Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!

31 responses to “Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Great post, Eric! I love looking for unnessary words. “Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake.” Too funny!

    • ericjbaker

      I admit I got into editing for the chicks and the free cocaine, but I ended up liking it!*

      *legal disclaimer: This comment in no way implies that the musical artist Justin Timberlake partakes of narcotics or engages in frivolous limousine riding alongside amorous young women with whom he is not in a committed relationship. Furthermore, Mr. Timberlake is viewed by Clawing at the Keys as a virtuous gentleman, far more so than the knucklehead who wrote the blog entry above.

  • Arkenaten

    These are the posts of yours I enjoy most.
    No, I don’t think I am anywhere close to even considering taking in an editing job.

  • Arkenaten

    Or taking on one either.

  • change it up editing

    Even after all my limo rides, even after rubbing shoulders with Justin Timberlake at all those parties ;-), I’m still humbled by your characterization of me, and thank you for the shoutout, Eric.

    One more point I’d add to your excellent list is that being a good editor also means being a good communicator: just understanding a set of grammar rules and imposing them does not a good editor make. Messing with someone else’s words gets into sacred territory (as you point out in #4 and #5), so an editor must be able to explain the reason behind every suggested change and discuss why that change improves the manuscript.

    • ericjbaker

      Great comment. Building trust is essential for a good relationship with your client! Thanks. And no problems on the mention. Your site is a must read for serious writers.

  • nrhatch

    Timely! This morning, I contacted Gaunt Law Books on the island to ask that they consider me for freelance editing/proofreading gigs ~ and doing so has been on my “To Do” list for 5 years!

  • Ensis

    Always wanted to try this, but I talk myself out of it by not knowing what to charge and not having references…

    • ericjbaker

      Check out Candace’s blog, which I mentioned at the end of the piece. She’s a great reference. I charge by the hour rather than by the project, because some manuscripts need a lot more work, and particularly non-fiction requires a lot of fact checking. You don’t want the temptation to cut corners because you are over the time you anticipated and realize you didn’t charge enough.

      I’m not sure what you do for a living, but if your employer has written material going out, or even internal training documents and job postings, you could volunteer to edit them. Most of my editing experience is anonymous corporate stuff (reports, proposals, e-books, marketing collateral, etc). I learned quickly how to work with different materials under time pressure.

  • Richard Leonard

    Excellent, once again. Your #10 reminds me of another critique of the editing profession in which a so-called science writer/subeditor/whatever was caught out substituting the word molecule for atom because molecule appeared too frequently in the text. Ask a chemist. I could almost hear the global groan upon reading “DNA atom”.
    I’m often tempted to use the “contact us” link on company websites to offer my editing and proof-reading services to help make them look slightly less incompetent by at least having correct grammar on their site.

    • ericjbaker

      Yikes. You MUST get the science right. Especially basic sh*t like the difference between atoms and molecules.

      Some small-company web pages should be declared superfund sites for language. They love exclaimation points!!!!! We offer the best deal on hamster shaving in the tri-state area!!! Disounts available for first-time customers!!! Come down today and save!!!!!!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Good tips! I’ve never really tried to edit anyone’s work beyond basic grammatical revision and fact-checking. It’s not something that I can see myself enjoying, for I tend to find it difficult to distinguish between “it doesn’t work” and “it’s not the way I would have written it”.

    • ericjbaker

      I think you’d be good at it. Especially the fact checking. I could also see you getting so heavily invested that you end up spending way more time than you are charging for. Pretty much what you just said in your comment. Nevertheless, your attributes suggest a good editor.

  • skywalkerstoryteller

    You broke that down well, and I see I could be a good editor. But, I’ve got a new job now and want to write in my spare time.

  • 1WriteWay

    Excellent post, Eric! I earned extra cash as a freelance editor during my grad days and even had a stint as a technical editor (which I hated). The grad school stuff was fun because it was mostly dissertations by foreign students. But it takes a very special person to be a good book editor. I’ve thought about it, but I’m glad I didn’t pursue it 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Most of my editing experience is corporate stuff, but, as a writer and a student of the writing craft, the skills I developed have proven easily applicable to fiction and non-fiction. My strength is line editing, if I had to pick.

      • 1WriteWay

        One of my favorite editing classes was line editing. It was fun because students were encouraged to bring in their own work for review. We had creative writing students as well as legislative aides so the writing was quite varied. I submitted an essay I had written a few years before. Unfortunately, I didn’t reread it until right before the critique session. Most of the edits that were recommended were moot because I had torn the essay apart in my own review. I’m sure everyone thought I was crazy.

  • livelytwist

    Eric, all your tips took me down memory lane. I fell into freelance editing because my language skills at work meant editing ‘jobs’ landed at my desk. I read all I could and took a course or two when I decided to do it full time.

    I think you have to love the challenge. It is back-breaking work (point 7 & 11). I’ve stopped because I didn’t have the time so, what was once a joy became a chore. The hardest thing for me was editing a novel I didn’t like; separating my emotions from the job at hand, to give the author what he paid for (point 6).

    These days I find myself writing and driving engagement on social media. I have to be mindful to maintain a corporate ‘global’ voice, help ‘customers’ buy as opposed to selling, and infuse personality, so customers don’t think the company employs robots. I’m writing and editing all over again! 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      My day job has drifted away from editing and toward writing, though my title is still “editor.” I enjoy writing more, although I welcome the occasional freelance project. Right now, though, I have a novel to finish, so I’m spending my spare time on that project. We’ll see what happens when the money runs low…

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