reader-writer-book fiend. If you are not that thing, you might want to consider whether a career working with books is right for you.

The next step was getting jobs that featured editorial work. I?ve actually never had a job with the title Editor, but all my work had to do with manuscripts, publications. Words, in one way or another. I transcribed oral history interviews in college (one of those part-time jobs that funded my education); later, I worked as an Editorial Assistant in that same department. Sometimes the editors would have me proofread the interviews before publication. I even worked in a lab in a medical school ? but again, helping the department head with the scientific papers, grants, and patents he was writing.

It was then that I discovered my freakish superpower. I spot typos. A misspelled word just looks wrong to me. It?s the wrong shape; it sticks in my craw; it feels itchy on my skin. I can?t explain it, and I would have no idea how to teach anyone to do it.

I?m one of those people who finds typos in published books. I?ve had to work hard to not get irritated by it. (Okay, I lie: it always bothers me.)

But it also, perversely, cheers me up. There will always be typos! There will always be a need for proofreaders!

The next part of the story is how this became my actual full-time job. It went like this: when I left the old life and job behind, I had a little bit of financial cushion, which gave me space to figure out what to do next. So I looked very carefully into my heart and soul, at the things I loved to do, at what would be satisfying to do all day, for years on end, and I decided?

?that I wanted to become a Realtor.

No, really. I went through hundreds of hours of training, aced my state?s licensing exam, interviewed at a number of local realty offices, and accepted an offer at one of them. I built a list of potential clients, held open houses for other brokers, even upgraded my wardrobe.

I tried that for an embarrassingly lengthy period of time. During which time I never sold a house; never even landed a listing or a client.

Meanwhile?being a writer, I had a lot of friends who were also writers. Back when I was still doing the real estate training, one of my friends had a book coming out from a small press. They?d sent him the galleys to look over; I offered to help, since I was good at that sort of thing. I found a lot of typos. We corrected them and sent them in.

I kept trying to be a Realtor. I really liked being able to look up all the behind-the-scenes information on houses for sale. I loved the magical device I had that enabled me to open up any lockbox city-wide; I walked through so many vacant houses. I even took a friend through dozens of houseboats on the river (she was interested in the houseboat lifestyle, though she had no money to actually buy one).

My writer friend?s book came out. It was gorgeous. Some time later, I met the small press owners at a convention. (Being a writer, I was going to lots of conventions in those days, hoping to meet agents and editors and publishers, so they would publish my books.) The small press owners congratulated me on the typo-finding I?d done on my friend?s book, and said if they ever had any freelance work available, they?d keep me in mind.

More time passed. I didn?t sell any houses. My savings dwindled. I was going to have to figure out what to do.

The small press did contact me! Months later. They sent me one gig. I worked so hard on it, trying not to let myself read too fast, trying to find every single typo. I have no idea whether I managed that or not, but they liked my work well enough to send me another book to proofread a few months later.

And then another one a few weeks after that.

Soon, I was working for them fairly steadily, but it was nothing like enough to pay the bills. But then they asked if they could send my name to another small press! I said yes, of course. So now I had a second client.

I met another author at another convention, who was starting a small press. I told him I did proofreading. He asked if I did copy editing too. ?Sure,? I said, promising myself I?d go home and look up the difference between copy editing and proofreading.

(Here?s a secret: these days, they?re kind of the same thing. In the olden days, a copy editor worked on a draft manuscript. They came after the developmental editor, and the structural editor, and the line editor (also functions that can and do get combined these days). The copy editor was the second-to-last line of defense, looking for typos of course, but also infelicities of language, overuse of crutch words, detail inconsistencies (someone?s eye color changes, or they get up and storm across the room after they already got up and paced to the window), and what I like to call the ?forty-five-hour afternoon,? which usually happens when an author moves things around in the manuscript and forgets to keep track of time.

(The proofreader, on the other hand, traditionally is given actual printed page proofs: an already-typeset manuscript ready to go to the printer. She checks for typos (again), headers and footers, placement of the text, and other things like that. Ideally, nothing she finds should change the pagination; it?s been set. After the proofreader, the traditional book is printed, bound, and sold.)

So. I started copy editing too. Just as much fun as proofreading! That author-friend with the small press referred me to a friend of his, who was a successful self-published writer. That was new to me, and I was a little skeptical, as at that point in my life, I was still laboring under the outdated delusion that people self-published because they weren?t good enough to publish traditionally. Hahahahaha. Trust me, I have long since been set to rights there. (In my defense, once upon a time, that was actually true. Don?t make me show you my grandfather?s self-published book about how aliens abducted him and gave him detailed instructions on how we?re supposed to remake our society into a utopia of their own design. He actually wrote it as a science fiction novel to make it more accessible.)

That new client, the successful self-published client, was part of a group of other self-published writers, and she asked if she could give my name out?and thus started a fractally branching system of referrals that hasn?t stopped to this day.

It went on like that. Until there came a day when I had to stop what I was in the middle of at home ? copy editing a fascinating book ? to put on my Realtor clothes and go into the office for my ?desk time,? answering the phones and being the office presence to nab any walk-in business.

And I realized, Wait a minute. This business is booming. Real estate is entirely not happening. Why don?t I?do this instead?

So I quit real estate, though I kept my license active just in case. And I leaned into doing what I actually love: reading books and making them better. I handed out business cards at conventions, to other small presses and indie authors. I told my clients I was open to referrals. I updated my website, and published my rates.

It was scary, and a little dicey, at first. You will no doubt be astonished to hear that I am not as wealthy as a successful Realtor (though I?m doing way better than a Realtor who has no clients or listings). But I make enough. Enough, in fact, that I have spent large spans of time being the major and sometimes only earner in my marriage. We trade off; sometimes he makes the big bucks. (The two-freelancer marriage: I will have to write that article some day?)

But it worked. When two years had gone by and it was time to renew my real estate license, I let it lapse. (I was very sad to give back that magical door-opening device, but alas, it had to be done.)

I love how my career found me, and not the other way around.

So: You want the freelance lifestyle, hm? You want to sleep till you wake up, and go to the gym in the middle of the afternoon when the pool is empty, and eat lunch every day at your own table? It?s pretty sweet, I won?t deny it. Yes, there are downsides: with all that farting around, your workday better not end at 5pm, or you?re going to run out of money fast. You do have to be the kind of person who can be disciplined, without a boss looking over your shoulder. You have to stay on top of your expenses, and pay your taxes quarterly ? EXTRA taxes, I?m sorry to inform you, because you?re also paying the employer?s share. And health insurance?all I can say is, ?Thanks, Obama!? We?d be toast without the ACA and its life-saving subsidies.

But if you?re up for that, here?s my advice:

  1. Have a cushion. This never would have even had a chance to happen accidentally if I hadn?t had a little savings at the outset. So, don?t quit your day job. Or, if you have a spouse or partner who can cover the household income needs for a while, that works too.
  2. Network, network, network. Tell everyone what you?re doing. Ask for referrals. Don?t be shy. Give your gorgeous business cards to everyone.
  3. Do spectacular work, and deliver it on time, or early. Be an adult, be reliable, be professional. Your clients will keep coming back if they know they can trust you.
  4. Keep track of your hours. I charge by the job, not by the hour; but I log every hour spent doing the actual work. (Not the time spent drumming up the work or messing around on Facebook or going to the post office or whatever ? I?m not a maniac.) That way you can be sure you?re being paid what you need to be paid.
  5. Related to that: Make sure your rates are competitive. I?m fast, so my rates are lower than the industry average, but that still works out for me.

If that sounds workable to you, go forth and freelance, my friend! And let me know how it works out, if you like.

Coda: I am 100% certain that, having written a cheerful, detailed article about what a whizz-bang copy editor and proofreader I am, there will be a typo or ten in here. Because the world is just cruel that way, and it?s really, really hard to proof your own work. I just wanted to put that out there. Be kind. 🙂


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